The Art of Marbled Paper: Inside the Archives at the San Francisco Public Library
The San Francisco Main Library isn’t your average library. With 6 floors (plus one below ground), it greets 1.8 million visitors each year, checks out close to 2 million items, and is open more than 3,000 hours a year. Wendy MacNaughton’s book Meanwhile in San Francisco puts it best: “The library mirrors the population we have in SF. [It’s] not just an information center. It’s always been a refuge for anyone to come to, whatever status in society. For people, intellectuals, pseudo-intellectuals, for lonely people. For every walk of life.”
Amidst the hustle and bustle is a quiet corner tucked away on the 6th floor: the Marjorie G. and Carl W. Stern Book Arts & Special Collections Center. The Center is practically a mini-museum, teeming with collections on printing history, calligraphy and lettering, wit and humor, little magazines (including zines), 19th century children’s books, and more. It’s a place where you can find nearly anything, from a clay tablet dating back to 2325 BC to humor books from the World War I era.
Marbled endpapers in particular are a common sight in books from times past, so we decided to visit The Center to learn more.
In the most basic sense, marbling (called ebrû in Turkish) is the art of transferring swirled patterns onto paper by floating colors on an oily liquid surface.
At a granular level, here’s what happens:
- Paper is treated with alum, a mineral salt that allows pigments to fix to a surface. The paper dries.
- Gelatin (originally tragacanth was used, a type of gum) is blended with water (i.e. the size) and poured into a tray.
- Ink or paint (originally natural dye mixed with ox gall) is sprinkled onto the surface of the size, floating on top of the gelatin solution. The colors are swirled, stirred, combed, and/or raked (originally using horsehair brushes) to create the desired pattern.
- The alum-treated paper is laid onto the surface to absorb the floating colors.
- The paper is rinsed and hung up to dry. Voila!
Marbling effects vary from natural to complex; some patterns aim to mimic real rock, while others are practically optical illusions.
An example of a nonpareil pattern
The artform has a long history, dating back to Turkistan in the 12th or 13th century. The ornate paper was used to decorate books or to authenticate unique documents and decrees—a marbled background helped discourage forgery. The techniques were used throughout the area, spreading through Central Asia and the Islamic world.
Sometime in the 1600s, marbling found its way to France and the Netherlands, where it began to be used in the context of bookbinding. It wasn’t solely for looks—the beautiful paper conveniently covered up all the strings, glue marks, and other marks left by the binding. Wealthy collectors would purchase books sans binding, and then seek out bookbinders to fashion them in the style of their liking.
An example of a combed French curl pattern
The art practice was extremely secretive, supposedly from bookbinders’ incessant attempts to spy on marblers—their paper wasn’t cheap! Thus, marbling guilds withdrew to sequestered locales, training new students by way of a master/apprentice system. It is said that the trade was only passed down if you happened to be born into a marbling family.
As books gradually became mass-produced, expensive binding and marbling dwindled and eventually became obsolete. Until now, of course. Like vinyl records and vintage clothing, what is old always seems to come back in style, and there is a resurgence of marbling as an art form. A simple Google search of “how to marble paper” yields 364 million results!
That being said, you’d be hard-pressed to find tutorials that can produce results like these:
An example of a double combed waved pattern
An example of a nonpareil pattern
An example of the “French Curl” style, sometimes called the Snail or Escargot pattern
If you’d like to continue down the rabbit hole of marbling, check out this information hub, courtesy of the San Francisco Public Library. Be sure to follow The Center’s Instagram @sfplbookarts for a daily dose of history and book art, too.
Photography by Irene Kim Shepherd
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