Every text is created on a substrate, or surface, that makes it visible to the world. Whether wax tablets, palm leaves, or papyrus rolls from antiquity—or composite screens of e-readers displaying data inscribed on memory disks and hard drives—substrates carry the languages, pictures, and codes that give books their physical forms. Although they are often taken for granted as the inconspicuous background upon which any text is presented, substrates indirectly convey information vital to identifying when and how books and other textual artifacts were made. The following items are used in instruction in Rare Book School classes ranging from specialist courses, such as the history of papermaking, to wide-ranging surveys, including “The History of the Book, 200–2000.”
Cuneiform clay tablet [ca. 1900–1700 BCE].
Gift of Vincent Golden.
This tablet bears on three of its faces the characteristically wedge-shaped Cuneiform writing system first developed by the Sumerians. The text is difficult to make out, however, as the tablet was broken and glued back together at some point in its history. It was recently identified as an Ur III period administrative tablet by Amanda K. Sprochi, an RBS alumna who is a cataloger at the University of Missouri and who has a background in Near Eastern Studies.
Cartonnage papyrus fragment no. 2, ca. 300 BCE.
Gift of Kenneth W. Rendell.
This Egyptian papyrus fragment was probably made in the 3rd century BCE. Created from the white pith of the stem of the plant, papyrus was the principal substrate used for writing in the ancient Mediterranean world. Written in Demotic, it contains an agricultural account that includes amounts of wheat as well as harvest dates. The papyrus was later recycled, and its reverse side was used for a literary narrative entailing a crime that appears to include mention of the Egyptian sun god Re.
Six bamboo slips with Qin dynasty writing. Replica produced ca. 1990 for the Hubei Provincial Museum.
Gift of Xia Wei and Soren Edgren.
Bamboo served as a principal substrate in East Asia before the invention of paper. In 1975, six bamboo slips were excavated at Yunmeng, Hubei. The fragment, bearing writing from the Qin dynasty, has been dated to the 3rd century BCE. It was part of a larger cache of 1,100 bamboo tablets consisting of legal and historical materials. This replica of the fragment was produced during the 1990s by the Hubei Provincial Museum.
Modern facsimile of a Roman wax tablet, with wooden stylus.
Gift of Terry Belanger.
Wax tablets were portable writing surfaces used in ancient world for ephemeral activities: making notes, recording the figures of business accounts, etc. They consisted of thin planks of slightly recessed wood filled with soft materials, such as lead or melted wax—the latter hardened to provide a smooth surface for incising (and erasing) with a stylus. Tablets were of different sizes. The replica here is a diptych, or “double-leaved” tablet.
Shougongzhi (手工紙). Selection of six Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Tibetan examples of handmade paper, ca. 1970.
Gift of Xia Wei and Soren Edgren.
It is often written that paper was invented in China circa 105 CE by a court official named Cai Lun. Yet early hemp paper survives from as early as the 2nd century BCE. Between the 3rd and 6th centuries CE, paper superseded silk and bamboo as the principal substrate in the East—nearly 1,000 years before paper began to be made in 12th-century Moorish Spain. These modern-day handmade paper specimens from China, Japan, Korea, and Tibet consist of materials used for nearly two millennia for writing and woodblock printing.
- Upper left: China (Fujian), maobianzhi, bamboo, laid.
- Upper right: China (Anhui), xuanzhi, blue sandalwood, laid.
- Middle left: Korea, paper-mulberry, laid.
- Middle right: China (Yunnan), mianzhi, paper-mulberry, laid.
- Lower left: Tibet (Nepal), daphne, wove.
- Lower right: Japan, paper-mulberry, laid.
Parchment scraps identified by animal: sheep, deer, calf, and goat. Assembled by RBS staff, n.d.
Parchment is made from animal skin that has been soaked in lye to loosen hair and help dissolve its fatty tissues, after which the skin is scraped thin and dried under tension. The result is a translucent or opaque substrate with a pale, cream-colored surface. Often made from calf, sheep, or goat, parchment can be created from other animal skins, including deerskin, as shown. Differences in hair follicle patterns can help distinguish between animals. Innovations in DNA testing have also helped to date and localize skins.
A la louenge de dieu et de la tressaincte et glorieuse vierge Marie. . . . Paris: Gilles Hardouyn, 1510.
Gift of Hans and Eva-Maria Tausig.
This Book of Hours may appear to be a manuscript, but it was printed with moveable type on parchment in Paris during the first decade of the 16th century. Illuminated in gold and various colors by a contemporary hand, it contains numerous overpainted illustrations, including 47 printed metalcuts with hand coloring.
Sections of wiigwaas (birch bark). Harvested in Northern Ontario, Canada, in 2021.
