Nor is vellum. Yet countless characters in countless Regency novels have selected or are offered a sheet of "parchment" or "vellum" when they have something to write. But that would never really have happened during the Regency, because though paper was expensive, the cost of either parchment or vellum would have been prohibitive for any but the most wealthy. And even they would not have used it for everyday correspondence.
In modern times, various paper manufactures have chosen to label some of their wares either "parchment" or "vellum." However, these words have been hijacked, disengaged from their original meanings, taking advantage of their ancient cachet in order to tempt present-day paper buyers. Such was not the case during the years of the Regency. In that decade, as had been the case for centuries before it, parchment was still parchment and paper was just paper. Both were completely different media upon which to write, the former having an animal source, the latter a vegetable source.
Parchment and vellum were made from animal skin. Parchment was made from sheep or goatskin while vellum was made from calfskin. These skins were not tanned, as was done to hides which were to be made into leather. Instead, the fresh skins were soaked in plain water to clean them, then in a solution which contained lime to remove the hair. This might take several days, after which the hides would be removed and stretched on frames while still wet. Once stretched tight, they were scraped with a special knife to remove any remaining hair and to ensure the skin was of a uniform thickness. While still damp, and stretched on the frame, the skin was then rubbed with powdered pumice. This treatment would further smooth the surface so that the nib of the pen would glide over it easily and the ink would be more readily absorbed. Other treatments containing various compounds of calcium were often used to remove any residual grease and lighten the writing surface. The treated skins were allowed to dry, and were then cut to the sizes needed by the calligrapher or printer. As they had for centuries, animal skins were treated in this same manner during the years of the Regency to make parchment or vellum.
Parchment and vellum were used in medieval times for the pages of books, both those written by hand, and later, some of the early printed books. But the most frequent uses of both parchment and vellum were for legal documents, such as property deeds, contracts, and wills. Government documents such as proclamations, treaties, or royal grants were engrossed on parchment or vellum well into the nineteenth century. University diplomas were also typically inscribed on parchment, thus the origin of the phrase "to get your sheepskin" as a euphemism for getting a diploma.
Paper was made from plant materials, until the twentieth century, primarily from linen and cotton. Linen rags were the principal source for paper fibers until the late eighteenth century, at which time cotton rags became available. The rags were collected by the ragman who travelled through the town until he had a wagon-load, which he then took to the paper mill. There the rags were usually sorted, by fiber type, then thoroughly washed and rinsed until all dirt and other foreign material was removed. The clean rags were then put into a vat filled with water where they were literally beaten to a pulp. Large, heavy wood blocks, usually shod with metal, called stampers, were suspended from a rocker-arm which raised and dropped the stampers into the vat of rags and water. The stampers were usually water-powered, though by the years of the Regency, some paper mills in England were steam-powered. This maceration process could take several hours to a few days, until the rags were completely broken down into loose fibers suspended in the water.
By the end of the eighteenth century a new device, called a hollander, was introduced to macerate the rags. The hollander was a wooden drum in the center of which was a wooden roller set with a series of knives, acquiring its name because it had been invented in Holland. The hollander was rotated in the vat, while the knives lacerated the rags into pulp, and did so much more quickly than did stampers. The hollander, like the stampers, was usually water-powered, though some were steam-powered. By the decade of the Regency, only one English paper mill was still using stampers, the others had all converted to the use of hollanders. But as with all new technology, there was a drawback to the use of hollanders. The knives cut and re-cut the linen or cotton rags, producing shorter fibers than the stampers, which rubbed and frayed the rags, leaving much longer fibers which produced stronger paper.
Once the rags were pulped, a paper mould was dipped into the liquid stock, scooping up some of the wet, fibrous material. These paper moulds were wooden frames into which were set a wire mesh. The water flowed through the mesh, leaving a thin layer of interlocked fibers. An experienced papermaker could shake out excess water and level the fibers in his mould in a quick, smooth movement. He would then turn out the newly-made paper sheet onto a pad of felt. Each sheet of new paper was interleaved with a layer of felt. Once a stack of twenty-five to thirty sheets was built up, it was placed into a press which squeezed out most of the remaining excess water. The still damp paper sheets were separated from the felt and were hung to dry. There were two types of mesh in use in paper moulds during the Regency. One was made up of many thin horizontal wires which were secured by spaced lines of a chain stitch of horsehair or very fine wire. The other was a woven wire mesh which looked very like our modern-day window screens. Paper made in the first type of mould was called "laid" paper while that made in the second type was called "wove" paper, for the faint patterns visible on the finished paper.
Once the paper was thoroughly dried, it might be further treated by burnishing to smooth the surface. The finished paper would then be trimmed, stacked in reams of 480 sheets, wrapped in brown paper and crated in bales of ten reams for shipping. The bales were delivered to stationers who then split them up for sale. Paper during the Regency very expensive and was seldom sold by the ream to individuals. Typically quires of 24 sheets were the most common quantity of paper sold by stationers to the majority of their customers.
