By the late nineteenth century paper became closely associated with forms of modern disenchantment like bureaucracy and mechanical mass reproduction. But from paper production’s beginnings in colonial America in 1690 through the end of the nineteenth century, it was widely understood as an intimate material medium, one that could literally and figuratively bring bodies into contact with one another.
This has to do with the materia construction of paper itself: before 1867 it was predominantly made from cast off or recycled cotton and linen rags, materials which were often stripped from the bed or the body before being taken to a mill and remade into the substrate for writing, printing, and other uses. But this process invested paper with more than inert shredded rags; writers and readers frequently noted how the raggy content of paper created narrative, communication, and textuality within itself, regardless of, or in addition to, what was printed on it. An example from a 1777 issue of the North Carolina Gazette illustrates how both material and imaginative processes produced the page. A paper mill issued the following call and promise to young female readers: “The young ladies are assured, that by sending to the paper mill an old handkerchief, no longer fit to cover their snowy breasts, there is a possibility of its returning to them again in the more pleasing form of a billet doux from their lovers.” Here, the actual material process of sending cloth to the paper mill both figures the public sphere as an intimate circuit and dictates the content that will be written on the freshly made paper.
In this Friday Humanities Lunch talk, Jonathan Senchyne will discuss how the work of writers including Anne Bradstreet, Benjamin Franklin, and Herman Melville make visible the intimacies that inhere within rag paper. The talk previews the book he is completing for the "Studies in Print Culture and History of the Book" series at the University of Massachusetts Press: Intimate Paper and the Materiality of Early American Literature.
Jonathan Senchyne teaches the history of the book and print cultures of the US in the School of Library and Information Studies, where he is also the director of the Center for the History of Print and Digital Culture. His research has been published or is forthcoming in Book History, PMLA, Technology and Culture, Early African American Print Culture, and Debates in the Digital Humanities 2016. His work has been supported by fellowships from the NEH, the American Antiquarian Society, the New York Public Library, and the CUNY Graduate Center where in 2017-2018 he will be the Pine Tree Foundation Distinguished Visiting Fellow in the Future of the Book in a Digital Age.