For many centuries, wiigwaas (birch bark) has been used by the Anishnaabeg (Ojibwe, Algonquin) and Cree to create scrolls inscribed with pictographs recording sacred texts; the scrolls would have been used as memory aids by tribal instructors, teaching orally. This new, uninscribed birch bark is from the traditional territory of the Anishinaabeg. Birchbark documents have been produced in many regions in the past (e.g., first-century Afghanistan, early modern Russia, Central Europe), and they are still in use in present-day India and Nepal.
Demonstration paper mould made for RBS by Timothy Moore, 1986.
Until around 1755, all paper in the West was made using hand-held paper moulds, whose wire surfaces left telltale impressions: chain lines located more than half an inch apart, crossed at a 90-degree angle by fainter and more closely set wire lines. The result is called “laid” paper. Then John Baskerville commissioned James Whatman to make paper smooth enough to display his own typography to advantage—a paper later referred to as “wove,” owing to the fine mesh used to make it. This hybrid paper mould, created for RBS by Timothy Moore, shows the difference between these “laid” and “wove” surfaces.
Publii Virgilii Maronis Bucolica, Georgica, et Aeneis. Birmingham: John Baskerville, 1757.
Baskerville’s 1757 edition Virgil was the first book in the West to contain wove paper. Commissioned from James Whatman, the paper lacks any watermarks and has a smooth, opaque surface. At the same time, as past RBS faculty member John Bidwell has pointed out, the paper exhibits noticeable defects in its sheet formation. And RBS faculty member Cathy Baker notes that the book contains a mixture of wove and laid sheets. At the time, this innovation in papermaking went largely unnoticed.
Wheat straw, raw cotton, cotton rag, Russian hemp, line flax, and linen rag. Produced by Twinrocker Handmade Paper.
Until the commercial development of wood pulp paper in the 19th century, paper in the Middle East, Europe, and North America was made with the fibers of various plants including flax, hemp, and cotton. These were not processed in their raw state, however. Rather, pre-used linen, hempen, and cotton rags and cuttings were gathered and repurposed for the manufacture of paper. These fiber samples were assembled for use in RBS courses by Kathryn and Howard Clark of Twinrocker Handmade Papers in the 1980s at the request of Terry Belanger.
Dried Nepalese and Tibetan plants used for paper.
Gift of Timothy Barrett.
Various plants indigenous to the Himalayas are the primary raw material used for papermaking in the region. The fiber kyem shog was used to make paper currency in Tibet in the early 20th century. The bast fiber dug re chag (Wikstroemia chamaejasme) is used exclusively for papermaking. The inner white bark of lotka (Nepali for Daphne bholua) also provides bast fiber. Unlike Western paper or paper from Japan, individual sheets of Tibetan paper are glued together in layers and polished to form a thick leaf.
Matthias Koops. Historical Account of the Substances Which Have Been Used to Describe Events, and to Convey Ideas, from the Earliest Date to the Invention of Paper. London: Jaques and Co., 1801.
Matthias Koops (active 1789–1805) was one of the first people in Europe to make paper on a commercial scale from raw fibers, including straw, hale, thistles, and different types of bark. He was granted three English patents in 1800 and 1801. His book on the history and production of paper was printed on sheets made entirely of straw, which imparted a distinctly yellow hue to its leaves.
Watermark paper specimen: Lion with sheaves and staff standing within a circle topped by a crown. London, ca. 1813.
This undated painting estimate for a “Mr Carpue of Dean St[reet] Soho” bears a clue as to when it was made. Using a light, one can discern a watermark of a lion with sheaves and a staff—an 1813 design produced by the English paper-making firm Messrs J. Dickinson & Co. From 1806 to 1833, Joseph Constantine Carpue resided at this address in London, where he operated a famous anatomical school reputedly supplied by “body snatchers.” This watermark, known to many as “the RBS lion,” began to be used by Rare Book School in 1984 to advertise its programs.
Ivory memorandum book. North America, ca. 1800.
This memorandum book, likely made in America in the 19th century, features thin, erasable ivory leaves with hand-engraved headlines designating six days of the week. Sunday is not featured—presumably, in observation of the sabbath. Nevertheless, the owner has designated “Sunday” as part of a list on the back of the leaf for “Monday,” and has recorded in pencil a number of tasks completed that day.
Theatre Brighton, August 26, 1801. Mr. Sedgwick’s Benefit. Brighton: Printed by W. and A. Lee, 1801.
The printing of images onto silk and other fabrics using wooden blocks began in China before 220 CE. Silk was occasionally used during the 19th century as a substrate for printed broadsides, as well as theatre and concert programs, in Europe and North America. This letterpress-printed broadside on silk announces a theatrical and musical benefit produced by the notable singer Thomas Sedgwick in Brighton, England. It was produced by the local printers William and Arthur Lee, who established their shop in the newly fashionable resort town in 1789.
