The Right (Paper) Stuff: Preserving Cornell’s Gettysburg Address (part 3)

The author of this post, Michele Hamill, is a conservation expert for Cornell University Library. She and her department have helped preserve our copy of the Gettysburg Address, and she will be writing a series of posts for this blog, providing an insider’s view of the history and challenges related to this task.

Read Part 1 and Part 2 of her series.

“Stuff” is a technical papermaking term that describes the wet pulp of cellulose fibers used to make a sheet of paper. President Abraham Lincoln used the right stuff — in both senses of the word — when he wrote out Cornell Library’s copy of the Gettysburg Address.

Our document, now 150 years old, owes much of its longevity to the excellent quality paper that President Lincoln used. He chose a pre-folded sheet of fine, wove, machine-made, writing paper with blue-ruled lines. “Fine” is another technical term that designates the highest quality writing paper, and “wove” is a type of paper with fibers interspersed evenly across a sheet.

Our Library’s Gettysburg Address has survived these last 150 years due in part to the great paper it was written on.

The “stuff”, or refined and beaten wet cellulose pulp, used to make the paper of Cornell’s Gettysburg Address came from rags (yes, rags!). Old clothing and other textiles were used for centuries for papermaking. The rags were sorted, cleaned, macerated, and made into pulp.

These illustrations from Leslie Frank’s Illustrated Newspaper from 1866 show rags being sorted (classified as “women’s work”) and then cut and prepared using the “Devil”.

This illustration from Leslie Frank’s Illustrated Newspaper shows rags being washed and beaten to separate and disperse the long, strong fibers in water.

Millions of pounds of rags, literally tons, were needed each year to produce paper. Rags came from domestic sources and were imported from Europe and Asia. To try to fill the need, newspapers carried advertisements for rags.

An advertisement for rags from The Jeffersonian, June 22, 1854.

Not all fibers coming from rags were created equal. The finest quality paper was produced using linen rags. Fibers from linen rags were preferred for fine writing paper because they produced a superior paper, durable and strong.

To identify the exact fibers in Cornell’s Gettysburg Address, we would need to take a sample of the paper. But because Cornell’s copy doesn’t have a damaged area — such as a tear or dog-eared corner — where we could discreetly remove a sample of fibers, we conducted in-depth research into papermaking at this time and consulted paper historians instead. We then carefully examined our paper under magnification, with light coming through the paper (“transmitted light”) and light shown across the sheet at a low angle (“raking light”). These research and examination methods, coupled with how well the Address has stood the test of time, helped us conclude that Cornell Library’s copy of the Gettysburg Address is on a linen writing paper — the right stuff!

The fibers of the Gettysburg Address would be similar to these linen (or flax) fibers shown in this photomicrograph at 500x magnification. Linen is known for its strength and enduring quality. Courtesy Claire McBride.

When President Lincoln wrote out Cornell’s Gettysburg Address, writing paper was still primarily made from rags, first from linen and then from cotton sources, which yielded excellent paper. This high quality paper has helped our document make its remarkable journey over the last 150 years in such good condition.

Lucky for us, the era of “bad paper”, when people used unprocessed wood pulp fibers for papermaking, was looming on the horizon but had not begun in earnest.

Newspaper commonly shows the brittleness and yellowing resulting from unprocessed wood pulp. Courtesy of the Indiana Historical Society.

So much raw material was needed for papermaking that people eventually had to turn from rags to a more abundant source of pulp: wood fibers from trees. Unless wood pulp is processed carefully, it can contain large amounts of acid that quickly deteriorates paper. When President Lincoln wrote out Cornell’s Gettysburg Address, writing paper was still primarily made from rags, first from linen and then from cotton sources, which yielded excellent paper. This high quality paper has helped our document make its remarkable journey over the last 150 years in such good condition.

The appetite for paper at the time of the Civil War was huge. The skyrocketing publication of books, newspapers, pamphlets, and magazines — combined with the need for writing paper and wrapping paper — required vast amounts of materials. To produce these enormous quantities of paper, papermaking machines largely displaced hand-paper making.

This illustration from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper shows a papermaking machine from 1866.

Blue ruled lines were added after the paper was made. Courtesy Cathleen A. Baker.

Because of its high demand, paper was a precious commodity for both the North and the South during the Civil War — and it was largely manufactured in the North, leaving the South desperate for it. With paper in such scarce supply, the South used blank book pages for paper and reused envelopes by turning them inside-out.

A newspaper advertisement from the Winchester Daily Bulletin (Winchester, Tenn., May 29, 1863) with a plea for rags.

Paper was such an important resource that when the Confederates burned the city of Richmond in 1865, they made sure to destroy their own paper mill.

These two images, photographic stereoviews by Alexander Gardner, show the destroyed Richmond paper mill. The rollers from the papermaking machine can be seen among the wreckage. Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

The massive water wheel of the mill withstood the destruction. Courtesy of the New York Public Library.

So, during this time of scarcity, where did President Lincoln get his paper?  We’ll tell you in our next post, coming soon.

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