Patterns in paper: an introduction to watermarks found within Record Office collections

by Gwyneth Endersby, Record Assistant


It’s well known that archives hold countless untold stories, just waiting to be discovered. What is perhaps less supposed are the hidden stories existing – quite literally – beneath the visible ones, to be gleaned from the actual physical fabric of a document.  Through the watermarks they might possess, handmade paper documents have the potential to yield clues as to date of manufacture, paper size and/or quality, the papermakers themselves, and geographic origin.  Special designs generated during the production of handmade paper sheets, watermarks are essentially manufacturing signatures, ranging from the simple to the complex in appearance. Intentionally unobtrusive, so as not to detract from what’s to adorn the surface, they are not easily seen with the naked eye, yet are wonderfully revealed when pages are illuminated from behind.

Here at the County Record Office, we have discovered some interesting watermark examples in a relatively short space of time, but are acutely aware that really these are just the tip of the ice-berg – given the wealth of handmade paper documents we hold spanning several centuries! The examples presented here are from documents spanning just over a five-hundred-year period (1400-1909), ranging from personal letters, notebooks and journals to a wide variety of official papers: contracts, title deeds and property registration, travel passes, court records and receipts/bills. The images featured depict the watermarks correctly, with the result that any written text on the paper might appear reversed or upside-down.

Brief history of papermaking

Originating in China almost 2000 years ago, the handmade paper process spread slowly to the Middle East by the 8th century, arriving in Spain and southern Italy via North Africa by the 13th century7. The oldest known paper mills in Italy are those at Fabriano, dating from 1276. During the 14th and 15th centuries, papermills were established throughout France, Switzerland, Germany and the Netherlands.  The first English papermills were in operation from the 1480s, and in Scotland by 1590 – though Churchill5 claims that it was not until the mid-18th century that British mills were able to cope with national demand, and thus paper imports remained high for a considerable period.

Churchill also tells us that the paper in use in England during the 14th-16th centuries was predominantly from Italy and France, with Swiss and German paper appearing during the late 16th century. During the 17th century paper from these countries continues to be imported to England, although some of the French, Swiss and German paper was actually produced in Amsterdam. By the 18th century, almost all imports of fine white paper to England were from Holland, and most probably of Dutch manufacture – though perhaps these Dutch imports included some James Whatman white paper, made in a van Gerrevink mill in north Holland, before he up-scaled production at Turkey Mill in Kent.

Methods of manufacture: laid and wove paper

Paper pulp was prepared using finely shredded linen (and later cotton) rags, which were then soaked, retted (rotted down), thoroughly beaten and heated in large vats. The Vatman hand-dipped sturdy paper moulds several times into the resulting pulp, aiming to capture consistent, fine layers across the screen’s surface. Then, with the deckle removed and the paper sheet tipped out, the equally important stages of removing excess water, drying, and sizing (using gelatine) followed.

  • Left: Papermaking mould, showing removable deckle (border)
  • Right: watermark template and ‘THS’ monogram, with countermark ‘T. H. Saunders, 1949’, held at NYCRO

Initially, all handmade paper was ‘laid’ paper (see ZAL 1/3/144 below). The paper moulds (see image above) were shallow, rectangular wooden trays, fitted with wire mesh screens to catch the paper pulp and allow excess liquid to drain through. The wire screen consisted of numerous, narrowly spaced vertical brass wires known as laid-lines, and these were held in place by thicker, widely spaced vertical wires known as chain-lines. The deckle – the mould’s removable wooden border – helped capture the pulp during the dipping process, forming the straight, rough edges of the paper sheet (these were usually left untrimmed, to show true sheet size)3, 7.

