Paper, Pen & Ink

By Steven Raab

Autograph May 2009

Authentication of historical autographs doesn’t always begin with an analysis of the signature. Often, you can spot a suspicious item simply by knowing what paper sizes were in vogue during the period in which the author was writing, or through understanding what pen would have been in their hand. In our book, In the Presence of History, we detail 10 steps for authenticating historical autographs. The fourth step, in which we explain what you should be looking for in terms of types of paper, water marks, pens and inks, is excerpted below for Autograph readers.

Extracted from In the Presence of History

Paper Sizes & Manufacture

A Letter from Washington approving his plan for an attack on the British, written on the common size paper of the Revolutionary era

The manufacture, physical makeup and sizes of paper have differed over the years. Letters of Washington, Franklin and others of their generation were almost never written on paper smaller than about 8×10 inches. Often the paper was larger, more like 9×12 or 14. And sometimes that was its size when folded so that there were four sides total, meaning the sheet unfolded was actually more like 18×12 inches.

Starting about the time of Jefferson’s administration, the really large paper lost popularity and stationery was mainly sheets about 8×10 inches. Small notepaper size stationery made its appearance about 1840 and was the paper of choice from 1860 until about 1900 when stationery assumed its present size.

Parchment was reserved for documents and religious manuscripts. Paper made from the 17th-18th century up to about 1800-1810 was “laid” paper, and held up to the light will show parallel lines throughout, like a grid or like ribbing, where it had been laid on a rack to dry. The nature of the rack marks varied by time and place, so it is often possible to closely date and locate the paper. Woven paper began replacing laid paper at the end of the 1700s, and by 1810 was the paper of choice.

Imprints & Watermarks

Much paper manufactured between about 1840 and 1890 had little embossed imprints of the manufacturer, or occasionally stationer, usually at the upper left corner. Watermarks unique to each manufacturer were widely used in paper made from the Middle Ages right up to the advent of the cheap, wood pulp-based product, which began in the 1840s and by the 1870s was commonplace. They persisted in high quality papers and still persist to the present day.

A fair number of watermarks actually contain the date of manufacture; others have different but equally valuable information. As an example, some Revolutionary War letters of George Washington have a picture of Britannia as a watermark, establishing the era of their manufacture and providing a wonderful irony. There are books on watermarks, so they can also be used in many cases to date the paper. Not long ago, we dated a manuscript bearing the Washington family coat of arms to the mid-17th century by finding the watermark listed in a reference work.

Envelopes

A letter from Chester A. Arthur using the small note paper of his time

Envelopes didn’t come into general use until the late 1840s. Prior to that, letters were folded up to a size approximating today’s small envelopes and were addressed on the back. The address panel consisted of a space about 4×5 inches. The folds were then sealed with wax, sometimes using a seal with the writer’s coat of arms or initials. A good rule of thumb would be to expect letters prior to 1840 to have folds consistent with this. Since envelopes came into usage, they have been smaller than the letters they contained, so post-1840 letters will also have been folded, but to fit their envelopes. Make sure there is a good explanation for an unfolded letter (for example, since the 1930s, a cover letter enclosing a signed photograph might have been sent in a large mailer and not needed folding).

Starting with a Feather

Introduced around 700 AD, the quill pen was the dominant writing instrument for over a thousand years. It was made from a bird feather, with the strongest quills being those taken from large birds in the spring from the five outer left wing feathers. The left wing was favored because the feathers curved outward and away when used by a right-handed writer. Goose feathers were most common; swan feathers were of a premium grade being scarcer and more expensive. For making fine lines, crow feathers were the best, and then came the feathers of the eagle, owl, hawk and turkey. These quills had a very positive property—a natural ink reserve found in their hollow channel. The negatives were that they lasted for only a week before they became worn and it was necessary to replace them, and they had a scratchy and uneven flow.

Example of “nibs” from the metal-tipped dip pens

By the 1840s, quills gave way to the metal tipped nib pen, which lasted much longer and allowed for the tips to be replaced. It did not have an ink reservoir, however, so it required constant dipping.

The fountain pen, with its internal reservoir for ink, came into common use with the invention of the Waterman pen in 1884. These pens were a mainstay for over half a century. Ballpoints were introduced to the market with a great deal of fanfare in 1945 but they were imperfect and very expensive. By 1952, the quality had improved and the price dropped, and over the next half decade they came to dominate the pen market.

The felt tip pen was invented in 1962 but did not come into common use for some years after that. Fine-line and permanent markers were first seen in the 1970s, and superfine-points gained popularity in the 1990s.

Each of these pens lays down a very distinctive, instantly recognizable flow of ink. Beware of any autograph whose ink does not fit into this timeline (like a ballpoint signature of FDR).

Ink Color

Letter from Martin Luther King signed with a ball point pen

Ink color matters also. Before about 1850 inks were generally brownish, and as they were made with iron, show-through was common. Over the years some types have literally rusted (which causes them to eat into the paper to a greater or lesser extent). Blue ink was not used much before about 1850. Some forgers buy old books, remove the blank pages, and write their forgeries on them using brown ink. Thus, the paper is real and the ink looks about right. However, paper loses its “size” over the years, and the strands of cloth in older paper separate a bit, so modern ink applied to old paper will be absorbed slightly and will blur. So watch out for blurriness.

Graphite Autographs

Pencils were present in America by the early 18th century but were not common until the first American wood pencils were manufactured in 1812. Between the early 1820s and 1850s, Boston became a hub of pencil-making, with several small makers opening in the area. One of these was John Thoreau, whose son Henry David was not only a noted author, but inventor of a method of mixing clay with graphite that made a superior lead. This led to the realization that by varying the amount of clay, pencils of differing hardness/softness could be made. The popularity of pencils grew significantly with the Civil War. What does all this mean in practice? I do not recall seeing autographs in pencil from prior to the 1850s and would be very cautious if offered one.

Authenticating autographs is like any other skill—you can learn a lot of the basics quickly, but for the more difficult or challenging projects, nothing works like experience. So, although you can’t become an expert in authenticating autographs just from reading this article, you’ll find that you do have the ability to determine for yourself whether many autographs are authentic based on the paper, pen and inks that were used.