Before Silver Paper Was Silver

      ". . . . . . Harriet unfolded the parcel, . . . Within abundance of silver paper was a pretty little Tunbridge-ware box, which Harriet opened: it was well lined with the softest cotton; but, excepting the cotton, Emma saw only a small piece of court-plaister. — . . . "

Chapter 4 of Emma
by Jane Austen

This is the moment in which Harriet confides to her friend, Emma, that she has long cherished the remnant of court-plaister with which the Reverend Elton had toyed after the cut on his finger was bandaged. Readers of that period would have instantly recognized how much Harriet had treasured her keepsake, since the box in which it was kept was nestled within an abundance of silver paper. But how many people who read Emma today know what "silver paper" actually was, or the purposes to which it was generally put during the Regency? Was the paper even silver in color?

A tracing of silver paper in the Regency . . .

The "silver paper" in which Harriet had protected her unique treasure was not actually silver in color as we know it today, nor was it coated with silver or any other silvery metal foil. In fact, this special paper was white in color, but it was a much brighter white than was usual for most paper at this time, and it was quite thin. "Silver paper" during the Regency was very similar to what we know today as tissue paper, but it was a bit more translucent and much stronger than most of the tissue paper now to be found in the twenty-first century.

Silver paper, like that which was known during the Regency, began to appear in England in the last decades of the eighteenth century. Initially, it was used primarily by goldsmiths and jewelers to wrap fine jewelery and objects made of precious metals, particularly those made of gold and silver. It would appear that silver paper was a less costly replacement for white lawn cloth, which had previously been used to wrap fine metal objects in order to protect them. It is likely that this paper got its name from one of the purposes to which it was originally put, i.e., wrapping silver objects. However, though silver paper was heavily used by jewelers and other precious metals craftsmen, its use was not restricted solely to that group. Even before the turn of the nineteenth century, silver paper could be purchased by members of the public, usually by the quire (twenty-four sheets), at stationers, art supply shops and even haberdashers, in most cities and towns. It was also available by the roll from some paper wholesalers.

By the turn of the nineteenth century, many people had found a wide array of uses for silver paper. Printers and publishers found silver paper particularly useful. Sheets of silver paper were used to protect the engraved and lithographed images that illustrated many of the finer books which were published through most of the nineteenth century. Part of the preparation process for binding books at that time was to stack all the printed pages in order, usually about 100 sheets in a stack, and pound them soundly with a large hammer having a smooth face, to ensure the pages formed a firm, tight text block. Prior to this beating process, most book-binders placed cut sheets of silver paper over each of the illustrations in the book. These protective sheets of silver paper were usually left in place when the book was bound, in order to further protect the illustrations from the rubbing of other pages when the book was handled.

Another use for silver paper in books was to create overlay pages, in particular, for foreign language instructional texts. Because it was translucent enough for printed text to be read through it, silver paper was ideal for creating a quick and efficient way to provide English translations of foreign language lessons. Typically, printers of foreign language instruction books would print a lesson in a language, such as French, on a page of regular paper, leaving open spaces on that page for the English translation. Then, the English translation would be printed on silver paper, in the areas that had been left blank on the French lesson page. The silver paper sheet would be bound into the book just before the page of text in French. Once the student had completed their lesson and wanted to check their work, they could turn the silver paper page to lay down over the French page. When the silver paper was smoothed over the page below it, the student could then see the correct English translation beneath each French sentence or paragraph. This was considered particularly useful for beginning students, since they would not be frustrated with the delay of having to look up the proper translation in a separate key. It was believed that having access to the correct translations quickly would significantly speed the learning process.

Artists soon followed the lead of book-binders and began to use silver paper to protect their work, especially during storage or in transit. It became the practice for artists to lay a sheet of silver paper over important works on paper, including drawings, pastels or watercolors, in order to protect them from abrasion during shipping, or when multiple drawings were stored stacked on top of one another. Because it was thin and translucent, silver paper was ideal for this purpose. It created less thickness when multiple works of art were stacked together, interleaved with silver paper. And, since it was easy to see though, a particular work of art could be identified quickly without the need to raise its protective paper covering. Following the example of these artists, it became common for print collectors to also protect their prints and watercolors by covering them with silver paper when they stored them.

