Due in large part to a fascinating book I’ve been reading on William Blake (Saree Makdisi’s William Blake and the Impossible History of the 1790’s), I’ve been thinking a lot about the literal materiality of texts and the way this materiality shapes form and content. Makdisi claims that the very mode of copperplate relief printing that Blake used to make his illuminated books tells us something about the literary and visual forms within them and vice verse. This is an oversimplification of his argument, but I think he’s on to something. Thus, I was struck when reading The Spectator, No. 367 when Addison gave a detailed, if satirical, account of paper production, distribution, and recycling in the early eighteenth century:
Our Paper Manufacture takes into it several mean Materials which could be put to no other use, and affords Work for several Hands in the collecting of them, which are incapable of any other Employment. These poor Retailers, whom we see so busie in every Street, deliver in their respective Gleanins to the Merchant. The Merchant carries them in Loads to the Paper-Mill, where they pass thro’ a fresh Sett of Hands, and give Life to another Trade. Those who have the mills on their Estates by this means considerably raise their Rents, and the whole Nation is in great measure supplied with a Manufacture, for which formerly she was obliged to her Neighbours (100).
There are several points here that I think bear examining in terms of what they tell us about pre-industrial paper production, the way paper was used, and the relationship of The Spectator itself to the production process. As this passage indicates, prior to the nineteenth century, paper was not made out of wood pulp, but out of cotton and linen fibers. These fibers were obtained from rags that collectors would bring in from the streets to be processed. Prior to the eighteenth century, the processing of these rags into paper was time and labor intensive as it involved pulping the rags to break down and obtain the fibers and then producing paper one sheet at a time in a wire mesh mold. The time and expense needed to produce paper thus contributed to the expense of books prior to the eighteenth century.
In 1680, however, a device called the Hollander Beater was invented which produced better quality pulp, more quickly. During the first half of the eighteenth century these devices began to be introduced in paper mills around England, thus reducing the price of paper. This was, of course, the very time that the periodical press (including The Spectator and The Tatler) was exploding in England. It thus bears considering whether the introduction of this technology was a direct result of the demand for more, cheap, paper. Indeed, both the demand for paper and the technology to produce it accelerated throughout the eighteenth century.
Nevertheless, it would be a mistake to view this type of paper production, even after the introduction of these early technologies, as industrial production. Paper production was still very march an artisanal process that was time and labor intensive and required masters and journeymen to produce. Technologies like the Hollander Beater certainly accelerated the process, but it was not really until the nineteenth century that paper was produced on an industrial scale.
This brings us to the question of what these methods of paper production tell us about The Spectator itself and the culture in which it was produced. Why, in other words, did Addison choose to include an essay on paper production and distribution in his paper? I would argue that, though paper production was still decidedly pre-industrial, the production and distribution of paper provided Addison with a decidedly Whiggish and pro-commerce model of the movement of capital resources through the economy. In other words, the very materiality of the circulating piece of paper on which The Spectator was printed actually lends force the cultural and political revolution in manners that Addison and Steele were attempting to enact.
In fact, Addison traces the economic benefit of The Spectator through the economy, from the collection of rags, to the paper mill, to the printer, to the paper boys. A circulation, if you will, that both mirrors the circulation of the printed page, but also the circulation of printed paper money which is based on a specific exchange value. As Addison so cleverly puts it, “I find so many Hands employ’d in every Step they take thro’ their whole Progress, that while I am writing a Spectator, I fancy myself providing Bread for a Multitude.” It is, in other words, the eighteenth century Whig version of “trickle down” economics. Thus, by presenting the rising middle class public with a product produced by the artisanal “pre-working” class in mills on the estates of the aristocracy, The Spectator thus folds these pre-industrial economic and cultural concerns into one sheet of folio paper.
For more basic information on the history of paper making, check out this page on papermaking in the U.K.