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Review of From the Hand to the Machine: Nineteenth-Century American Paper and Mediums: Technologies, Materials, and Conservation

Winter 2011
Winter 2011
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Gary Frost is a book conservator and book craft instructor. His past positions include Associate Conservator, Newberry Library; and Conservator of Libraries, University of Iowa. He has taught at the School of the Art Institute, Chicago; Columbia University in New York; and at the University of Texas. Currently he is an advocate for the continuing role of the paper book in a context of its screen delivery  This is a classic exposition of a technology and practice of cultural transmission. It is also an adventure across an expanse of change and intended and unintended consequence. Through it all, Baker's distinctive voice guides the reader. The focus is on the nineteenth century when American papermakers found themselves in a vortex of market expansion and industrial enterprise. Along with other trades of printing and binding they responded with surprising innovations. Automation and industrialization of papermaking resulted in quantities and qualities of paper previously unachievable. Mass media as well as whole sectors of material and artistic culture flourished with new papers.

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It was a fabulous period of achievement and as Baker states in her introduction, "There is nothing inherently inferior about paper made on machines…" This book is liberated from narrow admiration for handmade paper. Another focus of this book is on "common papers and mediums." Baker's premise that the "average or typical" should be distinguished proves itself as the book progresses and we start to recognize familiar paper and medium types and their typical composites. Baker avoids unneeded distractions of rarities and oddities that litter other volumes on paper graphics. In addition, the author presents the historical and technical information in clear and pragmatic terms. One of Baker's intentions is to enable practitioners and curators to distinguish the stable from vulnerable materials in collections so that they may allocate efficiently their conservation resources. The beginning chapters span development of the papermaking industry. Baker goes on to analyze mechanization and conflicting agendas that start to automate handwork and depart from the precepts of handwork. Revolution arrived with non-rag fiber, caustic cooks, and continuous sheet forming. The crucial role of the cylinder machine is well described. In an advance over hand production the new automations also improved paper consistency. The transitions were complex and Baker uses her skill of distilled explanation. For example, Baker handily describes the method of precipitating rosin soap onto the fiber for engine sizing, the transformation of the rosin as it melts and adheres the fibers at the dry end of the paper machine, and the interplay of "vegetable" and "animal" sizings with optional gelatin tub size. Another topic that Baker manages well is the abundance of specialty papers that were developed for graphic works as the technology crossed from handmade to machine-made papers. Baker gives expert review of the influence of paper finishing. The role of fillers, colorants, and coating pigments is clearly presented with charts and itemized comments. Baker's editorialized charts such as the composite "Morphology of fibers from paper" add excellent reference function to the book. Her historical review concludes with new fiber sources. She explores the dynamic of interplay of rag, seed, and stalk fiber and recycled stock in context with wars, ecologies, rise and fall of empire, and homespun invention. Baker transacts the diverse topics with scholarship and poise. Chapter five, "Paper Characteristics," provides transition. Here we begin to delve Baker's own perceptive experience of paper as well as the features of history. Baker mines characteristics of Walt Whitman's first edition of Leaves of Grass. This canonic artifact of book art was made by Whitman himself, setting his own type (did you know that "grass" was a printer's term for hopelessly disordered type?), printing his book in a working job shop, and collaborating with every step of design of the stamping die and cover. He overlooked only the sewing. Such a do-it-yourselfer can remind the reader of Dard Hunter; a comparison, no doubt, immediate to Baker. The 1855 Leaves of Grass will pop up again in the book with the multiple meanings that it always inspires. In subsequent chapters Baker covers paper media, relief, intaglio, lithographic, photomechanical printing, writing, and drawing. As we work through these tutorials we realize that paper is not only a substrate but also a mode of communication; media define the paper while the paper defines the media. Here an important premise emerges: "…it is essential to understand the intimate relationship between the paper and the medium(s) on it if the intended \[conservation\] treatment is to be appropriate, successful, and repeatable." This premise of intersecting determinants is crucial to Baker's instructional method overall. The early crafts of Western papermaking and Western