Sefer Torah Scroll Fragment 5. Aleppo, Syria, ca. 1850.
This fragment from a Torah scroll is written in Hebrew script on gevil: parchment made from the whole (rather than split) hide of an animal skin that was prepared for writing on the hair side only. The darker brown color of the parchment is produced by the mixture of salt, flour, and gall-nut water applied to the hide. Scribal evidence indicates that this fragment from the Book of Exodus was in the process of being written but was never completed.
Samta. Tibet, ca. 1850.
Samta are tablets made from small wooden planks with recessed, black-inked writing surfaces. They were once used in Tibet for daily notetaking owing to the high cost of paper in the region. The black surface of the tablet was coated with a thin layer of oil and covered with ash before writing. The light-colored ash adheres to the oil, allowing the user to inscribe text on the surface with a wooden stylus. The writing can then be wiped away and the layers of oil and ash reapplied to create a fresh writing surface.
Two-sheet papermaking mould. [Wookey Hole, England], ca. 1900.
Gift of Calvin P. Otto.
This two-sheet papermaking mould, also referred to as a “divided mould,” allowed Western papermakers to create two single sheets of paper simultaneously. Introduced in Holland before the 18th century, these moulds allowed two sheets of paper to be made at once. Although they greatly increased the number of sheets produced, they were challenging for vatmen to use. The size of the paper made was limited both to how far a vatman’s arms could stretch and to the size of the vat itself. In Asia, larger floating moulds used in streams and rivers were common.
Cathleen A. Baker. Sample specimen and description from Paper & Medium Studies Collection. Ann Arbor, Michigan: The Legacy Press, 2015.
Published in 2015, this detailed report analyzes a specimen of book paper made primarily with wood pulp. The specimen, which dates from 1886, shows the strong discoloration and brittleness often seen in aged, machine-made, ground-wood-pulp paper bleached with chlorine.
Charles Dickens. Our Mutual Friend. “The Oxford India Paper Dickens.” London: Chapman & Hall, ca. 1890.
Inspired by handmade paper produced in India, “India paper” is a Western machine-made paper measuring about a third of the thickness of usual European book papers. In 1874, Oxford University Press began trying to replicate paper brought to England from India decades earlier. In 1875, they succeeded and printed a Bible on the new paper. Following that, OUP printed other works of notable cultural stature on India paper in portable formats—including these volumes of Dickens, marketed as the Oxford India Paper Dickens.
Ola-leaf manuscript. Sri Lanka, ca. 1975.
Palm leaves were first adopted for use in South Asia as early as the 5th century BCE, but they continue to be used today for certain texts. Writing is inscribed into the surface of a dried leaf using a stylus; the leaf is then sprinkled with pigment that is wiped into the recessed letters and then cleaned off the surface, leaving a readable text. In Sri Lanka, ola, or palm leaves, were traditionally used for Buddhist texts; however, our example contains a Christian prayer in Tamil, one of the world’s longest surviving classical languages.
Claire Van Vliet. Dido and Aeneas. An Opera Perform’d at Mr Josias Priest’s Boarding-School at Chelsey by Young Gentlewomen, the Words by Mr. Nahum Tate; the Music Composed by Mr. Henry Purcell. Newark, VT: Janus Press, 1989.
In the 20th century, book artists began using colored paper pulp to create designs on paper. This technique, developed by Claire Van Vliet and others, entailed the application of pigmented pulp either freely or using a stencil onto a freshly formed handmade paper substrate. Van Vliet’s edition of Dido and Aeneas shows off the technique to dramatic advantage. This complex accordion-fold book creates a multi-dimensional, stage-like backdrop for each act of Purcell’s opera.
Amazon. Kindle: Amazon’s Wireless Reading Device, 2007.
When the Kindle was first launched in 2007, the book could also now appear on a digital screen via new E Ink technology rather than on paper. E Ink technology was commercialized in 1997 by two MIT undergraduate students, J. D. Albert and Barrett Comiskey. E-reader screens using the technology are made up of layers of electrodes, transparent micro-capsules, positively charged white pigments, negatively charged black pigments, and transparent oil, sandwiched between two layers of plastic.
Kobo Touch E-Reader, 2011.
Gift of Ruth-Ellen St. Onge.
Hard drives consist of a substrate as well as a magnetic medium on which data (e.g., e-books) are stored. This dismantled 2011 Kobo Touch was marketed by Toronto-based Kobo Inc., and it included a virtual onscreen keyboard and a 2 GB internal SanDisk memory card. SanDisk memory cards are block-accessible memory devices that operate like the hard-disk drive of a personal computer. They may be electrically erased and reprogrammed.