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Tech groups host international watermarks conference here next week

By Sally Harris

Spectrum Volume 19 Issue 06 - October 3, 1996

The First International Conference on the History, Function, and Study of Watermarks will be held at the Hotel Roanoke and Conference Center October 10-13.

Watermarks--designs impressed into paper in the manufacturing process--result from wires twisted into shapes and sewn onto the mold used to make the paper. They provide the basis for identification of batches of paper stock in much the same way fingerprints and DNA evidence do for human beings.

Although the original purpose for the use of watermarks is unclear, they came to be used by paper manufacturers as a kind of trademark for them and their mills. The designs are highly variable and often whimsical: unicorns, dogs, mermaids, letters, numbers, flowers, bells, circles, keys, and armorials, for example. Watermarks are so useful for authenticating paper that the U.S. Treasury Department incorporates them with a chemical process in the production of the new $100 bill.

Members of the Document Division of the FBI plan to attend the conference at Virginia Tech to investigate the newest technologies for reproducing watermarks for document authentication, such as beta-radiography, which uses radioactive isotopes to produce an x-ray image of the paper; phosphorescence imaging, which uses ultraviolet waves in conjunction with phosphorescent pigment; Du Pont Dylux 503 paper in combination with visible and ultraviolet light; and digital enhancement of photographic images produced by transmitted light.

The study of watermarks and the recovery of knowledge concerning the processes of paper manufacture (papers produced by hand rather than machine) has produced important results in the last three decades. In 1967, Allan Stevenson established that the Missale Speciale, once thought to have been printed by Gutenberg and to represent one of the earliest products of moveable type, must, instead, on the evidence of its paper stocks, have been printed in the 1470s, more than 30 years later than once thought.

Paul Needham, again relying almost entirely on the evidence of paper stocks, has revised the date of the printing of the first edition of the Canterbury Tales (Caxton) to late 1476 or early 1477, making it the earliest book printed in English in England.

At present, watermarks are providing critical evidence in two extremely important problems in modern scholarship: the authorship of a long theological treatise, De Doctrina Christiana, long thought to be the work of John Milton, and the status and date of a great many documents presently attributed to Thomas Jefferson. For three centuries, scholars have used the De Doctrina as the main basis for interpreting Milton's works (particularly Paradise Lost); however, just this summer, it was discovered that Milton's signature on the manuscript was a forgery. The watermarks in the paper of the manuscript may make it possible to date the manuscript and to determine if it was written on paper used elsewhere by Milton.

Thomas L. Gravell has determined, through the watermark evidence, that a number of "Jefferson" letters, obviously copied by scriveners but signed by Jefferson, are in fact written on paper manufactured some years after the dates on the letters. They turn out to be copies of letters Jefferson sent, made by the recipients for Jefferson, and thus may not accurately represent Jefferson's originals.

The conference is sponsored by the Center for Textual & Editorial Studies, the Division of Continuing Education, and the College of Arts and Sciences. For more information, call Daniel Mosser, at 1-7797; Ernest Sullivan, at 1-6918; or Michael Saffle, at 1-6080.