There’s a reason it’s called rag paper. For centuries, ragpickers supplied the papermaking industry with cotton and linen. Discarded clothing scraps were the aluminum cans of the past. They provided a livelihood to the unskilled.
At the dawn of the Industrial Age, everything changed. A rising bourgeoisie and the success of education lead to increasing demand for printed material. The impact upon paper and the rag supply chain was unanticipated.
Consumption of traditional cotton and linen scraps outstripped supply. The price of rags rose.
When demand for papermaking material exceeded supply, alternate sources were sought. One long forgotten trove of very, very old rags was rediscovered in the 1800s: linen wrapped Egyptian mummies. A Maine papermill owner imported a boatload of them and removed the linen wrappings. The linen was then converted into pulp with the end product being butcher wrap. Production of the brown paper came to an abrupt halt, when Mysteriously, an outbreak of cholera struck down the mill workers.
Ah ha! The revenge of the mummy! The mummy paper story, perpetuated in Dard Hunter’s book, Papermaking, is little more than a yarn, spun by the mill owner himself. True, rags were imported from Egypt, but not necessarily from the romantic source that comes to mind when one imagines the distant and exotic land of the Pharaohs.
It is most likely that the raw material imported from Egypt was cotton, collected by the rag pickers of Cairo. Still there are some who continue to believe the myth that an American paper maker stripped ancient linen from mummies and turned the rags into paper. Why shouldn’t they? It is wonderfully intriguing fiction.
Tall tales should never be taken at face value, but examined for the core element that makes them plausible and the human need that keeps them alive. There is something powerful beneath the surface in this fascination with mummy paper: it’s the idea that a sheet of paper can be more than it appears to be; in this case, the engine of an ancient curse.
It is no small coincidence that Dard Hunter brought the mummy paper story to our attention. He more directly bared his interest in papers’ spiritual dimension in his 1939 book: CHINESE CEREMONIAL PAPER. In it, Hunter states: “The fibrous substance called paper is regarded in a vastly different light in the Orient than in the Occident, for in the Far East it has a spiritual significance which overshadows its practical use, while in the Western World the purposes for which paper is intended are purely practical and utilitarian.”
Hunter is referring primarily to the use of paper gods and the burning of paper joss, especially the symbolic transfer of currency from the physical world to the afterlife.
Paper comes from the reorganization and metamorphosis of a destroyed past. Papermaking creates from what has been ruined or discarded. That past is reshaped into a new form, reincarnated, if you will, and given new life. Symbolically, paper is an answer to the human desire to start anew. On the way to becoming paper, a field of cotton, the pages of a two hundred-year-old book torn loose from their binding, or an Armani linen suit that no longer fits is reduced to a bucket of worthless, tangled, threads. You cannot wear the suit in the same way after it has been pulled apart, fiber from fiber. Yet the soggy mass of linen threads retains a history of having once been an Armani suit and maybe the memory of how good someone looked in it.
The unseen attributes within the strands provide an excuse to make pulp: the fibers we tangle have their own histories and hold the potential to influence what we do with the pulp.
In 1978, a student made an offer I couldn’t refuse. His mother had bought a bundle of antique kimonos, by the pound, sight unseen. He offered to give me a few, saying, “Wouldn’t it be interesting to make a paper kimono entirely out of an antique kimono?”
In truth I thought it was a particularly bad idea. Why sacrifice a beautiful silk kimono, especially since silk is an interesting additive, but an unsuitable papermaking fabric?
Yet, if the kimonos were nice enough, I could use them as inspiration. Never look a gift horse in the mouth, right?
A few days passed and the door bell rang. On the front steps was a large black trash bag.
I opened the sack with high expectations, expecting to see wonderful colors and patterns. But I was utterly disappointed. The color range in the bag was from filthy olive drab to dirty gun metal. They stank, felt rough, even gritty, yet slimy, and were down right ugly. It was hard to believe I had wrestled with the idea of destroying lovely kimonos.
They were already destroyed.
I told my studio assistant that I had misgivings about this project, of turning old kimonos into new. She frowned as she peered into the black bag at the tattered scraps. I suggested she chop up only enough for a test load and expected to see her the next day.
Two weeks passed before I found a small lunch bag crammed through the mail slot. Inside were a few handfuls of disgusting ash colored squares and a note. In the note, she said she and her mother watched television while they snipped one inch squares of gray silk. After a few hours they both started itching.
First a rash, then a fever . They stopped cutting the fabric and stayed in bed for days.
Concerned, I called the student to ask about the origins of these kimonos. I learned the bale came to the USA in the hold of a steamer, from Japan. Did his mother know how old these kimonos were? Not exactly, she was told they had been stored, baled in a warehouse, near Hiroshima, since the end of the war.
October 27, 2007