The translucency of silver paper also inspired someone, probably an artist or draughtsman, to turn it into nearly transparent tracing paper. Though fine French tracing paper had been available since 1807, it was difficult to obtain due to the trade embargoes and blockades of French ports during the Napoleonic Wars. Even when French tracing paper could be found, it was very expensive. In addition, due to its slightly oily surface, it could only accept markings made with a special ink. English artists and draughtsmen found a way to produce their own trancing paper that was much less expensive and was able to accept markings from any ordinary pen or pencil. Sheets of silver paper were brushed with a varnish made of Canadian balsam dissolved in aqua vitae, also known as "spirits of wine." The sheets of varnished silver paper were then hung to dry, after which the treated sheets would be nearly transparent. In addition, there was no oily residue on the surface, thus allowing them to accept markings from nearly any pen or pencil. Since, even during the Regency, pencil marks could be removed with a "rubber" (or what is known more commonly today as an eraser ), those home-made sheets of tracing paper could be reused many times, making them much more economical than French tracing paper.

It seems likely that the artist’s technique of creating tracing paper also soon became known to many among the general public. Those who liked to produce their own celebratory transparencies found silver paper an ideal surface on which to work. These amateur artists could draw and/or paint their image on the silver paper, then treat it with the Canadian balsam/aqua vitae varnish to make it nearly transparent Thus, when those treated silver paper transparencies where placed in a window and illuminated from behind by candlelight, they would allow much more light to pass through than a standard print which had been made into a transparency by the use of mastic and turpentine. These silver paper transparencies were much brighter and therefore, much more dramatic, so they would have caught the attention of many more passers-by than a duller, ordinary transparency.

One famous artist, George Stubbs, found a singular use for silver paper. In the late eighteenth century, Stubbs purchased five rolls of silver paper from a wholesaler with a warehouse in Houndsditch. Stubbs used that silver paper to make a set of paper-hangings for one of the rooms in his house. He did this after all of the upholders and house decorators in the better part of town told him it could not be done. It is not clear why Stubbs preferred silver paper for the making of his paper-hangings, or simply relished the challenge of doing something out of the ordinary. Nothing more is known of this set of silver paper paper-hangings today, but it is possible that, following Stubbs example, others may have made their own paper-hangings of silver paper, though they may have been considered a bit eccentric for doing so.

Silver paper had a more mundane use in many better homes during the Regency. It was often used to wrap the gilt frames of paintings and looking glasses during the time the family was not in residence. Like Holland covers placed over the furniture, silver paper would protect the gilt surfaces from both dust and fly specs, which were inevitable in the years before window screens were invented. Fly specs were particularly damaging to gilt wooden surfaces and could be very expensive to remove or repair. Therefore, it was both practical and economical to protect those surfaces by wrapping them with silver paper. However, due to the cost of silver paper, and its durability, it may well have been stored for re-use, along with the Holland covers, when the family was in residence.

Like Harriet Smith, in Emma, many other people used silver paper to wrap valuable and precious items. That included some of King George III’s personal royal jewels. In January of 1819, the Regent and his sisters, the Royal Princesses, met at Buckingham House to deal with the division of the diamonds which had belonged to their mother, the late Queen Charlotte. After they had divided the diamonds into four roughly equal groups, they called for a servant to find something into which to put each set. One of the female attendants remembered seeing some empty jewel boxes in a lumber room near the late Queen’s apartments. Since these boxes were often used to transport royal jewels back and forth from the Bank of England, the attendant thought they would serve the purpose. When the supposedly empty boxes were opened, it was initially thought they contained only a quantity of crumpled silver paper. However, upon closer examination, it was found the silver paper was actually wrapped protectively around King George’s personal sword and his star of the Order of the Garter, as well as several other royal jewels. Since that group of royal jewels had long been thought lost, the Prince was particularly delighted to discover they had been safely stored away.