ZAL 1/3/144 Laid paper sheet, with evident laid and chain lines, and untrimmed edges. The watermark of a Fleur-de-Lys with a Heart countermark is attributed to the Languedoc region of France. Detail from a list of Jurors, Manors of Snape and Well, 16 Oct 1686

The visibility of the laid and chain lines in the finished sheets, however, together with the uneven surface they sometimes produced, spurred the invention of ‘wove’ (or vélin) paper in the 1750s by James Whatman in Kent (see ZAL M 4/12 below). The traditional wire screen of laid and chain lines was replaced by a fine woven wire mat, which produced good-strength paper with a very smooth, regular surface – free of visible lines. Wove paper was highly sought after by artists, mapmakers and printers, though it did not completely eclipse laid paper.

  • Left: ZAL M 4/12 Wove paper produced by Whatman, 1820, detail from a map of Newsham & Barningham in the Millbank of Thorpe Perrow and Barningham archive, undated
  • Right: ZQG XII 12/6/32 Wove paper bearing the watermark ‘C. Vecchi’, detail from a contract for lodgings between Dr Greghorn and Francis Cholmeley in Italy, possibly Naples, 1845

Watermarks and countermarks

Both types of handmade paper usually contain watermarks, generated during the manufacturing process and introduced as a distinguishing feature very early on in European papermaking. Thin copper wire was formed into inventive patterns and sewn onto the wire screens. During the dipping process, a thinner layer of pulp settled over these attached patterns, resulting in a discreet imprint in the finished paper – normally only visible when the sheet is held up to the light.

Watermarks can be individual makers’ marks or trademarks of manufacturing mills and may also signify regions involved with papermaking. The range of designs is huge, and includes pictorial motifs (flora, fauna, objects), makers’ monograms, national symbols, initials with surnames, and sometimes place-names – or a combination of some or all of these (as watermarks with countermarks). By the 18th and 19th centuries watermark designs could also incorporate the year of production.

  • Left: ZBO IX 1/2/2 Watermark showing a maker’s name, together with place of manufacture and date: ‘Auvergne 1742’. This page is from Thomas Orde’s travel journal covering his time in France, Italy and Switzerland, begun in Paris in January 1772. The volume is foolscap size, and the inside cover holds a bookplate for Parisian stationer Jollivet
  • Middle: DC/SCB VI 1 The Crossed-keys motif is one of a range of watermarks found in Vol 1 of the Scarborough Court books, 1400-1408
  • Right: ZLK 6/20 Watermark of a British papermaker with production date ‘Thomas James 1858’. Detail from a schedule of lead prices compiled by Sir G. W. Denys (undated) from the Denys-Burton collection

The developing paper trade in Europe was complex, with merchants and producers from one country often setting up business in another (this is especially true of expansion by the Italians and later the Dutch)5 – thus particular motifs might be found to have a wide geographical spread. Renditions of certain motifs might also indicate different papermakers operating in the same manufacturing region, each embellishing the appearance slightly in order to advertise their mill (for example, this is known from the variant ‘IHS’ watermarks of mills on Jesuit land in the French province of Angoumois) (see ZAP (A) below).13 Even mills adopting the same watermark over a prolonged period will no doubt have experienced subtle changes to their motif over time, despite assiduousness during the copying process, as the wire screens with hand-fashioned watermark templates were periodically replaced due to wear and tear.

ZAP (A) A quitclaim dated 1668, amongst papers of the Serjeantson family of Skipton, bears a watermark comprising the Jesuit symbol ‘IHS’ with the maker’s name ‘Martinaud’ below – the paper possibly from a mill on Jesuit land

Papermills on the continent also produced significant amounts of paper specifically for export, and such paper could have its own distinguishing watermark – usually having direct relevance to the intended country. Dutch manufacturers, for example, produced high quality paper for the Ottoman Empire, bearing the Tré-lune or Three Crescents watermark (see ZCM below)6 and for the British market using the Britannia watermark (see ZQM I 28/6 below).5  Angoumois papermills in south-western France used the Arms of London watermark to signify an intended English market (see Z.36 & ZEW I 19 below).13 As the industry expanded and the market became more competitive, it was not uncommon for less prominent mills to imitate the watermarks of more superior mills, in a bid to attract business.

