My first job in New York City a dozen or so years ago was at Talas, an archival and bookbinding supply shop located, at that time, in SoHo. Amid the bookbinding supplies, the leather and the archival boxes were drawers and drawers of beautiful handmade papers. Customers were not allowed to touch the $20-per-sheet paper. Instead, they had to describe to me what they were looking for, and I would open the drawers one by one and take out individual sheets paper until we found the perfect one for their purpose. I don’t know if the customers found it charming or annoying (probably annoying), but at that time, the only power I exercised in my daily life was over those drawers of marble paper, and I treated each sheet like it was gold. It was my little power trip. Although I didn’t know it at the time, I wasn’t the only one who found power in marbled paper — this was the paper of religious writings, kings’ declarations and even currency. — Amy Azzarito
Image above: Suminagashi paper by Diane Merrill
There is no exact date for the invention of marbling, but its roots date back to at least the 12th century in Japan. Japanese artists produced decorative papers using a method called suminagashi (meaning “floating ink”). Like modern marbled paper, the patterns were created by floating colors on the surface of water, working the colors into patterns and then transferring the pigments to sheets of paper. To create suminagashi designs, the artist would often create patterns by blowing on the surface of the water to create a smoke-like effect.
The Secret Spreads
Marbling was popular throughout Europe in the 17th century, but artists so carefully guarded their secret formulas and techniques that the craft was practiced only by a few. Then in 1853, an English marbling master, Charles Woolnough, revealed the marbling trade secrets in his book, The Art of Marbling. His fellow marble craftsmen were initially angered by the book.
See more marbled paper history and our modern marbled roundup after the jump . . .
Image above: Marbled fore edge from Daniel Crouch Rare Books
Marbling and Forgery
Not simply a pretty pattern, marbling also was a theft deterrent. As early as the Ottoman Empire, officials would use marbled paper for important documents. If the papers couldn’t be marbled, the documents couldn’t be forged. The marbled paper also prevented any attempted erasure, which would be immediately apparent. Traditionally the edges of ledgers would be marbled. If a single page was removed, the pattern would be altered, and the tampering would be revealed. There were even different patterns for different ledgers. Benjamin Franklin insisted that the paper money for the new United States of America be edged with marble paper to prevent forgeries.
Image above: Marble stone pattern
Known as the stone pattern or Turkish pattern, this is usually considered the most basic or simplest of marbling patterns, but it is also the most versatile. This pattern is the oldest of Western marbled patterns and dates back to the 15th century. Typically, the trick for this pattern is to use an older bath or one that is starting to spoil.
Image above: Marbled paper by artist Don Guyot, 1978, from the collection at the University of Washington
This historic pattern is known as the snail or the French curl. It was a pattern popular in France as early as the 1600s. The marbler first makes a stone pattern and turns the stone into a snail using a stylus, rake or bouquet comb. Whatever the tool, the marbler moves the teeth in a circular motion, starting on the outside of the curls and moving toward the center.
Image above: Vintage 19th-century marbled paper from the collection at the University of Washington
Like so many other patterns, the Italian hair vein pattern begins with a stone pattern. Sprinkle a solution of one cup water and four drops spirit of soap (or castile liquid soap) over the stones. The soap will force the paint into small tight veins. The pattern was created in Italy at the end of the 18th century.
Image above: Marbled paper by Don Guyot, 1978, in the collection at the University of Washington
This pattern, Gelgit, takes its name from a Turkish phrase that means “to go and come.” It’s the perfect description for a pattern that is created by raking across the tray in one direction and then back across the other. Most combed patterns begin with the getgel, and marblers often make the pattern twice, one on top of another.
Image above: Vintage 19th-century marbled paper, nonpareil pattern from the collection at the University of Washington
The nonpareil pattern is formed by laying down three to five colors in spots, raking them crosswise and then combing through the stripes with a comb. Although the pattern was developed in France in the 17th century (nonpareil means “without equal” in French), it became particularly popular in Britain in the late 1820s. British designers of the time were adept at imitating historic patterns. This pattern is the basis for many popular patterns, such as the bouquet or peacock.
Marbled Paper: Its History, Techniques, and Pattern — Written in 1990, this book has become the standard in the field. Author Richard Wolfe was researching music at the New York Public Library when he became interested in the endpapers decorating so many of the book bindings. No one could tell him much about the marbled papers, so he set out to determine just how they came into existence. In the process, he taught himself how to marble papers and reproduced nearly all of the known patterns. This book is out of print now, and versions online are pretty expensive, so this is one to check out from your local library.
Marbled Designs: A Complete Guide to Fifty-Five Elegant Patterns — If you’d like to learn more about the specific patterns of marbled paper, this book is a great resource.
Image above: 1. Balloons, $18.40 | 2. Marbled Leather Wrap Glasses Case, $65 | 3. Marbleized Earrings, $12.99 | 4. Sky Marble Scarf, $175 | 5. Marbleized Vase, Medium, $190 | 6. Marbled Leather Cat Coaster Set, $30 | 7. Blue Marble iPhone Case, $35 | 8. Marbled Paper Two, Throw Pillow Cover, $20
Image above: Marbled Card and Envelope Sets, $6
Image above: Hand-printed Marbled Ink Leggings, $69.04
Image above: Marbled Journal, $25
Image above: Marbled Border Rubber Stamp, $6