Today on Project Gutenberg #17

Today on Project Gutenberg we have…

From Paper-mill to Pressroom by William Bond Wheelwright

What are all the things you never knew about paper-making and didn’t really care to know? Well, obviously you couldn’t answer that. You don’t know. But this book is here to fix that!

Published in 1920, the premise of this non-fiction book is deceptively simple. It’s all about historical and modern methods of manufacturing paper. That couldn’t be complicated enough to take up a whole book, could it?

Enter our author, William Bond Wheelwright. It’s not clear whether he actually owned a paper company at the time he wrote this, but he certainly came from a family of paper makers. He dedicates the book to his father, George William Wheelwright, “and to the memory of his father, who entered the paper business in 1834.” There’s also an additional note here saying that “This book is printed on Wheelwright’s ‘B.P.F.’ paper 25×38-70,” so it feels reasonable to assume that Mr. Wheelwright here had a bit of an ulterior motive when he decided to write about how paper was made.

“In the following pages,” Wheelwright writes in the introduction, “I have endeavored to present a treatise on paper free from confusing technicalities, yet sufficiently intimate to be of service alike to the manufacturer, the salesman and the consumer of paper viewing the subject in a broad way from the paper to the pressroom.” That part about being written for the consumer is just a straight-up lie because once we get into the book proper, it becomes clear that only someone who’s either in the paper business or unhealthily obsessed with it would care about this level of detail. The first chapter, which focuses on historical paper-making techniques from ancient Egypt to the early nineteenth century, is easy enough to comprehend. But then he starts throwing statistics at us. Take for example, the beginning of Chapter 2, “Raw Materials.” Wheelwright informs us that in 1909, the United States produced 4.25 million tons of paper. Then he draws up a chart showing the percentage of each ingredient for a batch of paper. Then he draws another chart showing the material percentage in just the wood pulp. And what kind of wood goes into the wood pulp. And then this monstrosity rears its ugly head:

This is not the whole chart, by the way. There’s like four more sections.

By now, your eyes have probably glazed over and you’ve gone back to watching the Puppy Bowl. I don’t blame you. The whole book is written like this: very dry, very business-like, so much minute details that no average reader would want to bother with. If by some miracle you manage to get to the end, you will rewarded with a conclusion that is delightfully lacking in self-awareness, in which Wheelwright tells us that paper-making should be taught in all American schools “to make it live and thrill with all its latent power” and that “it seems a pity that cultured persons should be so generally ignorant of what constitutes good printing.” The ability to recognize good printing, he says, is no less important than the ability to identify a Rubens painting.

I have no jokes about this. It’s just so bizarre on its own.

There’s one chapter here that actually is kind of interesting, and that’s Chapter 3, “Future Fiber Possibilities.” Even in 1920, businesses and the government were looking to the future and trying to figure out what alternate materials could be used for paper when forests could no longer meet the necessary demand. Wheelwright gives the readers a quick overview of the research being done into this issue and some of the potential replacements for wood pulp, such as corn stalks, broom corn, rice straw and flax. It’s a fascinating topic and not nearly as dense as the other chapters, but it’s only a page or two, and then we’re right back to business as usual.

If you want to be mildly amused or perhaps a little weirded out, maybe take a flip through this book. Read some of the more comprehensible sections. But for the sake of your own sanity, don’t try to sit down and read it cover to cover. And if you want to find a much shorter and even more unsettling account of how paper is/was made, I leave you with this:

God help us all.

And that’s what we found today on Project Gutenberg! See you next time!

— Dana

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