  • Left: ZCM Travel document bearing the three crescents watermark, from Joshua Samuel Crompton’s Middle East tour papers, 1825-6. Joshua travelled via Vienna to Istanbul (known then as Constantinople), then onwards to Egypt, with travel passes and permissions no doubt required at various stages on his journey
  • Middle: Z.36 The Arms of London watermark. Detail from a bond for performance of covenants, Upper Wensleydale, 1693
  • Right: ZEW I 19 An embellished Arms of London with maker’s monogram ‘RS’. Detail from a title deed relating to the purchase of two oxgangs and a house in Fadmoor, 1714

Watermarks: paper sizes and grades

Over time, each manufacturing country developed its own standardised system of paper sizes and grades, and specific watermarks came to be used to denote these. The Fleur-de-Lys motif, for example, was commonly used by French papermakers, but the adaptation showing a Fleur-de-Lys on a shield surmounted by a crown originates from the Angoumois region and was usually used to denote ‘Demy’ paper – the size immediately below ‘Royal’ (see ZAP(A) below).

ZAP(A) Paper bearing the Angoumois Fleur-de-Lys watermark with maker’s monogram ‘BS’, detail from a quitclaim dated 1690, among papers of the Serjeantson family of Skipton

‘Post’ paper was of a certain size and of fine quality and was commonly distinguished by the watermark of the post horn (see ZAL 1/3/148 below) or post rider blowing a horn (see QSB 1792 2/13 below).    

  • Left: ZAL 1/3/148 The Post horn watermark, detail from an extract of fines at Snape, 18 October 1689
  • Right: QSB 1792 2/13 Horn-blowing horse rider, possibly a post rider. Detail from a plan in the working papers of the Court of Quarter Sessions showing a highway diversion at Marderby, Felixkirk, 14 April 1792

The Jester’s head and shoulders, with his fool’s cap and bells was a very popular watermark throughout Europe during the 16th and 17th centuries and it eventually became associated in England with a paper size generally used for writing (approximately 12″ x 8″, when folded in two), still known today as Foolscap.5 We haven’t yet discovered an example at NYCRO, but we’re on the lookout! The Jester watermark was eventually replaced by the Britannia design to indicate English foolscap size (see ZQM I 28/6 below), which evolved from the Dutch Pro Patria watermark (see ZNK X 2/8/13 below).

ZQM I 28/6 The Britannia watermark, with a maker’s countermark ‘Hagars 1819’, from a copy will of Ann Daggett of Danby Wiske. The date of the will is 23 April 1770, but the countermark of 1819 shows the undated copy will is post-1819

  • Left: ZNK X 2/8/13 Top section of a Dutch Pro Patria watermark (the Maid of Holland together with a lion within a palisade fence, and the words ‘Pro patria’ – For one’s country)
  • Right: ZNK X 2/8/13 A countermark of the maker’s name ‘L. van Gerrevink’. Detail from a printed pocket notebook from the Zetland/Dundas archive belonging to Thomas 1st Lord Dundas, 1770

ZNK X 2/8/13 Bottom section of the Pro Patria watermark

Throughout the second half of the 17th century, the Arms of Amsterdam (see ZAL 1/3/151 below) was a common watermark in French foolscap paper, reflecting the involvement of Dutch merchants in the Angoumois paper trade.13 Other motifs which are known to be associated with particular paper sizes include the Pot, the Sun and the Hand.

ZAL 1/3/151 Arms of Amsterdam watermark, detail from an extract of fines at Well and Snape, c. 20 October 1690


All these factors combined do not make for straightforward research of watermarks, yet despite the hurdles the subject has long attracted academic attention – sometimes in conjunction with analysis of the physical properties of the paper itself, resulting in significant findings in various fields (for instance, when used in conjunction with other forensic paper evidence to authenticate historic documents).1, 9, 12  Ongoing research continues to progress the identification and classification of watermarks, yet also focuses on associated issues around methods of visualising and reproducing clear images of them, for comparative analysis to be possible.7, 11

Certain watermarks are very well-known and attributable – like the specific anchor symbols used by the Italian Fabriano (three-pronged anchor) and the Amalfi papermills (see ZQG XII 12/6/25 below).7  Many early medieval motifs and monograms, however, are difficult to identify and trace and may remain elusive – yet it is still possible to observe general trends in their use and prevalence, as well as in their design development. Given the occurrence of official reproduction and unofficial imitation of watermarks over a significant time period and geographic reach, it might be that chemical analysis of paper pulp to determine provenance1  might by extension help to identify watermarks.

