From Rags to Riches, not Ruin: Papermaking, Preservation, and Conservation

From Rags to Riches, not Ruin: Papermaking, Preservation, and Conservation

Exploring Antique Technologies
by Kary Pardy

It’s no accident that when we think of ephemera, we think of printed materials. Paper, though powerful as a vessel for art and the written word, is not prized for its durability. The very makeup of paper involves breaking other substances down to reshape them into something thin and pliable, and over the years papermaking techniques have spanned art forms and industries to leave us with a trail of antique technology that conservators have to work diligently with to preserve today. Fragile paper holds some of our most treasured possessions, so today let’s explore papermaking and then the preservation and conservation that follows to keep the words of the past around for generations to come.


All paper is essentially thin fibers of cellulose pulp that are pressed and dried into sheets. It can be made from wood, grasses, rags, or as in the earliest cases in China, from plants like the mulberry shrub. As early as 105 A.D., plants were mixed by Chinese papermakers in a vat of water before capturing the fibers on a screen to dry in a thin sheet. Paper technology spread around Asia but didn’t make it to Europe until around 751 A.D.

Prior to paper, Europeans were writing on thinly-stretched hides, but with the influx of new technologies, including Gutenberg’s printing press, paper took off. Europeans relied more heavily on rags than their Chinese predecessors, recycling them in an age where hygiene wasn’t what we think of today.

Just as papermaking artists today may throw some rose petals or greenery in amongst their raw materials, so we can imagine that the state of the rags greatly influenced the final outcome of the paper. Dirty water, soap, hygiene, diets (stains), etc. left a mark on the rags, and if one looked closely, might have left a mark on the paper. Historian Timothy Barrett surmises that it might be possible to see social trends from paper quality – such as the decline in excessive meat-eating after 1550, or the decline in personal cleaning between the 15th and 17th centuries. Barrett asserts that the chemical makeup of paper could reflect its age, location, and even the habits of the people around it, making early European paper a hidden wealth of information, should someone care to read it.

After the rags were sorted and cleaned, they would be “retted,” or fermented to help break them down into usable fibers. The knowledge of how to ferment paper was just like knowing how to ferment grapes to get the best wine. It took skill and is an art that is largely lost today as retting was replaced with cooking and bleaching in the late 18th and 19th centuries. The unique fermenting process also left its mark on the end product – retting gives paper from this early period its unique look and feel.

After the rags were broken down enough to work with they were cut into uniform scraps and washed again before feeding them into machines called “stampers.” Stampers roughed up the remaining rags to loosen them into pulp and fibers, and then a deckle, or a sieve-like mold with an open wooden frame, was dipped into the pulpy mess. Once the pulp was shaken and smoothed out across the deckle and the water drained away, the dried product became a sheet of paper.

Modern papermaking uses wood fiber and cellulose from trees, but at heart the processes are similar. The fibers are broken down chemically, washed and mixed with water, and finally drained and reconstituted in a mold into another thinner form.


From professionals to every-day preservation, knowing how paper is made helps us keep it safe. Paper made with rags and high cotton content may be more durable than today’s high-wood paper, which is naturally more acidic. When you are dealing with 19th century ephemera, you are still likely to see paper made with fabric fibers. These often show up as official documents: birth certificates, deeds, wills, etc. By comparison, items such as receipts, news-papers, and pamphlets were more temporary and did not require the long-term stability of rag paper.

To keep all types of paper safe, experts agree that you should keep your ephemera dry, as well as free of smoke, bright light, and pests. You should also always wash your hands before handling your prized paper goods. This keeps damaging body oils from staining or deteriorating them.

Speaking of handling paper, the jury is still out on whether or not to use gloves. Some resources encourage the practice to keep a layer between our dirty, oily hands and the paper. Others say a hand washing is enough, that gloves make hands bulky and that the lack of dexterity will make us more likely to damage any paper that we may come in contact with. During my time as an appraiser, we chose the gloves-free method because we didn’t want to risk tearing fragile edges.

If you want to dive deeper into paper preservation, be sure to remove any hardware, like staples, that could damage the paper over time. We also recommend that you use acid-free, lignin-free storage solutions. Lignin is a compound found in plants that reacts with light and heat to produce acidity and may stain items. The Northeast Document Conservation Center has a wide variety of pamphlets on their website – – to help with many common preservation and conservation questions.


But how do you know when your items are too far-gone and require professional help? It’s always better to play it safe; never try to force items open. Bugs, mold, heavy stains, broken bindings, documents that are stuck together, documents that have broken into multiple pieces: these are all scenarios where a conservator could help. The American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works (AIC) has an online directory that can guide you to specialists in your area. Paper is fragile, and now that we know about the process of making it, we can guess how easy it is for those fibers to fuse in ways they aren’t supposed to in response to acids or water, or how quickly they might stain. Conservators can work from the fibers up to rebuild what was lost and make your ephemera a little more permanent.

From Rags to Riches, not Ruin: Papermaking, Preservation, and Conservation