Suburban Soliloquy #97


One day, Ts'ai Lun, a Chinese bureaucrat, also a eunuch, was moseying about at the edge of a pool adjacent to a laundry when he noticed small fibers floating on still water and collecting into a sheet. He carefully picked up this sheet and placed it where it could dry. When it did dry, he found he had a solid sheet that would serve better than bamboo as a writing surface. Thus it is that Ts'ai Lun is credited with the invention of paper, for which the Emperor promoted him. He became involved in various court intrigues and eventually committed suicide, which has nothing further to do with my subject, paper.

If we ignore the fact that wasps have been manufacturing paper for seventy million years, the very word "wasp" being derived from the Anglo-Saxon "waesp" meaning "to weave", we can credit China for giving us the paper we use today. The ruins of Xuanquanzhi, located in Dunhuang, have turned up the earliest records of papermaking dating to the Western Han Dynasty (206 BC - 24 AD). Eventually, the Arabs stole the secret of making paper from the Chinese, and in time the Italians stole the secret from the Arabs.

I believe in the worship of words. The fundamental pleasure of my life, aside from the necessities of eating, sleeping, and the companionship of Ms Keogh, my more significant other, there is the listening to and speaking of words, the reading and writing of words. I try never to be thoughtless with words, although most times I am being casual. It's that I never want to issue a stream of words without conscious consideration behind them. This doesn't preclude the frequency with which I'm clumsy and prone to errors, but I insist the desire to take care with my words is the intent.

As a producer of words, perhaps my favorite medium is with pen on paper. I'm not capable of it all the time, but the use of a pen on paper slows me, increases the thought I give my words. Because it is time consuming, the production of handwritten words is more precious than with easy speech or speedy keyboard.

Paper selection also determines how precious one wants their words to be. A hastily scribbled note demands nothing more than a scrap piece of paper, the back of a paper placemat, the inside of a matchbook, whatever readily comes to hand. The valued word deserves something better, especially if the word is meant for someone to read other than yourself, or you want to believe it is worthy of being preserved.

I take pleasure in paper, giving my choice of paper more attention than most others would. I love paper with texture, a slight bite to it as I write. I know among fountain pen users, the smoothest papers are generally preferred, but I enjoy the slight feedback of a paper not perfectly slippery.

It is as much a personal aesthetic as function. I have made Crane's Distaff Linen, Antique Laid, my paper of choice. The Crane family has been making paper since 1775. The Crane Company was started in Massachusetts in 1801. The Distaff Linen is an off-white paper (in this case they call it Ivory) with laid finish. Laid finish is the pattern of watermarks resulting from the wire mesh on which the paper is formed. Distaff Linen also includes a charming watermark of a spinning wheel that distinguishes this paper from other papers. The paper is a bit rough, especially if you're left-handed like me and push the nib across the page instead of dragging it. Still, I can turn the sheet over and the back is smoother if I want to write with an italic nib.

The only problem with Crane's Distaff Linen is that they stopped making it. The discontinued paper had become difficult to find. That made me want it all the more. I searched the internet and found ninety boxes of the paper, five hundred sheets to a box, stored away in a warehouse in New Jersey. I contacted the company who owned the warehouse and negotiated a deal for thirty boxes. The paper usually sells at over thirty dollars a box, but they were selling it to me for ten dollars a box.

I should mention, I never buy matching envelopes. I buy less expensive envelopes, or envelopes on sale, or make my own out of old calendars or magazine pages. It isn't that I'm cheap, although envelopes are more expensive than sheets. Envelopes are the interface between the precious letter and the environment. They get soiled and worn, are meant to intercept to world's cruelty while protecting their contents. Why use good paper?

Amalfi is a town on the Gulf of Salerno. Amalfi has been a center for papermaking since the 13th Century. Whether Amalfi or another Italian town, Fabriano, was the first center of papermaking in Europe is still being debated. Amalfi actually has several paper manufacturers, but among those of us who use it, we often refer to the paper produced by just one company, Cartiera F. Amatruda, as Amalfi paper.

The exceptional tactile experience of Amatruda's paper delights my senses. It has a texture of soft felt and drapes over the hand like cloth. This is 100% rag paper, deckle-edged, handmade, and I am down to my last three sheets. At a dollar a sheet, I am reserved about using this paper. The sheets I use are the less common oversized sheets, 22cm by 31.5cm, and possess an angel, that angel being a large watermark at the center of the sheet. Some there are who question my sanity to spend so much money on "mere" paper, yet they go out and buy folding note cards with less writing space and a commercially printed sentiment or image, spending two or three times as much.

My other favorite paper is Fabriano, specifically Cartiere Miliani Fabriano. If Fabriano was not manufacturing paper before Amalfi, yet they made important innovations. The first is the use of animal gelatin for surface sizing paper. This gave the sheets a longer life than the traditional starch sizing. Prior to this development, Europe had been traditionally using the skins of animals, parchment and vellum, for their record keeping, much as had the Hebrews. Papyrus, while long-lived in the desiccated environment of the Egyptian desert, quickly decayed in moist Europe. The second innovation that Fabriano lays claim to is the invention of watermarks, a means of trademark among papermakers.

Until I depleted my supply, I also favored Fabriano's Minerva sheets. The Minerva sheets are less expensive than the sheets of Amatruda, but then the Minerva is not handmade, nor is it 100% rag. Minerva is mouldmade, which, while it appears very much like handmade paper, is manufacturer using a cylinder-mould, a slow rotating machine that progresses the pulp into a finished product. Also, the Minerva is made from wood pulp instead of cotton. In general, cotton is stronger and more enduring, but Minerva is made from high alpha cellulose, the highest quality of wood pulp, a pure form that manufacturers claim has the same archival properties as cotton.

The sheets of Minerva are standard international business-size paper (A4), which I feel is more elegant than the U.S. standard. Here in the U.S. our business paper is shorter and wider making it look squat by comparison. Unlike the cloth-like sheets of Amatruda, the Fabriano Minerva is seriously stiff. It lacks the Amalfi paper's romantic quality, its limp surrender. The Minerva also has a superior writing surface for my fountain pens; the Amatruda is given to a slight feathering.

The Minerva has a laid finish. The Amalfi does not. The Minerva also has the additional watermark of the head of the goddess in a lower corner. Fabriano does make an identical paper to Minerva without the laid finish, their Florentia, which is a wove finish like the Amatruda paper. The Florentia has a fleur-de-lys watermark. Fabriano also makes handmade, 100% cotton stationery, Secolo XIII, which is alleged to be the world's most expensive. I once used a sheet.

The other day I was looking at the boxes of Crane's Distaff Linen that is stored in my bedroom closet. There are only twenty-six boxes left, 13,000 sheets. I thought to myself how I had enough paper to last me the rest of my life. While staring at the boxes, I commenced to ponder my mortality. When I died, would there be boxes of this paper left over? How many boxes? I am determined to not leave a one. If I averaged only one sheet a day, the supply should last me thirty-five years. Suddenly I wanted to own more boxes of this paper so that I could live longer.

My birthday is only about a week away. I am to be fifty-five. Today I called the folks who owned the warehouse to see if they still had the remaining sixty boxes of Distaff Linen. They did not. I must write slower, or convince Ms Keogh to buy me more Minerva or Amalfi for my birthday.

This essay is the most recent in a series of regular reports from the life and times of Mr Bentzman. If you've any comments or suggestions, the writer would be pleased to hear from you.
Mr Bentzman's collection of poems, "Atheist Grace" is available from Amazon, as are "The Short Stories of B.H.Bentzman"