ZQG XII 12/6/25 An anchor watermark with a rope curled around in a reversed ‘S’, is a recognised Amalfi trademark (the maker’s name sits below). Detail from D. P. Parete’s contract for transport from Naples to Rome, 1843, among Francis Cholmeley’s Italian tour papers, 1840-1847

It can be informative (and fun!) to compare discovered watermarks with examples lodged on searchable visual databases, such as the Gravell Archive and the Bernstein Portal offering thousands of examples in their searchable catalogues of images.

  • Left: DC/SCB VI 1 Griffin watermark in Scarborough Corporation Court Book of Pleas, Vol 1, 1400-1408
  • Right: Detail from a hit-list on Bernstein Portal searchable watermarks database, showing examples of close matches to the Scarborough griffin: #12, #13 & #14, from documents located at Valencia and dated 1392-1396, 1393 and 1400-1406 respectively

Useful as they are, however, it is recognised that the number of undiscovered and unrecorded watermarks remains far greater than those recorded. In their ongoing work on identifying watermarks in music MSS, the Viola da Gamba Society also caution that similarity should not be confused with exact matching of watermarks when attempting dating and provenance.13

More Examples from the archives: Motifs and Tradenames


Below is a sample of medieval watermarks from the Scarborough Court Books of Pleas and Plaints (3 volumes, covering dates 1400-1490). All these images were in common usage throughout the 15th-17th centuries, and given the dates of the documents the paper is almost certainly Italian or French in origin. The volumes comprise loose pages of laid paper, subsequently bound, with pages variously showing different watermarks per page, or a run of the same watermark over several pages:

DC/SCB VI 1 Sun, Anchor, Anchor/Cross and a Horned Ox, from Vol 1, 1400-1408

DC/SCB VI 1 Bell, Pike, Star & Crescent, and a stylised bell, from Vol 2, 1418-1428

DC/SCB VI 1 Horned Bull, Forked P with quatrefoil, and Pike surmounted by a Fleur-de-Lys, in Vol 3, 1436-1490

  • Left: ZPT 24/26 A horned deer watermark. Detail from a survey of the Richmond Fee, c. 1430, among miscellaneous papers in the Scrope of Danby archive
  • Middle: ZQG XII 12/6/23 An eagle with outstretched wings atop a triple mount, with the monogram ‘FM’ (not shown), is the known watermark of Francesco Matteucci of Foligno, Umbria.  Detail from a contract for lodgings, possibly in Rome, 1841, for Francis Cholmeley
  • Right: ZBO IX 1/2/1 The bell is a well-known Italian watermark motif. Detail from an undated printed pamphlet, in Italian, amongst Thomas Orde’s folder of notes on France and Italy, 1772-1773

Z.33/2 The ‘Pot’ watermark is generally assumed to denote Norman paper: the left example is topped with a quatrefoil and bears the maker’s monogram, while the partial example on the right is topped with a crescent. Detail from a bond relating to land in Northallerton, 1615

ZAP(A) An indenture of 1669 from the Serjeanson family papers features the Pillars & Grapes watermark, characteristic of Normandy. Often the maker’s name or initials is incorporated in the cross-piece – in this case the initials ‘D H’

Tradenames and production dates

ZQG XII 12/6/22 Noted for their fine watermarks and good quality paper, the Johannot family manufactured at papermills at Annonay in the Auvergne region of southeast France from the mid-17th century. Detail from a contract for travel from Nice to Florence for Francis Cholmeley, 1840

