Sunday, November 03, 2013


India Paper

Peter Sutcliffe, The Oxford University Press: An Informal History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978), pp. 39-40:
In 1875 an exceedingly small Oxford Bible on exceedingly thin paper was published and within a few weeks sold a quarter of a million copies. The use of Oxford India paper, first for Bibles and Prayer Books and later for other books, was of incalculable importance in the growth of the Press up to 1914, but its manufacture was surrounded by so much secrecy that it has become almost impossible to distinguish legend from fact. It was reported in the Publisher's Circular in 1896 that the secret was known to only three living beings. Henry Frowde, who himself helped to perpetuate the not altogether reliable oral tradition, may not have been one of them, but it was he who was responsible for the 1875 Bible. He had stumbled upon one of the twenty-four copies of a tiny Bible printed by Thomas Combe in 1842. The paper was extraordinarily thin, tough, and opaque, and nothing quite like it had ever been achieved since. Frowde, making his first dramatic appearance on the scene of Oxford publishing, asked for more.

The story was that in 1841 an Oxford graduate had brought back from China a small fold of this unique paper and presented it to Combe, enough only for the twenty-four copies. Unable to trace the paper to its source or analyse its structure, Combe made extensive inquiries, even appealing to Gladstone, who recommended a search in Japan. Papers found there were equally thin but not opaque enough, so that it was impossible to print on both sides. Experiments at Wolvercote were unsuccessful, yielding a paper far too yellow to be acceptable. The original 'India paper' that had been used for years, often mounted on ordinary paper and designed to receive fine impressions of copperplate or steel engravings, was indeed made in China, and yellow in colour. Whatever had come into Combe's possession was something different, though in time the matter was forgotten.

In 1874, however, on receiving Frowde's request, Stacey seemed to know that paper similar to that used for the 1842 Bible and made of rope had once been manufactured in Staffordshine under the name of 'Pottery Tissue'. He wrote to Thomas Brittain & Sons of Hanley and was successful. They undertook to match the paper, and the samples they supplied were satisfactory. With their help Wolvercote also started to produce Oxford India paper and, although it still tended to be too yellow, the bulk of the paper for Frowde’s Bible was supplied from there. But as Brittains' product was superior, Wolvercote ceased to compete and some ten years later the secret of its manufacture had again been forgotten. By 1887 Brittains monopolized the supply, Oxford the demand, and the latter was so great that Brittains could no longer single-handedly meet it. It was agreed that they would lend Oxford the only man who fully understood the process, a Mr. Haigh. After his visit to Wolvercote it was realized that the manufacture of India paper involved so much lime that the effluent would kill all fish in the river for miles around. Mr. Haigh could find no answer to the problem. Eventually Brittains opened a new mill of their own which could supply all the needs of its only customer. Oxford also had the right to market the paper abroad. Having secured the monopoly, the Press was anxious to warn the public against imitations. There was only one 'Oxford India paper'. Until the 1890s its use was confined largely to Bibles and Prayer Books, but it could be put to sensational effect at international exhibitions, where it won the Press many Grands Prix. Volumes of 1,500 pages could be suspended from heights by a single leaf. Indeed a short strip of this tissue-thin paper only three inches wide could support a load of a quarter of a hundredweight. When rubbed severely it assumed a texture resembling chamois leather and could be used for cleaning windows. The saving in shelf-space, an increasingly important factor, was prodigious, and Henry Frowde delighted in it as if he had invented it himself.
Some of this appears, almost verbatim, in The Publishers' Circular, No. 1520 (August 17, 1895) 159:
The marvellous Oxford India Paper was first introduced in 1875, explained Mr. Frowde. Since then it has revolutionised the Bible and Prayer Book trade, and it is now used for all the more popular devotional books all over the world. The incidents which led up to its manufacture have never yet been told. In the year 1841 an Oxford graduate is said to have brought home from the Far East a small fold of extremely thin paper, which was manifestly more opaque and tough for its substance than any paper then manufactured in Europe. He presented it to the University Press. The late Mr. Thomas Combe, who had only recently been appointed Printer to the University, found it to be just sufficient for twenty-four copies of the smallest Bible then in existence—Diamond 24mo.—and printed an edition of that number, which bore the date 1842. The books were barely a third of the usual thickness, and although as much as £20 a-piece was offered for them, no copies were sold, but they were presented to the Queen and various persons. All Mr. Combe's efforts to trace the paper to its source were futile, and, as years rolled on, the circumstance was forgotten. But early in 1874 a copy fell into the hands of Mr. Arthur E. Miles, of the firm of Messrs. Hamilton, Adams & Co., who showed it to Mr. Frowde, and experiments were at once set on foot at the Oxford University Paper Mills at Wolvercote with the object of producing a similar paper. The first attempts were failures, but, before long, success was achieved, and on August 24, 1875, an edition of the Diamond 24mo. Bible, similar in all respects to the 24 copies printed in 1842, was placed on sale by the Oxford University Press and Messrs. Hamilton, Adams & Co. This was the first Oxford Bible published by Mr. Frowde. The feat of compression was looked upon as astounding, the demand was enormous and before very long a quarter of a million copies had been sold. Every year since that time has brought forth a crop of new books upon this wonderful paper.

The marvels of compression accomplished by its means caused great astonishment at the Paris Exhibition. Its strength was also shown to be remarkable. Volumes of 1,500 pages were seen suspended during the whole period of the Exhibition by a single leaf, opaque, although as thin as tissue; and when, at the close of the Exhibition, they were taken down and examined, the leaf which had sustained the weight had not started, the paper had not stretched, and the solid gilt edge of the volume when closed revealed no mark to show where the strain had been applied. The paper when subjected to severe rubbing, instead of breaking into holes, assumed a texture resembling chamois leather, and a strip only three inches wide was found able to support a quarter of a hundredweight without yielding. This paper contributed largely to the securing for the Clarendon Press of the Grand Prix, in addition to two out of the five gold medals which were awarded to British printers and publishers. It is now used for upwards of 100 various works and editions, and several more will be announced next month. The secret of its manufacture, it may be said, is known to only three living beings.
Hat tip: Eric Thomson.

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