A much less humble item was wrapped in silver paper in the late eighteenth century. Charles Burney, brother of Fanny Burney, was invited to visit the famous Dr. Samuel Johnson, at his home in London. One of Burney’s friends, William Bewley, learned of the visit and begged Burney to get him a token of his time with the great man. During the visit, when Dr. Johnson left the room for a moment, Mr. Burney cast his eyes about to see what he might collect for his friend. Not wishing to take anything of substantive value, Burney quickly cut a small wisp from an old hearth broom, which he slipped into his pocket-book. Once he returned home, he carefully wrapped this wisp of Dr. Johnson’s hearth-broom in a small scrap of silver paper and enclosed it in a letter to his friend, who lived in Massingham, in Norfolk. According to Fanny Burney, Mr. Bewley was both amused and delighted by this unique token of Charles Burney’s visit with the great man, and he kept it throughout his life.

Lepidopterists, those who collected butterflies, also made use of silver paper for most of the nineteenth century. It was considered the ideal material in which to both press and store butterflies. When a butterfly was to be added to a collection, the usual practice was to press and dry the specimen, usually with the wings spread open. Pressing was often done between layers of silver paper, which held the wings flat while the specimen was placed near a fire or other heat source. Once the specimen was dried and flattened, it was typically stored in the collector’s cabinet between layers of silver paper which protected it from light and dust. Silver paper also provided some support when the specimen was removed from the cabinet for viewing.

By the Regency, much more than silver, jewels, gilt frames, wisps of broom straw and butterflies were wrapped in silver paper. Certainly, jewelers, like Rundell and Bridge, would have had rolls or reams of it on hand to carefully wrap their customers’ purchases. However, milliners and hatters also used silver paper to wrap their better hats before placing them in a hat box for delivery, after they had been purchased by a valued customer. Modistes and dressmakers regularly used silver paper to cushion the folds of a delicate new gown when it was boxed for delivery. Dainty lingerie, lacy caps and handkerchiefs, stockings, gloves and even dancing slippers, as well as other costly accessories, were also often wrapped in silver paper for delivery to a customer. And many ladies routinely stored their fine items wrapped in silver paper in their homes as well.

Both dressmakers and ladies who enjoyed embroidery work found additional uses for silver paper. Due to its translucency and durability, it made an ideal material for use in making patterns, both for garments and for embroidery designs. Ackermann’s Repository and a number of other ladies’ magazines, regularly published designs for needlework. A lady could lay a sheet of silver paper over a design she wanted to work and trace it with a pencil or pen. Once she had transferred the design to the silver paper, she could carefully prick holes along the lines on the paper. The pierced silver paper pattern could then be laid over the cloth on which the embroidery was to be worked and chalk or pounce could be used to transfer the design to the cloth. If treated with care, that same pattern could be used several times, shared among a circle of friends who enjoyed needlework. The same process could also be used by dressmakers or milliners to transfer designs to garments or hats.

However, silver paper was not all for work, with no play. It was also a popular craft material. Silver paper was often used to make small, delicate paper flowers which were too difficult to make with sheets of thicker, standard paper. During the Regency, silver paper was only available in white, so the paper used to make these tiny flowers would have to be colored, usually with watercolors. This could be done before or after the flowers were cut out and shaped, at the choice of the maker, using colors appropriate to the flower(s) to be made. Silver paper was also useful in making garments for paper dolls, particularly cloaks or the skirts of the elegant flowing gowns which were fashionable during the Regency. Thin and durable, silver paper also made an excellent support for drawings and watercolor paintings intended for use in the craft of decoupage.

There was one craft project involving silver paper, much beloved of children, that did require some work. That was the making of paper balloons. The first balloons made by the Montgolfier brothers had been made of paper, and many youngsters during the Regency enjoyed making and flying their own hot air balloons, though on a much smaller scale. Clever governesses and tutors were able to work a math lesson or two into the process of making a silver paper hot air balloon. Silver paper was the ideal material with which to make these small hot air balloons due to its durability and thinness. A balloon made of silver paper would be much lighter than one made of regular paper and was thus easier to launch into flight. But in order to make one, it was necessary to create a pattern for the gores that would make up the sphere, allowing for the seams necessary to join them, and the opening at the bottom into which the hot air would enter. This task was made a bit easier for those who had a copy of the Edinburgh Encyclopedia in their library, for in that encyclopedia was published a plate with a diagram of a gore of a balloon with the dimensions provided. But even without this handy aid, it was possible for an astute governess or tutor to teach their pupils some math and geometry during the course of constructing their hot air balloon.

