Friday, March 14, 2014

The Dove and the Crown: Using Watermarks to Discover the OSC

Undoubtedly, some of the most important resources for learning what sort of furniture and architecture was in the Old Senate Chamber in the eighteenth-century comes from early receipts and state payment records. However, more frequently than you may imagine, these records can be left unsigned or undated - at which point historians have to look at other ways to understand the documents.

This partial watermark of a crown was found on an undated Intendant's memo that has since been narrowed to date between 1783-1786. You may also notice vertical (called chain lines) and horizontal (called laid lines) on the paper, which appear as part of the pre-industrial papermaking process. Maryland State Archives, MSA S1005-14154.

Papermakers in the eighteenth-century would often include subtle images called watermarks in their work. Though their original purpose is unknown, it is commonly thought that they were used as a sort of maker’s mark. To see a watermark, a viewer may sometimes have to look closely, holding the paper up to a light. While paper watermarks have largely disappeared from modern use, you can still see them on paper currency as a means of proving that it is not counterfeit.

Today, watermarks on historic documents often hold unappreciated value as a means to indicate not only when the paper was made, but also sometimes where. By comparing watermarks on several different sheets of paper, historians and conservators can often connect who was buying from what papermaker. While American makers in the eighteenth-century tended to favor symbols like the dove, eagles, and tobacco plants, imported British papers frequently featured a crown or crest. Watermarks don’t only help determine a place of origin for the paper, however. Rather, most importantly to the restoration of the Old Senate Chamber, comparison of watermarks on different papers can help to determine dates of the paper’s production.

Analysis of watermarks has become useful on several occasions in efforts to better understand the appearance of the OSC over time. Last year, the Maryland State Archives took a look at several receipts and accounts by John Shaw for repairs to the State House, including the addition of gallery risers, wainscot in front of the gallery, seats for the doorkeepers and baize door, repairs to the fireplace, and perhaps construction of the vestibule in the Old Senate Chamber. Previously, these accounts had been dated to the early 1790s because of the dates on other papers that they had been donated with. However, an analysis of the watermarks and handwriting proved that they were almost identical to documents from a series of repairs to the State House in 1818. Thanks to watermark analysis, we are able to place the Shaw receipts more accurately in the chronology of repairs to the OSC.

Example of a watermark found in the Maryland State Papers on a letter from Ninian Pinkney, Clerk of the Governor and Council. The watermark and handwriting on this letter was compared to several other documents that were originally presumed to be from the late eighteenth-century. Maryland State Archives, 1818, MSA S1004-145.

The watermarks pictured in this blog entry come from the collection of documents at the Maryland State Archives. Both of them have been carefully analyzed by researchers for the purpose of identifying why and what these documents were and how they may pertain to the Old Senate Chamber.

We hope that the next time you get the chance to look at a historic document, you take a closer look at the paper!