“Rag paper” allowed newspapers to pass the test of time…

May 10, 2013 by  
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One of the biggest surprises–and a pleasant one–novice collectors of newspapers discover is that the oldest newspapers they purchase, those from before 1870, are in much better condition than the more recent “old” newspapers of the late 19th or 20th centuries. How could this be?

Printed on "Rag Paper"

It’s all in the paper. and I literally mean in the paper. Prior to the 1870’s, newsprint was primarily made of cotton & linen fibers. It was handmade and very dependent upon the raw ingredients being available, which was not always the case. It was common to find newspaper advertisements seeking “rags” for the printer, to be used to make the paper upon which the newspaper was printed. Equally as common would be a note from the printer that an issue would have  fewer pages or be skipped altogether due to the lack of newsprint. “Rag” paper, as it is called, was not an inexpensive or easily made commodity.

Typically, the older the newspaper, the better the quality. It is not uncommon to find newspapers from the 1680’s which are very white, relatively thick, and extremely pliable. They can be bent, folded, creased, wrinkled and no harm will be done. Do the same to a newspaper of the 1890’s or early 20th century and it will crack and crumble. I recall some years ago a novice customer returning an issue of the London newspaper “The Observator“, 1683, because he claimed “it looked to new to possibly be over 300 years old”. I could not convince him otherwise. Newsprint of 300 years ago simply does not yellow. We occasionally receive similar feedback from similar titles: The Spectator, The Post-Boy, and more. Even a select number of 20th century papers were printed on rag linen as well, typically for use in institutions.

Such handmade paper, particularly that used in the 17th and 18th centuries, can be distinguished from paper made later by holding it up to a light and looking for “chain-lines” which are left from the wires in the paper mold. With this method, fewer fibers accumulate directly on the wire, so the paper is slightly thinner and more transparent to light. This pattern is usually very apparent and appears as lines that run about an inch apart, with several horizontal short lines connecting the long wire lines. Some modern paper has artificially-applied chain lines, and is usually referred to as “laid” paper, which is the name given to handmade chain-line paper.

The handmade chain-line paper made of cotton and linen rags which were soaked in liquid until the fibers broke down into very small bits. Paper was formed by hand by dipping a paper mold into the fiber suspension, and then lifting and shaking off the excess water. The paper sheet was then partially dried before being removed from the mold. Modern handmade paper (used in fine printing of small editions by private presses, as well as in artists books) is basically made by the same process.

The high quality of newsprint was an expensive process & caused newspaper subscriptions to be beyond the means of the average citizen. Consequently holdings of newspapers are relatively small. They were never printed in huge quantities because they cost too much to be widely purchased by the populace. And keep in mind that the percentage of literate people in the 18th and early 19th centuries was not what it is today.

The use of “rag paper” for the publishing of early newspapers is one of the great joys of this hobby. Early newspapers–including issues dating back to the Revolutionary War and beyond–need very little care to maintain their state of preservation. We keep such issues on open shelves where they have been for years to no harm. They can be handled & read from beginning to end without risk of damage or harm. Truly, a collector can hold history in his hands, enhancing the tactile experience this hobby enjoys beyond others where “do not touch” is more the norm.

Another benefit of rag paper is that it allows for easy detection of reprint or facsimile newspapers. A common question crossing our desk is “are you sure it is a genuine newspaper?” or “is my newspaper genuine or not?” When I authenticate newspapers one of the easiest determinants is the quality of paper. If the newsprint is browned or yellowed and fragile to the touch, chances are exceedingly good it is not a pre-1870 newspaper (although there are exceptions). Newspapers from the Revolutionary War should not crack when folded or creased.

The vast majority of reprint or facsimile newspapers on the market were never meant to deceive the collector but rather were anniversary issues, done 50, 100 or 200 years after a significant event, or in celebration of the very first edition of that title. They were often give-aways to subscribers. The “New York Herald” of April 15, 1865 is perhaps the most commonly found reprint newspaper, and most fail the rag paper test; they are much to browned or fragile to have been printed in 1865.

It was the industrial revolution of the latter half of the 19th century which resulted in the technology to create newsprint from wood pulp and chemicals. It was a welcomed innovation for publishers as newsprint become much less expensive to make, but it began the downfall for long-term preservation. But then, newspapers were never intended to last more than a day. Another issue would be on the streets for the consumer the next morning, to the delight of publishers across the country.

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