The treat for pupils who put in the effort to make the balloon was seeing the completed model paper balloon fly. The usual, and safest, method of inflating the balloon was to hold it over a chafing dish containing some burning charcoal. The balloon would rise for as long as the air inside it remained warmer than the surrounding air, then it would come back to earth. However, there were those who preferred a more dangerous, but certainly more spectacular method of sending the model balloon aloft. A small quantity of very dry straw or wood shavings were attached beneath the opening of the balloon and were set alight. The hot air produced would enable the balloon to ascend fairly rapidly, but that same heat source would eventually ignite the paper of the balloon itself, causing it to burst into flame while in mid-air. When sent out over a lake or pond, there was little danger, but if such a balloon were allowed to ascend over buildings, forests, areas of dry brush, or other places with flammable materials, it could lead to disaster.

By the reign of William IV, silver paper was being made in a number of different colors. Colored silver paper was very convenient for making paper flowers, elegant clothes for paper dolls and, of course, model hot air balloons. Even before that, as the Regency was coming to a close, true silver paper was being made by some of the better confectioners in London. This type of silver paper was made by coating plain silver paper strips with a starch paste over which was laid very thin silver leaf. The strips were hung to dry, then burnished with cotton wool. Any parts to which the silver leaf did not adhere were coated with more starch paste over which was laid more silver leaf. Once the fully silvered strip was dry, it was coated with another layer of starch paste, which prevented the silver leaf from tarnishing and made the silver paper nearly impervious to air. This special silver paper was used to wrap bon-bons and other fine confections. It was also sometimes used to wrap fruits for a sophisticated centerpiece, often for a dessert course.

During the Regency, silver paper was white, durable and thin. It was put to a host of practical and creative uses. It was used to wrap fine jewelry and silver objects, to protect drawings and watercolors, and made a sturdy tracing paper. It was also used to wrap fine clothing and accessories, as well as to protect such objects when they were stored by their owners. Silver paper was also used for a number of craft projects, from paper flowers to model hot air balloons. It was not cheap, but it was a versatile and useful product which could be found in many homes and businesses during our favorite period.

Dear Regency Authors, now that you know something about silver paper, might you have a use for it in a future tale of romance? Perhaps the heroine, a governess, has to find a way to shield her mischievous young charges, who have purloined some of their pretentious mother’s or elder sister’s silver paper so they can make clothes for their paper dolls? Mayhap the hero is concerned because his domineering father is belittling his younger brother, who is struggling with his Latin. When the hero expresses his concern to the heroine, the vicar’s daughter, will she offer to loan him a Latin instruction book from her father’s library which has silver paper overlays that should help his brother more quickly grasp the basics of the language? Then again, another heroine, also a governess, may use the making of a silver paper hot air balloon as a way to teach her charges some practical geometry. But what will happen when the paper balloon is sent aloft? As the air inside cools, will it plummet back to earth on the property of a darkly handsome, if rather mysterious gentleman? Seeing the heart-broken expressions on the children’s faces at the loss of their creation, will she brave the unknown and go onto the property to retrieve it? How else might a Regency romance be wrapped in silver paper?


About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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28 Responses to Before Silver Paper Was Silver

  1. I started reading this and thought “Illuminations!” and had planned to ask before I discovered you had already thoroughly covered this…. I wish I might have known this before I had the house party in ‘Anne’s Achievement’ making illuminations, made transparent by painting with oil, but then, maybe in the wilds of Yorkshire at short notice, the hostess might not have had enough….
    heaps of ideas from this, I am seeing a governess getting her charges to decorate a hot air balloon with a map of the world, working from a globe, to combine geography with arithmetic and a lot of fun and someone giggling that it will be the hottest antarctica has ever been. I can see this leading to recriminations when a hot air balloon sets a haystack on fire, necessitating an apology from the governess to the peppery land owner, who is half horrified at girls doing such things and half amused, Naturally after many arguments, he considers the governess a damn’ fine woman.
    I wish silver paper was still made; I use 50gsm paper to make 1/12 and 1/24th scale dolls house flowers, which I have to colour myself. A softer fine strong paper would be even better. I guess the closest thing you get nowadays is layout pad paper.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      With regard to transparencies, during the Regency, most would have been made from purchased prints, using turpentine and mastic. That would have ruled out silver paper, since, so far as I can tell, images were not usually printed on silver paper. Therefore, it seems likely that transparencies would have only been made from silver paper on which someone had created the artwork by hand. However, from what I can tell, most prosperous households would have had some silver paper on hand, for covering frames or storing fine garments and accessories. So, it would be entirely possible that there would be some silver paper available in your Yorkshire house. But someone there would have had to create the artwork for any transparencies.