relief printing actually emerged in relative isolation from each other. However, by the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, products of paper and printing eclipsed the progress of either technology alone. In their places there emerged hybrid technologies of the printed book and periodic print media fused into a single communication mode. Baker employs a similar narrative strategy of intersection, interplay, and interdependence as she shares her approach to paper conservation. She clearly states, "This information is not intended to be used as recipes for treatment, nor should any, and certainly not all of these steps, be viewed as essential." Instead of a methods manual, Baker offers a manual of intentions positioned in terms of chemical and physical influences on paper graphics and parsed in the language of options to stabilize and protect objects, rather than change them: "…no invasive treatment should ever be considered mandatory." Baker explains that paper is a thin and porous material that reacts quickly. Strong capillary and evaporation forces can suddenly take over. The various mediums ride out these dramas with un-reversible visual, chemical, and physical changes. Surprises are everywhere. They lurk in familiar routine; pre-testing can be deceptive. This is such an honest and refreshing understanding. The nature of paper as it ages receives Baker's full attention. "Pure cellulose is nearly indestructible, being impervious to all but the extreme wavelengths of radiation—IR and UV—and to all liquids except the strongest acids and bases. Mold, pests, fire, and human interactions are paper's most important enemies, being the few actual causes of near or complete destruction." There you have it! Across time paper is tough on its own but vulnerable to the hazards that a mission of cultural transmission imposes. Baker goes on to further examine the mission of cultural transmission. Mortality of paper is a faulty precept as used to project any increased longevity derived from chemical treatments. Mass alkalization will not itself buy further generations of "life." Baker cites a more paper-centric view of aging from the work of Edwin Sutermeister. She credits him for pioneering precepts for correlation of artificial and natural aging, qualitative methods for aging assessment, and standards for permanent paper production. Baker goes on to clarify that aged paper is not condemned to a terminal progression. Alum-rosin sizing and lignin contamination are factors in reactions that impose diminished function, but not death, death, death. Baker goes even further. What if physical circulation is increasingly supplanted by image capture display? We move on into conservation practice, first with introduction of considerations for the various media types, and then on to treatment methods. Baker takes us through various immersion techniques and alkaline rinses. A minor issue here is the lack of overt explanation of the distinction between neutralizing and buffering, both in the rinsing and drying states and in relation to soluble and insoluble degradation products in the document. The physical influence of the wet to dry transition is discussed since many adverse effects of rinsing occur during drying. Baker moves on to cover adhesives, mending methods, lining and in-fill techniques, and flattening. As we finish the tutorial we encounter a rich counter-text of six major appendices, a concise glossary with bold keywords in context, a full bibliography, and an elegant index. The appendices present unique Baker databases conveyed to charts such as the names and dimensions of typical nineteenthcentury paper or her systematic evaluations and procedural tips regarding paper-testing methods. For paper chemistries of oxidative and hydrolytic scission of the molecular chain Baker uses another skill as she relates these explanations to macro influences of bleaching, rinsing, and local and general energy-driven reaction. A whole lesson in about two pages, Appendix E, Cellulose Degradation, is a masterful abstract of paper science. The illustrations of this book are luxurious. We can put it that way since there are almost as many illustrations as pages and each is strategically selected, cropped, and positioned. And the 49 full-color plates on 70# SAPPI Flo Matte of high opacity and bright base take visualization to a new level. Their depiction of color nuance and visual effervescences is phenomenal and the underlying instructional purpose of each one and all of them together is nothing short of genius. Baker was the photographer of most of the primary source imaging. Finally, to mention some features of the book production, this is a hybrid of good hard-cover binding and electrostatic printing. The hot-melt adhesive induces a skew set of the sewn back, but all told this is a very durable, flat-opening reference volume. Details such as the elegant miters of the cloth corners, flawless casing-in, and graceful board openings give the work a feeling of prestige that it deserves. Wow! What a treat and what an education; this work is an unforgettable and continuing experience. The reader is guided not only by Baker's voice but also by her invitation to directly assimilate a lifetime career of exploration of graphic works on paper.