Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Our Towne Bethlehem January 2020: Paper

I am intrigued by the very human desire to record things for the future.  Business dealings recorded with knotted strings, realistic animals and hand prints on cave walls, strips of papyrus covered in symbolic writing, ancient Chinese characters brushed on silk.  Humans surely love to communicate.


Are you reading this on-line or are you holding an actual newsprint edition of Our Towne Bethlehem? Paper is still ubiquitous in our lives despite the digital age we live in. I don’t know about you, but lots of paper, both old and new, comes across this historian’s desk.

The history of paper is of course entwined with writing. People have been pursuing the desire to record things for thousands of years using such devices as clay tablets, barks and animal skins. This desire to write things down and save them for the future is a uniquely human trait. Just think of the deeply ancient cave paintings in Lascaux, France. While not writing as we think of it, those images still communicate something human across the ages.

The invention of paper goes back to China with the oldest pieces being over 2000 years old, dating to 179 BCE (BCE means before the common era.) Paper at its essence is cellulose, the building block of plants, which has been broken down and suspended in water. The cellulose fibers are then scooped out onto a screen and allowed to dry. This thin layer of fiber binds together to create a sheet of paper. Cellulose can come from many vegetable sources such as linen, hemp, silk, cotton, even seaweed. Most common today is paper from wood pulp. Modern makers of high-quality writing papers still boast their cotton rag content.

By the 8th century, paper was highly used in the Arab world especially as intellectual pursuits such as science and math flourished. Better, easier to produce writing surfaces were needed. Europeans resisted paper for a long time. Parchment, stretched animal skin (a higher quality of which was known as vellum) worked just fine, at least up until the 1500s when the printing press came along. Interestingly enough, there was a period when parchment and paper overlapped. Copies of the famous Gutenberg Bible were printed on both paper and parchment.

Bethlehem’s archive of paper documents varies widely. The oldest ones are land records, deeds and indentures from the late 1700s. Most use a pre-printed form that is filled out in cursive hand writing. Road records, town board minutes, and vital records were entered into large bound journals. Old newspapers feel very different from modern versions. Old clippings printed on high cotton or rag content are soft and somehow foldable. Modern clippings, meaning those from after wood pulp came into widespread use in the mid-1800s, are brittle and fine.

A favorite set of hand written documents are John R. Adams’ journals. He wrote daily in pencil in small, pre-printed diaries, chronicling his life in Delmar. They date from July 2, 1900 to August 13, 1903, a time when John was in his late 60s. He died in 1905. You might recognize the family name.  His father and mother, Nathanial and Rhogenia Adams, basically established the hamlet of Adamsville, now known as Delmar. 

Here are a few examples of John’s writing from a snowy February when icy roads were the best for sleighing.

February 4, 1902. Tuesday. Cold & raw snowing at intervals all day but not much snow ground covered with ice and snow. Sleighing excellent – more teams on road than there has been seen in many a day. Hay, wood, logs, stone & in fact everything that needs to be hauled. All home not much doing except chores. Heavy snows in the western part of N.Y. Roads blocked mail delayed – no freight. Samuel some better, but not over his cold yet.

February 5, 1902. Wednesday. Fair Cold & Sunny. Sleighing grand – an icy bottom not a bare spot. Sharp horses are indispensable – had ours sharpened this a.m. Rec’d notice of being drawn as Juror in U.S. Court.

February 6, 1902. Thursday. Very fair and bright sunshine day, but cold. Sleighing 1st class. Russ & I went to Albany this a.m. Took 9 doz eggs @ 35c. Home 11:30 …Louise & I @ Phipps to the Euchre club, home at 1:00 a.m. quite a gathering 22 in all. a pleasant evening.
February 7, 1902. Friday. Fair, bright sunshine but cold. Sleighing grand. Home all day. Nothing doing. Rec’d bills of J.S. Messifield 13.98 …Squally in the afternoon not much snow. 

Mr. Degenaar of Bethlehem reads his newspaper with the family dogs circa 1930.

An advertisement regarding a horse stolen from Henry Vanderzee of Onesquethaw, town of Bethlehem,
from the Catskill Recorder, November 4, 1805.

 Want more of the history of paper? Read this book

Paper  Paging Through History by Mark Kurlansky (New York: W. W. Norton & Co, 2016)

Also, visit the Crane Museum of Papermaking.  https://cranemuseum.org/
The museum is a short hop over to the Berkshires, a small museum but well worth the trip.  When we were there they had hands on papermaking activities plus a nice little shop.  Nowadays, Crane makes very elegant stationary plus ALL of modern U.S. currency paper.  That fancy 100 dollar bill with all its anti-counterfeiting measures crafted in? Made right next door in Massachusetts!

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