I’m New Here: Week Eleven…

April 26, 2019 by  
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Now that I have been here for a couple of months, the fuzziness is clearing a little bit more.  Even better, to my way of thinking, is a growing familiarity with names and voices of some long-time collectors.  It’s a cheery thing to have someone greet you by name with an optimistic lilt to their new request.  At least, it is a very cheerful thing to me and I have a growing collection for whom I feel a certain ownership.  It helps the general air of camaraderie that I am getting it right at least as often as I get it wrong these days.

One of the customers I am silently referring to as “mine” has a list of dates and titles, and he doles them out to me at a rate of about three or four a week.  He fits that category the crew here refers to as “research request”, and I am always happy when he calls or emails.  Like some collectors, this gentleman is pursuing a theme, and his quests for pertinent people or events can span more than two hundred years.  There are sections of our archives that I now find quickly, and those titles are easily located and verified for desired content (by people much more proficient than I).  Occasionally, there is a request that leads me to a part of the archives I would swear was not there the last time I searched that quadrant.

This week an assignment took me up to the ninth row of aisle WC.  After pulling out the very bottom volume (these are anywhere from ten to fifteen pounds each, and stacked four or five high) I swooshed down to find a table upon which to search the pages for the relevant issue.  And that’s where I began to learn brand new things.  This volume, all wrapped and sealed as if ready for shipping, surely required a different process than I had used on previous queries.  But when asked, both of my sources responded with faint groans and some muttered utterances that still perplex me.  The upshot was that it is all the fault of some fellow who wanted to increase the profit margin on newspapers and led the industrial trend to switch from rag paper to newsprint made exclusively of wood pulp.  Consequently, a newspaper from 1600’s or 1700’s is able to be folded and rolled and thoroughly read — while a New York Times from June of 1900 can crumble just from attempting to lift a page.

A name was uttered — and I would repeat it if I knew I had the facts just right.  But I don’t even understand clearly what makes the paper so bad.  It has something to do with acidic materials used to create the wood pulp that damaged the integrity of the pages over a period of time…

It takes me back to Walt Whitman, with apologies for the repetition.  His chatty interview with Robert Ingersoll was published in the pulpish time of  The World (NY) dated October, 26, 1890. The content is rich with dialogue and illustrations, but there aren’t many copies that survived, due to their fragility.  Thankfully, the publishing houses learned from their mistakes and by the 1930’s changes were made.

Anyway, I am pleased to be making your acquaintance, and now know how to treat future pulpish requests, should they arrive.

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4 Responses to “I’m New Here: Week Eleven…”

  1. Mark A Seifert on May 4th, 2019 12:15 am

    I’d be curious to know your opinion as someone who’s examined a lot of old paper first hand what your opinion is re when wood pulp began to dominate newspapers (and story papers) in America.

    Having handled a fair bit of old paper myself, I have a general sense that the shift started in earnest in the mid/late 1870s. As you note, by the 1890s, you commonly get paper that has held up very poorly indeed. And again there, I have a sense that it’s due to increased acidic content in the paper due to evolving processes in wood pulping.

    I’d also gently point out — I’ve often been amazed by the gloriously white and supple newspapers of the middle of that century myself, but… one must take care about attributing the change from cotton rag to wood pulp to simple profit margin. Of course, there’s a very important reason that cotton rag prices increased during that period.

  2. Stephanie Williams on May 8th, 2019 5:59 am

    Mark, I’ll ask Guy or Tim to weigh in on the when of wood pulp as the subject is vast and my understanding quite limited. In that vein, I appreciate your word of caution regarding the reason for the switch to wood pulp. You are quite right that there were other contributing factors, and I do need to remember that just because I am learning some things, I still don’t know very much!
    Thanks so much for taking the time to comment — it’s always nice to know that someone is reading. 🙂

  3. Mark A Seifert on May 20th, 2019 3:34 pm

    I envy you your job a bit, though I have an institutional-quality collection and a pretty cool job myself. But there’s far too few old paper nerds in the world today, alas.

    As for not knowing much yet, don’t discount what seeing and handling a quantity of old paper like that tells you… just handling and seeing a large quantity of non-bound vintage periodicals will give you a perspective that a lot of experienced scholars just don’t have. Even a baseline sense of what’s rare and what’s not, what the actual papers looked like, and the great mystery of why people prefered to unfold and fold their papers like a map rather than simply taking a knife to slice the top edge so they could easily be read… I’ve asked every expert I know about that (which is a lot of them), and have yet to hear an answer I find credible.

  4. Stephanie Williams on May 21st, 2019 12:32 pm

    I like that perspective — that I’m learning more than I even know just by being immersed in the sheer volume. Incidentally, I envy me my job, quite frankly.

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