A basic knowledge of European and American paper and printing is useful for booksellers, collectors and those in related fields. It’s helpful to know what they look like and more importantly, what they feel like.
There are many detailed books on this subject, but this brief article may help you get the feel for their historical sequence and a few of their distinguishing characteristics. That in turn could help you accurately date value things you may own or find. Remember, these comments apply mainly to the Western graphic arts and typography. They are not necessarily true for things of Asian or other origin.
Before we consider the question: How was it printed? Let’s ask: What was it printed on?
Before there was paper there were animal skins such as vellum, vegetable fiber surfaces like papyrus. Ancient peoples marked clay tablets and stone tablets. But, for our purpose, let’s stick to roughly the last 300 or so years. During that period there were basically two kinds of paper in common use: Western paper making starts with mainly rag based papers made a sheet at a time and transitions in the mid-19th century to mostly machine made wood pulp papers.
Rag-based papers, as the name implies, are made from the pulp that comes from cloth. They are strong and flexible and long lasting. They were the prevailing papers from the birth of Western papermaking to about the 1850s when wood pulp paper manufacturing was introduced.
It’s not hard to identify a rag paper, it often has a watermark or chain line (hold it up to the light to check) and does not chip or discolor easily, though sometimes it does have spots of foxing. In a text weight antique paper it has a strong and flexible feeling. It may have a deckle, an uneven wavy untrimmed edge.
Even today rag-based papers are still made and used for fine products like limited edition books, as the surface for artwork like watercolors, or to protect and conserve works of art and other delicate or fragile things.
If it’s printed on rag-paper it generally indicates something made before 1850s, or made later and with an attempt to simulate the tradition and style of earlier periods. When it comes to setting value (no matter what the date) a rag paper is a good sign. It usually means expensive, long lasting, good quality, hand made.