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The Collation

Learning to "read" old paper

Have you ever wished there were a summer camp for bookish grown-ups? A retreat where we can spend a week amongst our own and not worry about being teased for loving libraries or getting hit in the glasses by a dodgeball? There is such a place, and it’s called Rare Book School. Originally based at Columbia University, RBS moved to the University of Virginia in 1992 and has continued to grow ever since. Smaller versions now exist in Los Angeles, London, and Lyon. At Rare Book School, book nerds like me spend an intensive week studying a specific aspect of bibliography. It might be the identification of illustration techniques to 1900, or the history of European bookbinding, or teaching the history of the book. For me, the week of June 11, it was the history of European and American papermaking

  1. Different sizes of paper have different standard watermarks, and different mills have their own interpretations of these standards; watermarks incorporating a year provide a “not earlier than” date of printing because mills didn’t necessarily update their watermarks, and printers didn’t necessarily use new paper.
  2. The blank paper samples in this post are all taken from the Folger’s set of the James McBey Collection of watermarked paper. The Folger is fortunate to have one of the sixty McBey portfolios created by the Houghton Library at Harvard University in 1981, though ours is one of the lesser sets, having only fifty sheets of paper. Each portfolio contains a study set of up to fifty-seven different blank sheets of paper from the 16th through early 19th centuries. The sets were compiled when Houghton librarian Roger Stoddard realized that the antique paper given to the library by the widow of a paper collector could be split up into identical sets of different sheets of paper because so much of the collection consisted sixty or more sheets of the same paper, not just one or two.
  3. Readers familiar with Rare Book School will recognize that the RBS “lion” logo comes from this watermark.
  4. One of the reasons blank endleaves are often missing from old books is that forgers have removed them to use; artists also sometimes like to work with old paper, and so might remove an endleaf for their own, legitimate purposes.


I always thought TB made up the Rare Book School lion watermark out of his head!

Deborah J. Leslie — June 29, 2012

Can anyone give more information about this Lion watermark? Country, maker, etc.
I will greatly appreciate any help.

Edgardo — July 31, 2017

It’s entry no. 20 in The James McBey Collection of watermarked paper, which describes it as being from Hayle Mill, in Kent, founded in 1810. It has “J Green / 1823” on two lines on the half that does not have the crowned lion.

According to, Hayle Mill was built in 1808, and was run by the Green family from 1813 to 1987 (when it closed).

Erin Blake — July 31, 2017

Does anyone here know anything about, or know of online resources for…

a) dry stamps used on older papers, for example from the 19th or early 20th centuries?

b) paper manufactured in this period outside Europe, especially in the Arab world?


Carl Davila — December 15, 2018

I have heard that the width of the tramlines can be a useful indicator as to the approx. date of some 17th century paper. Can it and if so how?

Nigel King — February 9, 2020