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Rag Paper - and Its Influence on Meaning

At Room 206, we spend a lot of time focused on writing; on the words and the processes that go into it. But there are other components of this much-loved pastime that are worth a moment of ponder because of the fascinating stories it can inspire!

For us, the process of papermaking is one such subject, and in particular, the period of using rag paper, which resulted in each word meaning a lot more than the sum of its literal parts. Read on to find out more!

Rags to Writing

The history of papermaking can be dated all the way back to about AD 105, China, when a sheet of paper was created by Ts’ai Lun, an official of the Imperial court, who used mulberry and other bast fibres, along with fishnets, old rags, and hemp waste. Through a gradual progression westward, the 18th century saw the papermaking process remain essentially unchanged, as linen and cotton rags provided the basic raw materials in paper mills.

The mills were regularly plagued by shortages of these raw materials, and in order to keep producing paper, they were often driven to soliciting the public for their rags in the form of published advertisements. Because readers were called upon to take an active role in the creation of the paper from which they read, they were well aware of the cloth rags that went into it – which is where things get interesting!

A Matter of Meaning

One of the most regularly reprinted calls for rags was an advertisement placed in the North Carolina Gazette, which made the following request – and suggestive promise – to young women 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 it returning to them again in the more pleasing form of a billet-doux from their lovers.”

This advertisement goes beyond the most simple interpretation as an expression of intention (donated rags will be used to make paper), or an explanation of the technique of papermaking (that paper is made from rags). Rather, it’s suggested that the paper that results from any young woman’s rag donation may serve as a link between the reader’s body (her breasts, to be exact), the rags (a well-loved handkerchief), the paper mill, her lover (both real and literary), and ultimately, the paper on which a future lover’s words will be written.

The rag paper, by virtue of its substance, added a layer of meaning to the process of writing that saw writers in the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century negotiating the peculiar human quality inherent in the rag paper upon which their words were printed, and later, from which they were read. Rag paper was therefore believed to retain traces of the people who had touched or worn the cloth before it was a rag, with the belief even going so far as to suggest that the experiences people had while wearing or using that cloth were ingrained into the rags, and therefore, the paper that it made, as well as the story that it told.

Readers, on their part, were often encouraged to dream up and indulge in the idea of a relationship between the cloth they used or wore, and the texts for which it could become the page. Some writers even went so far as to exploit this raggy potential for additional meaning, referring within the story itself to the potential for an intimate archive of clothing to exist just beneath the words (which was all the more effective when a shred of a rag could literally be seen within parts of the page).

The Intersection of the Real and the Imagined

So, what is it we’d like you to take away from this little bit of historical recollection (a rag-free one, at that)?

Well, firstly, an appreciation for how far we’ve come in terms of the production of our reading materials! No longer do we see paper mills begging for raggy donations from the public in order to meet demands. And secondly, we hope that your curiosity has been piqued. This history illustrates some of the processes of meaning-making that can take place beyond the page. And we hope this inspires you to see that the making of meaning is a two-way process, because your reader is as involved in it, as you, the writer.

While the writers of the early and nineteenth century knew that the chances were slim of their readers’ rags finding their way into the very paper from which they read, they still chose to entertain the imaginary possibility that it would. And the figurative language and narratives they crafted with their words made it seem all the more possible.

We may not use rag paper today, but there are other ways that we, as writers, can inspire our readers to bring their own imaginations to the table to make meaning that extends well beyond the limits of our words. So, the next time you put pen to paper, ask yourself: what imaginary happenings will my words inspire? And how can I ensure they exist long after the final page has been read?

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