      The plot bunny with the model hot air balloon decorated as a globe seems most promising, and quite amusing. I always enjoy stories where women show themselves to have real intelligence and are quite capable of putting it to good use.

      I wish silver paper was still made, too. I think it would be light-years better than the majority of tissue paper available today. Plus, that produced in the early nineteenth century would have been made only with rags, so it would be naturally acid-free. I am not sure if it is even still made, but, if it is, I am wondering if onionskin paper might be useful to you in making your tiny doll house flowers? I used it years ago when writing letters to friends abroad, since it was thin and light, thereby reducing the cost of letters sent via air mail. It also has a high cotton content and used to crease very nicely. Might be worth a try.



      • Heh,that’s an idea, I use plenty of onions and I do make my own paper. I’ve made it from grass and from sweetcorn outsides and nettles, so why not?
        I had my houseparty undertaking their own artwork as an occupation to keep them happy during inclement weather, with help from the more able draughtsmen amongst them

        • Kathryn Kane says:

          My apologies! It may be “onionskin” is an Americanism.

          The paper of which I was thinking is called “onionskin” because it it as thin as a single layer of the skin of an onion, but it is not made from onions. It is made from regular paper pulp, though, at least in the olden days, it had a higher cotton content, which added strength to what was a very thin paper. It did not occur to me that it might have another name across the pond. If it does, I do not know what it is. Sorry!


  2. gordon759 says:

    I wondered where you got the description of using silver paper to preserve butterflies. Certainly from the middle of the eighteenth century to today the method has been essentially the same. The specimen is mounted on a pin through the thorax, and then pinned down to a board covered in cork. From the early nineteenth century the body has been fitted in a groove. The wings are spread out to either side and held in position by slips of card pinned to the cork board. The insect is left for several weeks to air dry and then, if properly kept, it will last indefinitely. Pressed insects were made in the Seventeenth century, but they were virtually impossible to keep. I don’t know of any that were pressed after about 1730, so would love to hear where you got the information from.

    As for balloons, just to give even more terror to a story. Gilbert White, the great naturalist, records making a paper balloon in 1787, he had trouble flying it outside as it was a wet day, so he flew it in the hall of a friends house. This one was ‘powered’ by a piece of cotton wool soaked in spirits of wine, although no damage was caused, it might be an excellent way of accidentally setting fire to a house.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      I cannot give you the exact reference for the butterfly preservation information. It was from an online copy of a activities book published for boys in the early nineteenth century. It never occurred to me anyone would be interested, so I did not bookmark it. Based on your information, it sounds like it was very out-of-date. I do appreciate all of the detailed information on the process which you have provided here. It is not a topic with which I am very familiar and I am sure many visitors here will value the historical information on the process which you have provided.

      Also, thank you for the anecdote about Gilbert White. It is somewhat amusing, but also rather terrifying, when one considers what might have happened when flying a hot air balloon inside a house.

      Thank you for stopping by and sharing your expertise.



  3. Summer says:

    The long-suffering young patient, having bored of the bilbo-catch, is placated for a time very meticulously cutting out and assembling a balloon. In fact, it’s just the kind of thing the scientifically-minded but not-always-very-forward-thinking hero might come up with to keep his impatient patient quiet and give him something to look forward to when he’s back on his feet. Is patient going to wait the prescribed time to get out of bed to launch it? Not a chance. Thank you, you have provided an opportunity I needed for the patient to start going against his treatment and leave evidence that could be found by the character of my choosing at the time of my choosing. The hero, meanwhile, goes on to perform even greater good deeds with even worse consequences.

