Plants and Paper

Conrad Gessner’s Historia Plantarum notebook 1, page 8; University Library Erlangen-Nürnberg

What started me on my exploration of paper, the subject of this series of posts (see last post), was a book review of The Nature of the Page: Poetry, Papermaking, and the Ecology of Texts in Renaissance England by Joshua Calhoun (2020).  The title is intriguing and so was the review (Wilson, 2020).  Needless to say, I bought a copy.  Calhoun is an English professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Shakespeare scholar.  He is also affiliated with the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies and at the end of his preface, mentions a limited edition of Aldo Leopold’s environmental literature classic, A Sand County Almanac (1949), that was published in 2007.  It was printed on paper made from pines the Leopold family had planted on their land in rural Wisconsin in the 1930s and 1940s.  Leopold’s words were printed on his plants.

To Calhoun this signifies the fundamental point he wants to make.  What he presents here is a look at the organisms that went into making paper and books; he states bluntly, “paper making is the transformation of a plant” (p. 27).  There are the plants like linen, cotton, straw, and wood used in making the paper itself, but also the wooden boards for bookbinding, and the cloth to cover them.  Also animals were utilized for leather covers and glue for sizing that was applied after the paper was made and dried to make the surface smoother and suitable for writing on with pen and ink.  Since paper is essentially cellulose, it absorbs water, and therefore ink.  Sizing allowed the ink to soak in less.  We are less aware of this today, because we use ballpoint pens with a much less fluid type of ink.  Ink was part of the ecology of paper too.  A common ink was made from oak galls which if properly treated made a good brown ink.  The ink used for printing had oil added, making it thicker and less absorbent than that needed for writing.  As time went on, better sizing was preferred for printing books so that readers could write in the margins.

As mentioned in the last post, botanists used a great deal of paper for writing letters, notes, and labels, so they would be cognizant of the qualities of different papers, and they would have to pay more for the types that were best for recording information.  Calhoun notes that in the early modern era, most paper was made from linen rags.  While the Chinese had mastered techniques to convert plant material, most successfully from the mulberry tree, directly into paper, Europeans didn’t accomplish this with the species at hand until the 19th century.

Linen rags were cut into pieces and fermented to loosen the structure of the cloth and separate the fibers.  Since the major constituent of paper is cellulose, other matter had to be removed in part by fermentation.  The resultant slurry was poured into a rectangular wood frame, with a bottom of mesh.  Water was pressed out through the mesh while the slurry is thick enough and the fibers overlap enough to remain in the frame.  The damp sheets were then hung up to try and later, further flattened and smoothed.  Adding sizing was another wet, messy process that resulted in loss of sheets that become misshapen or otherwise damaged.  Sizing made it possible to write on paper, and the glue adhered the fibers more firmly to each other resulting in stronger, more durable paper.  Unsized paper was okay for wrapping packages and other rough and ready uses, including pressing specimens since it readily absorbed water.

Calhoun goes into some length on how paper in books sometimes retained part of its their earlier history.  There is a book history term, shives, for pieces of flax husk that were sometimes inadvertently introduced into the paper slurry.  In some cases, small pieces of linen cloth, including linen sails, ended up on a page.  Flecks of organic matter from the river water used in papermaking were also at times apparent, another link to the environment.  He includes photographs of several pages from early editions of Shakespeare’s works as examples of these inclusions.  He also quotes from several 16th and 17th-century poets who refer to such additions in their works as indicating that users of paper were familiar with its properties and oddities.

Toward the end of the book, Calhoun deals with present-day ecological issues relating to books, not so much in terms of the consequences of cutting down forests to make paper, but the possible long-term future of books in the face of global warming.  His outlook is bleak.  He writes that the best libraries for all books, but particularly the old and precious ones, are those with strict temperature controls.  Keeping books at low temperatures slows chemical deterioration and prevents fungal and insect damage.  He makes the interesting point that there are two kinds of “bookworms,” one that creates round exit holes and the other oval ones.  Also, there are any number of fungal species that can destroy paper.  Calhoun speculates that in the future, it may not be possible to maintain climate-controlled conditions as fuel become scarcer and more costly.  He notes that “books are made of once living material that is slowly decomposing.  Deterioration is a natural process” (p. 130), a reminder of the organic origins of paper and of the fragility of herbaria, where plant specimens and their supporting material are both subject to predation by bugs and fungi.


Calhoun, J. (2020). The Nature of the Page: Poetry, Papermaking, and the Ecologies of Texts in Renaissance England. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Leopold, A., Schwartz, C. W., Bradley, N. L., Leopold, A. C., & Leopold, E. B. (2007). A Sand County almanac: And, sketches here and there. Baraboo, WI: Land Ethic Press.

Wilson, G. (2020, Sept. 4). The Nature of the Page by Joshua Calhoun book review. TLS.

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