  • Left: ZBO IX 1/2/1 A post horn watermark with the Vander Ley trade name – Dutch papermakers from Zaandyk, north Holland. Detail from Thomas Orde’s travel notes written 4 January 1772
  • Middle: ZBO IX 1/2/4 A letter from Lichtenstein to Messrs Hye and Orde, dated 1774, has a (potentially Dutch) watermark ‘D & C Blauw’
  • Right: ZBO IX 1/2/4 Wrapped around the Lichtenstein letter is a cover page of laid paper with the watermark ‘Original Turkey Mill Kent’ – James Whatman’s papermill, undated
  • Left: ZQG XII 12/6/28 A parasol and cross-keys watermark from a contract for lodgings in Milan (Italian), dated 1837, issued in Italy to Francis Cholmeley
  • Right: ZQG XII 12/6/30 This same symbol appears in the form of an inked paper stamp on an official pass to the City of Rome (Italian), granted to Cholmeley in 1844. The symbol is the official mark of the Tesoriera Generale: the General Treasury, Rome.

QSB 1886 4/15/26 An example of laid paper produced at a Scottish papermill, in Aberdeen. Alexander Pirie acquired Stoneywood papermill in Aberdeen in 1800. By the early 1900s they made Britain independent of continental supplies of photographic paper. Detail from a receipted account (dated 28 November 1885) of Ben Johnson & Co., York, wholesale and manufacturing stationers – recording purchases made on the North Riding of Yorkshire Registration account between May and October 1885

NRRD 208-210-68 The official watermark of the North Riding Registry is used to authenticate pages of the bound volumes of the North Riding Registry of Deeds. Detail from a memorial of the will of James Gallway of Great Broughton, registered on 1st October 1909

Sources and further reading:

1. Barrandon, J.N., & Irigoin, J. (1979). The papers of Holland and Angoumois from 1650 to 1810 Their difference by means of neutron activation analysis. Archaeometry, 21(pt1), 101-106. Authors’ Abstract: “In this work it is shown that neutron activation analysis makes it possible on the one hand to differentiate Dutch papers from so called ‘Dutch papers’ made in Angoumois after 1746, and on the other hand to fix a date of a technical innovation in the fabrication of paper pulp”

2. Bernstein Portal: The Memory of Paper – searchable watermarks catalogue

3. Bull’s Head and Mermaid: The History of Paper and Watermarks from the Middle Ages to the Modern Period (2009) Stuttgart & Vienna (The Bernstein Project – Booklet of the Exhibition)

4. Centre for the Study of the Renaissance, Warwick University: Literary Manuscript Analysis (LIMA): Watermark Databases

5. Churchill, W.A. (1935) Watermarks in Paper in Holland, England, France etc. in the 17th and 18th centuries and their Interconnection (pp 39-44), Menno Hertzberger & Co, Amsterdam

6. Kropf, Evyn (2014) Watermark Wednesdays: The Three Crescents, Beyond the Reading Room blog, University of Michigan Library

7. Laurentius, Frans & Laurentius, Theo (2016) Italian watermarks 1750-1860

8. Laurentius, Theo & Laurentius, Frans (2018) Watermarks in Paper from the Southwest of France, 1560-1860

9. Mahgoub, Hend & Bardon, Tiphaine & Lichtblau, Dirk & Fearn, Tom & Strlič, Matija. (2016) Material properties of Islamic paper, Heritage Science. 4 (1)

10. Murphy, Heather (2021) ‘The Imagery of Early Watermarks‘, Qatar Digital Library, © The British Library

11. Pereira Pardo, Lucia & Bergel, Giles (2020) ‘Watermarks: New Ways to See and Search Them‘, The National Archives Blog

12. The Gravell Archivesearchable watermarks database incorporating the University of Delaware’s Thomas L. Gravell Watermarks Archive and the unpublished watermarks and records from the Charles-Moïse Briquet Archive, Bibliotèque de Genève

13. Viola da Gamba SocietyIndex Vol 1, Chapter 8 & Index Vol 2, Chapter 14: Appendix I (parts 1 & 2): Watermarks and Paper Types in Music MSS

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