    • Summer, it sounds a hilarious read, I’m looking forward to you publishing. I can even recommend you a good editor who is period savvy as well as the usual typo and grammar savvy [and she ‘googles’ me for etymology if she’s not sure]

      • Summer says:

        Oy, I really need to get it together. I’m bad about finishing things, but if I I pull it off, I will most definitely look you up, much thanks.

        • Yeah, I know! but I’ll pass you Giselle’s contact details as and when you need her. And good luck, those final chapters are sometimes the hardest, pulling things together without sounding rushed [yeah, Giselle has told me before now “It needs another chapter and I want the wedding in it”]

          • Summer says:

            I wish that was all there was but I’ve got a long way to go, and I wander. Hopefully this is one more stepping stone.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      I can hardly wait to read your story, it sounds delightful. As noted before, you are welcome to post a link to it here when it is published.

      Good Luck!


      • Summer says:

        It’ll need about a paragraph to you in the acknowledgements if half of what I’ve taken from you sticks!

        • Kathryn Kane says:

          Thank you, but no need. I am always glad to help fellow authors. The more information they have, the more interesting their books will be to read. And, since I am a reader as well as an author, I will benefit very nicely.


  4. Wonderful! You’ve provided so much information here. I have actually wondered about “silver paper” when I’ve read it mentioned in books but had never taken the time to research it.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      Thank you for your kind words. I am glad to know you enjoyed the article.

      There is very little mention of silver paper in most reference materials of the period, so this research took some time. I think because silver paper was so common that no one thought it was worth writing about.

      To get an idea of what silver paper was actually like, you might want to find a book or two that was published in the early nineteenth century. If that book has any illustrations, they will almost certainly be protected with a sheet of silver paper.



  5. gordon759 says:

    If ‘silver paper’ wasn’t silver, was the ‘gold paper’ that is mentioned in Persuasion as being cut up for Christmas decorations, gold?

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      From what I found during my research, I suspect that the “gold paper” mentioned in Persuasion was much like the silver paper that was made by confectioners in the latter years of the Regency. It was some kind of thin paper, possibly silver paper, to which a later of thin gold leaf had been glued.

      However, there was one source which made me think that “gold paper” might be paper that had been painted gold. Perhaps that was the lower-cost version, not as shiny, but less expensive.

      I am sorry that I cannot provide more details, but this sort of ephemera is very difficult to research. It was mostly taken for granted at the time and few people made mention of it in writing.



      • gordon759 says:

        I understand the difficulty, I have come across similar problems myself.
        Of the two versions I suspect that Jane Austen would have thought of the gold painted paper. it would have been much cheaper and therefore suitable for children to cut up for craftwork.

  6. huh, on quick look it doesn’t seem to have made it across the pond. I will look further. I might make onion skin paper anyway for shits and giggles and see how it comes out; some of the finest I’ve ever made was with fresh grass clippings which retained their starch and had a lovely smooth surface, very fine

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      I found a page on Wikipedia about onionskin paper, which may be of interest:

      A quick Internet search suggests it is not easy to find, but that it is still being made. Hopefully, you may be able to find some, maybe on eBay, or through a full-service stationer. I may look for some myself, just to have some. I always liked that paper.


      • OH, it’s Flimsies! used it many times making carbon copies. It does make good flowers, I have some left over from pre computer days. I usually use 50gsm paper for cel animation though. Looks like you can only get the real deal from the US though.

        • Kathryn Kane says:

          Well, that is a new one on me! I like the name Flimsies much better than onionskin.

          Since Flimsies are too thin, and literally too flimsy, to go through a computer printer, plus, with the lower cost of airmail, that explains why it is not as widely available as it was in the olden days.

          If you want more Flimsies paper, you might want to check eBay in the UK. I noticed that the new version of onionskin available here in the US is now all wood, with no cotton content. However, when I checked eBay in the US, I discovered that there were a number of lots of old, 25% cotton onionskin available. Most were not full reams, but if you are using it to make tiny flowers, that may not be an issue for you.

          Good Luck!


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