The invention of vellum paper in the 18th century (part 2)

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The invention of vellum paper in the 18th century (part 2)

Baskerville’s work and fine achievements, however, remain unknown to most of his typographer contemporaries, with the exception of Bodoni in Parma.

Jean-Baptiste Bodoni (Saluces, 1740- Parma, 1813) arrived in Parma in February 1768 to take over the management of the Ducal Printing House. It acquires in his hands a great notoriety attributed to the improvements that he brings in the processes to engrave the matrices, to cast the characters and to the improvements introduced in the various parts of the press.  

Two events will give recognition to Baskerville’s work.

First, Baskerville befriended the printer and scientist Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790)

Shortly after Baskerville’s death, Franklin took a set of his typefaces and those of William Caslon to the newly formed United States of America, which explains their presence (along with that of the typefaces of the Frenchman Pierre-Simon Fournier) in the first American federal publications and on the Declaration of Independence. Franklin would have called the English typographer “Baskerville of America” because of the quality of his editions…

William Caslon (1692-1766) was a renowned English typesetter. 

In addition, one of the great publishing achievements of the 18th century in Europe makes Baskerville’s accomplishments known.

Upon Voltaire’s death (May 30, 1778), admirers of the great man founded the “Société Littéraire Typographique” to undertake the printing of the first posthumous edition of the philosopher’s Complete Works, including for the first time his general correspondence. This project, carried out under the direction of Beaumarchais and Condorcet, was part of a militant diffusion of the texts and ideas of the Enlightenment. Between 1785 and 1790, the publishers delivered an octavo edition in 70 volumes and a twelve-volume edition in 92 volumes of Voltaire’s complete works.

John Baskerville died in 1775. In 1779, his wife sold his punches and dies to the “Société Littéraire Typographique” which used them to publish the complete works of Voltaire known as the Kehl edition, from the place where it was printed, between 1783 and 1785. It is thus also to Beaumarchais that we owe the knowledge of the typographical work of Baskerville.

Beaumarchais’s printing house was initially located in the fort of Kehl, a city bordering Strasbourg, which was alternately French, German and even Austrian at times. He will gather there about forty presses which will run almost exclusively for the complete work of Voltaire. The Société Littéraire Typographique, a veritable financial abyss, was liquidated in 1791 and the materials repatriated in part to Paris. The Baskerville types were then bought by the Didot family, a famous Parisian printer, and then by Charles Peignot, who returned them to the Cambridge University printing house in 1953.

How to compete against English papermakers ?

The French papermakers wished to be able to produce a paper of the same quality as that of the English, but France being in conflict with England, they could not ask them to reveal their discovery.

It is Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790), printer of trade, who would have made known the machine of the English paper makers, when he stayed in France between 1776 and 1785 as ambassador of the young United States of America and made come a press in his house of Passy. He also made a point of visiting the printing house of François Ambroise Didot and entrusted him with his grandson, to whom Firmin Didot taught engraving and type casting.

It was Etienne and Joseph Montgolfier who, in 1777, manufactured the first French vellum paper in Vidalon. Joseph developed the filter paper, which was called “Joseph”, and which became Joseph paper.

The vellum paper is then perfected: François-Ambroise Didot known as “Didot l’aîné” (Paris, 1730 – Paris, 1804) is a French printer, publisher and type founder. He is the father of Firmin Didot who succeeded him. Having established a paper factory, it is in his printing house that are made, in 1780, the first tests, in France, of printing on vellum paper. with the paper makers Johannot of Annonay.

1800 : a turning point

However, at the very beginning of the 19th century, wove paper was still a luxury product, used for limited editions.

It was not until the invention of the continuous paper machine (in cylinders) that the use of wove paper became common and supplanted laid paper: Louis Nicolas Robert (Paris, 1761 – Vernouillet, 1828) invented in 1798 in the premises of Saint-Léger Didot who supported him, the first paper machine which allowed to produce long strips of paper. The patent for a machine to make the paper of a very great extent is deposited on January 18, 1799: it is the first patent of this type. Not very successful at the beginning, in April 1800, Didot buys his patent from Robert and joins his English brother-in-law John Gamble. They exploit the patent in England, by bringing the necessary modifications to the machine for a better profitability.

Léger Didot, known as Saint-Léger (1767-1829) is the youngest son of Pierre-François Didot and the promoter of the continuous paper machine manufactured in England under the name of “Didot’s mechanics.

It is after the end of the Empire, from 1815, that many other patents will be registered by various paper manufacturers in France and Europe. They improved Robert’s machine and led to the creation of new mechanized paper companies. When it reaches its perfection, around 1830, after many innovations, Robert’s machine changes the nature of the paper: for example, one does not waterproof any more the paper with the gelatine of skin after its manufacture but during its manufacture by introducing a colophony adhesive directly into the paste.

From 1820: real diffusion of wove paper in France

“The years 1820-1825 saw a very large expansion of paper mills, either by the creation of new mills or (especially) by the extension of existing plants. But this phase of expansion is stopped by the credit crisis which affects France at the end of 1825. The producers of “mechanical” paper, which had carried out heavy investments, are the first ones touched”, but finally get out of it better than the traditional producers, which only increases the resentment of these last ones against “the owners of factories with mechanics” (the manufacturers of Angoulême ask even the government, in 1831, to tax the machines in proportion to the number of tanks which they replace) “. Source:

Despite the acceleration of the production of wove paper everywhere in France and Europe, laid paper continues to be produced. We can still find very good quality of it today. One of the first things a beginning print collector should know is whether he has in his hands a print printed on old laid paper or on wove paper, he can then (in principle) determine if he is dealing with an “old” print (i.e. before 1820) or a more recent one.

End of the article ‘The 18th century invention of wove paper’ – @ All rights reserved Philippe Altmeyerhenzien.

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