Past & Present: Marbled Paper and Roundup


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

Japanese Origins

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.


Image above: Example of marbled pastedowns from the Private Library

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.

Marble Patterns


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.

Want more? You can find additional pattern examples from the Salem Athenaeum’s Under Covers: The Hidden Art of Endpapers and from the University of Washington’s collection.

Books to Read

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

Casey

I’ve had marbeling on the brain lately! I tried it once in art class in 7th grade and still have my marbled papers hanging up in my childhood closet. The Martha Stewart Encyclopedia of Crafts book has a section about marbeling and I’ve been thinking about trying it again. Thanks for sharing a little history and some gorgeous examples to get me motivated!

Vanessa

So happy to see another installment of Past & Present! When is the book coming out again? Can’t wait to pick it up.

Tia Stockton

So beautiful! I saw a video about marbling clay and it was fascinating as well. It’s so exciting to see some older and classic techniques/trends coming back!

Mitmunk

I just found your post on DIY paper marbling and I love it. I can’t wait to try it out and decorate some things with the results. I also had no idea marbling was used to prevent forgeries. Interesting post! (By the way, thanks for including our printed leggings in the roundup.)

scout

I used to work at an amazing paper and bookbinding supply store in Ann Arbor, MI called Hollander’s (www.hollanders.com) and they have so many beautiful hand-marbled papers (plus marbling supplies). I used to love pulling the stock for internet orders because that meant I got to sort through all the marbled papers to find the specific ones needed.

Ashley

Love this post! I’m also a big fan of Talas and have made many a trek there. Such a wonderful place with creativity lurking behind every corner. I just hung a $25 piece of marbled paper as art in my living room – expensive for paper, cheap for art! It looks awesome. Now if I could just convince myself to get my marbling supplies out again and give it a try myself…it’s been years.

Erin Fletcher

What a wonderful post. As a bookbinder I’m very familiar with handling marbled papers and have had the opportunity to make a few of the patterns mentioned as well. I loved all the interesting tidbits!

Maxine Liao

Hi – I read about you in the Times article on Amy Azzarito and am delighted to know about the series “Past & Present”. I’m an architect in Sag Harbor, interested in the origins of design trends in architecture. One comment about my first quick visit – though the images are visually very engaging, there’s such a low contrast on your web page between the background and the lettering that I can hardly read the print, including captions, subject titles, etc. Granted, I have an old eMac, but I haven’t encountered this problem before. I suggest creating a higher contrast for your general lettering. In any case, I look forward to seeing more of your site in the future. Respectfully submitted, Maxine

Grace Bonney

Hi Maxine

I’m worried there may be a browser issue happening. What browser and version are you using? The text is black on white, so there shouldn’t be a viewing problem…

Grace

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