Parchment and vellum were both made by hand, even during the Regency. This, plus the fact that they were both made from animal skins, meant these writing media were extremely expensive. Though by the years of the Regency the papermaking process did include some mechanization of the stampers or hollanders which macerated the rags into pulp, and the presses which forced the water out of the paper/felt stacks, it was still mostly handmade. But rags were more readily available and therefore significantly less expensive than sheep or calf skins, so paper was cheaper. During the late seventeenth century, linen rags had been in such short supply that in 1666, Parliament passed a law prohibiting the use of linen shrouds when burying the dead. They required that all burial shrouds should be made of wool. This had the dual effect of stimulating the wool trade and conserving linen for use in papermaking. This law was not repealed until the Regency, in 1814, when both linen and cotton rags were more readily available.
In the recent BBC film of Sense and Sensibility which aired on PBS, Fanny Dashwood approves Margaret Dashwood’s plan to become a writer, telling her that paper is cheap. That conversation is not in the novel, for the simple reason that Jane Austen would never have written anything so completely erroneous, as she was perfectly well aware of the high cost of paper. That interchange would not raise an eyebrow in a twenty-first century audience, but a Regency audience would have spotted the inaccuracy immediately. Shame on Andrew Davies, though I suspect Jane Austen would be amused at the error.
James Austen-Leigh, Jane Austen’s nephew, published A Memoir of Jane Austen, in which he wrote: " … She was careful that her occupation should not be suspected by servants, or visitors, or any persons beyond her own family party. She wrote upon small sheets of paper which could easily be put away, or covered with a piece of blotting paper. … " But paper was sold by size during his aunt’s lifetime, and smaller sheets of paper were less expensive. I doubt Austen purchased small-sized paper so it was easy to hide. I think she bought the smaller sheets because they cost less than larger sheets. In addition, this memoir went to press in 1869, long after papermaking in England had been almost completely mechanized. Thus, paper had become much less expensive by the second half of the nineteenth century. Austen-Leigh was very young during the last years of his aunt’s life and was probably unaware of the high cost of paper during the Regency.
Another, rather heart-breaking story about the high cost of paper during the late eighteenth century is that of Mary Robinson, Prinny’s "Perdita." After she was left paralyzed by a mysterious illness, she was abandoned by both her feckless husband and her lover. To support herself and her young daughter, she turned to writing, including poetry. She sold subscriptions to a book of her poems in 1791. Her wealthy subscribers sent their subscription requests to her by letter. Because they were wealthy, they could afford to send their letters in a plain paper wrapping, since envelopes did not yet exist. Mary kept all these wrapping papers, on which she wrote her subscribers names. Several years later, when she was very poor, she used them to write her memoirs, because she could not afford to buy paper.
The high cost of paper meant that those who lived during the years of the Regency did not waste it. Yet there have been several scenes in novels set in the Regency in which a character is struggling to write just the right note or letter, only to discard multiple sheets of paper with their failures. In many cases, the paper is crushed into a ball and tossed in or toward the nearest fireplace. No one who lived during the Regency would have done such a thing. They either would have crossed out the words or phrases that did not please them, or they would have trimmed off the portion of the sheet with the unwanted words. But they never would have thrown away a mostly unused sheet of paper.
Parchment and vellum were both many orders of magnitude more expensive than paper, as they were extremely labor-intensive to make and were made from very costly materials. Therefore, they would not have been used for everyday writing, even by the most wealthy or the most pretentious. The Prince Regent himself would not have used parchment or vellum for his daily correspondence. He would have used paper, though he would, of course, have used only the very best paper. However, he would have had numerous occasions to write on either parchment or vellum when he signed royal proclamations or grants, such as the grant of a new peerage, since these documents were typically inscribed on parchment.
Today, we all take paper for granted because it is cheap and plentiful, and most of us have lost the knowledge of how both paper and parchment are made, though such was not the case in the Regency. The next time you read about a character in a Regency novel writing on a sheet of "parchment" or "vellum," you will know that the author has no knowledge of the writing surfaces of that time. Unless that character is Prinny, signing a royal proclamation. Or, if a Regency character crumples sheet after sheet of paper while trying to write that oh-so-important letter of apology or explanation, you will know the author has not done their research and thus was unaware of the high cost of paper during that time.
For more information about the use of paper during the Regency:
Austen-Leigh, James Edward, A Memoir of Jane Austen. London: Macmillan and Co., Ltd., 1906.
Byrne, Paula, Perdita: The Literary, Theatrical and Scandalous Life of Mary Robinson. New York: Random House, Inc., 2006.
Copeland, Edward, McMaster, Juliet, The Cambridge Companion to Jane Austen. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.
Hunter, Dard, Papermaking: The History and Technique of an Ancient Craft. Mineola, New York: Dover Books, 1978.
Todd, Janet M., Jane Austen in Context. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005.