Inks and Papers in the context of historical font revivals

Vasil Stanev
Vasil Stanev Posts: 763
edited September 2019 in History of Typography
Hi all,
the Glyph collector topic got me thinking if there is a study about what kinds of papers and inks were used where in Europe for print prior to the 20th century, and how the printed letter changes over time as the paper ages. My knowledge on the topic is rudimentary, I recon some fonts were developed specifically to be used on cheaper papers and when the kegel is small, but that is as far as I remember.


  • Jacob Casal
    Perhaps not precisely what you had in mind, but I did find this short talk from the British Library and the damage in manuscripts caused by their being written with iron gall ink. I also found this on inks used in print and writing over time.
  • James Puckett
    Find a rare book vendor forum and ask them. Those people know all about paper history.
  • Peter Baker
    One of my colleagues in the department where I teach is a bibliographer with, I believe, some expertise in papers (especially 18th c.). I can shoot him a query if you like.
  • Fernando Díaz
    Fernando Díaz Posts: 133
    edited September 2019
    Hi Vasil,

    This is what I know:
    – As you know paper was invented by the Chinese, and in the middle ages was introduced in western culture. For printing it was made from linen rags up until about 1840's when the wood pulp formula was invented (and the quality declined considerably).

    – Paper made from rags was a huge business and the most important expens in printing. For decades children where "employed" as rag pickers, knocking on well accommodated families and buying old linen clothes, or just finding them in the garbage to use for paper making.

    – The history of paper making is fascinating. In the 8th century Arabs conquered Samarkand and had prisoners who where paper-makers. They taught his craft to their new masters and finally found its way to southern Italy (Arab colony at the time). After that it spread all over Europe.

    – There is a lot of documentation and books on paper making history and paper mills. You can find some books about the subject and the explanation of how they actually made the paper here:

    – To study and trace where the paper came from today we use watermarks, that are basically the mark of the fabricator. There are a lot of watermark databases onlnine for Europe paper, one of them is this:

    – Apparently John Baskerville was one of the responsables for making paper better in the 18th century so that he could print his thin strokes with greater detail. This would make Didone typefaces possible in printing. 

    – I do not know much about inks. "Color sepia was extracted from cuttlefish, purple extracted from mollusks, gold from fish bile, red from cinnabar ore, blue from indigo plants, and yellow from saffron flowers. The black that went into writing inks came mostly from soot or iron salts". But for printing they needed a fatty substance to stick to the metal type, so they used linseed oil colored with carbon soot. Not until the 20th century did petroleum-based inks gain traction. But every printer had its own formula.

    There must be a study about how technology changes the shape of type over the years, but unfortunately I do now know it, all this information came from different books.

    Hope this helps a little bit, 
    Maybe if you need something more specific I can help you some more.
  • Thomas Phinney

    Here’s a small part of a lengthy paper I once wrote, discussing the transition from cotton paper to wood pulp paper in the mid-1800s:

    “Amazingly, the printing press and the science of typecutting had only minor refinements from the late 1500s to the late 1800s. Towards the end of this period, the industrial revolution brought major innovations in printing technology. Driven particularly (though certainly not exclusively) by the time-sensitive and high-volume newspaper industry, from about 1812 to 1860 printers experimented with alternatives to hand-powered presses, such as horses, water, steam, and electricity. Although initially both dangerous and expensive, by late in the century rotary steam presses (steam 1814, rotary 1868) had largely replaced hand-operated ones, doing the same job in 16 per cent of the time. The new cheaper and faster printing needed more paper, so the limited supply of paper made from cotton rags (essentially recycled from worn-out clothing) gave way to paper made from wood pulp. Similarly, photo-engraving took over from handmade printing plates.”

  • Fernando Díaz
    Fernando Díaz Posts: 133
    edited October 2019
    @Thomas Phinney do you have that paper online? I'd love to read it.

    Forgot to say:

    Linen rags became scarce at the beginning of the twentieth century due to its hight cost. That's why they started using cotton rags: it was cheaper, faster to produce and more comfortable to wear.

    Couldn't find this in my library so I'm sending an online quote from a serious website:

    "The transition from linen to cotton was probably different in every country, but it may have taken place first in England simply because that is where the Industrial Revolution began. It had an overwhelming effect on the textile industry, which was the source of fiber for the paper industry."
  • Thomas Phinney
    The main thing is, whatever the source of clothing rags, there was a very limited supply. When the cost of printing plummeted due to powered printing presses, the price of printed materials dropped, and the demand skyrocketed. There just were not enough rags (cotton and/or linen) available, and using new cotton or linen was prohibitively expensive. Plus, with the drop in labor costs for printed material, the material costs were suddenly a huge part of the price, proportionately speaking.

    Something new and cheaper was needed, and gradually wood pulp paper became the new standard. It wasn’t overnight—I am of the impression that it took several decades.
  • Nick Shinn
    Nick Shinn Posts: 2,152

    Letter-cutter Richard Austin, in his type specimen, c.1810:

    “The modern... printing type at present in use was introduced by the French, about twenty years ago: the old shaped letters being capable of some improvement, it was judged expedient to re-model the alphabet to render them more agreeable to the improved state of printing…” 

    [Harder metal, blacker ink, smoother paper (calendered, i.e. pressed)—informing the work of Baskerville somewhat earlier, as well as the the Didots, etc.]

    He addressed the issue of fragility, 

    “…for how can it be expected that types cut nearly as thin as the edge of a razor can retain their form for any reasonable length of time, either to produce good work, or remunerate the Printer for his labour?
    “The hair lines being now below the surface of the main strokes of the letters, the Printer, in order to get an impression of all parts of the face, is obliged to use a softer backing, and additional pressure. This … militates against all good printing; for in forcing the paper down to meet the depressed part of the face, it at the same time takes off the impression of part of the sides, as is evident from the ragged appearance of printing from such types.”

    The result of his analysis was the Scotch Modern style. Here it can be seen how the pot-hook “exit strokes” of /a and /c remain fine when protected from ink spread by the proximity of the following letter, yet bulk up progressively as more exposed. The effect is even more apparent on the /t. Designed for contextual adjustment!

    Of further note: 

    There may be something relevant to your topic in a Penrose annual—they always had a lot of technical content.

  • Vasil Stanev
    So it's basically a very diverse relationship of metal, ink and imprinted surface, all chaging over time as the metal forms deform over time or the ink spills into the surface in different ways. I was not aware that certain metal forms had some parts more incidesed than others, that's a valuable factoid.