Marble papers in rare books


Copyright Peabody Essex Museum. Photo Catherine Robertson.

Editor’s Note: Happy National Library Week! First sponsored in 1958, National Library Week is a national observance sponsored by the American Library Association (ALA) and libraries across the country each April. The theme this year is Unlimited possibilities @ your library. Our library has some of the most rare books you’ll ever find. Below, our Director Emeritus Sid Berger shares his knowledge and love of marbled paper. This post first appeared on Conversant, the blog written by the librarians at the Phillips Library at PEM. We congratulate Sid on his recent award from The American Library Association. He wont the 2015 ABC-CLIO Award for the Best Book in Library Literature for “Rare Books and Special Collections.”

One of the great pleasures of being a librarian in a rare-book setting is seeing the treasures the library owns.  The texts are important, and they are helpful to scholars throughout the world (thanks to our online catalog), and many of the things in the collection are simply beautiful.  One element of their beauty is the papers used in their production.  And one material that has been around for more than 300 years is marbled paper.

The name derives from the fact that some simple decorated sheets look like slabs of marble, with the veins and colorations that one sees in that stone.  The technique, according to some scholars, was inspired by a kind of paper decoration invented in Japan in the 12th century called suminagashi—which means “the floating of colors.”  Pigments are floated on the surface of a bath—a trough of water—then the air is stirred over the surface to make the pigments move here and there into “patterns.”

Since the liquid is merely water, the artist does not have much control over where the pigments move on the surface of this bath, so it is not possible to create repeating patterns.  Then a sheet of paper is laid over the surface and the pigments transfer to the sheet.  Suminagashi papers can be exceptionally beautiful in the hands of a master, and they are still being produced to this day in Japan and elsewhere.


Two samples from the Louis Dejonge Company: Spanish marble pattern (left), Dutch curl pattern (right).

Westerners saw suminagashi sheets—they came to the West on the Silk Road—and learned of the possibilities of decorating paper in this fashion.  But they developed their own method, which we call “marbling.”  The bath contains water that is a bit thickened with Irish moss, gum tragacanth, or carrageen (also spelled carrageenan or with other spellings), or possibly some other thickener.  This is called the “size.”  Then when the pigments are dropped over the size, the drops stay on the surface and don’t float around as they would if the water were not thickened.

Also, artists found out that if they put ox gall (the putrid, foul, and really disgusting thick liquid found in the gall bladder of an ox) into the pigments, the drops would hit the surface and expand a bit.  The more ox gall you put into the pigments, the more the drops would expand.  The ox gall also kept the pigments from sinking into the bath, and it allowed drops to be touching one another without blending.  Once the drops of pigments were sitting on the size, they could be transferred to a sheet by having a prepared piece of paper placed over the surface.  The preparation consisted of putting a coating of alum (or some other mordant) onto the paper, allowing the pigments to stick to the sheet.


1803 “Flora Boreali-Americana.” Example with marbled cover; color matched by bookbinder.

(Parenthetically, I have always wondered—given how disgusting the ox gall is, and given the fact that it has to be squeezed out of the gall bladder, cooked, and mixed with isopropyl alcohol for it to work, how did anyone figure out that if it was thus prepared and mixed with the pigments, it would have the properties they needed for marbling?  It is so disgusting and repulsive and revolting that when anyone is squeezing it out of the bladder, I want to escape to a neighboring county!  It is one of the mysteries of marbling.)

But the artists soon realized that if the droplets sat relatively still on the size, they could be manipulated; so they took little rakes and combs and styluses, and they moved the drops here and there in a quite controlled manner, creating elegant and amazing patterns.  They could even place individual drops of pigment exactly where they wanted it on the bath and carefully shape them into representations of all kinds of things, like flowers and fish and trees and stars and snowflakes.  The only limitation was the artist’s imagination.


1831 “Family Encyclopædia.” Example of shell patterned endpapers.

Another thing the artists did was to mask off parts of the sheets they wanted to marble and then marble only the part of the sheet that was not masked off (sort of like using a stencil).  So they could make a “stencil” in the shape of a horse or a house or a person and marble a sheet with that pattern on it.  Combining this with the use of the combs and styluses, they could produce sort of a multi-medium marbled sheet of exquisite beauty and mystery.  It was even possible, in the hands of a marbler with a great sensitivity to color and tone, to marble one pattern on top of another, so you could see both of them.

Up through the sixteenth century, books were bound with vellum (dried animal skin) or leather (tanned animal skin), or occasionally paper.  The skin bindings could be decorated in many ways, but they were expensive.  You had to kill a cow or a sheep (or a horse or a pig or a goat) to get your binding material.  But as paper spread through the Western world from the thirteenth century on, and since it was abundant, inexpensive, and tremendously versatile, binders started using decorated papers for the books they were covering.  The paper could be used on the outside of the cover, or they could appear as the “endpapers”—the sheets that covered the insides of the boards of the books.  And to make the books beautiful, binders and publishers used marbled papers by the millions.  They even figured out a way to marble the edges of the book’s pages.


1825 “Hortus gramineus woburnensis.” Example of the nonpareil pattern.

In the Phillips Library, we have thousands of books adorned with these lovely papers.  Some of the patterns, by the way, were reproduced over and over again, because they were so pleasing, and they took on names:  Nonpareil, Dutch curl or French snail, Stormont, Zigzag, Chevron, Peacock or Bouquet, Spanish, Shell, Vein, Zebra, Fantasy, Gloster, Italian and so forth.  And there are patterns that have no names, created by imaginative marblers who develop their own designs.

There is a vast literature on marbled paper, and a universe—a galaxy—of examples of the papers in the world.  If you have any questions about them, contact me (  I have been collecting and writing about them for decades.  Or come into our wonderful library and ask to see some.  We can keep you entertained for months.

Image Bibliography

In Order of Posting

Mosely, H.N.  Notes by a naturalist on the ‘Challenger’: being an account of various observations made during the voyage of H.M.S. ‘Challenger’ round the world, in the years 1872-1876, under the commands of Capt. Sir G.S. Nares and Capt. F.T. Thomson.  London: Macmillan, 1879.  Link to Philcat.

Dictionnaire d’histoire naturelle.  Londres : Bruxelles: Lemaire, 1794. Link to Philcat.

Arago, Jacques.  Voyage autour du monde.  Bruxelles: Société typographique belge, 1840.  Link to Philcat.

Louis Dejonge Company.  [Book cloths: sample books from various companies : 18--].  New York.  Link to Philcat.

Michaux, André.  Flora Boreali-Americana: sistens caracteres plantarum quas in America septentrionali.  Parisiis: Typis Caroli Crapelet, 1803.  Link to Philcat.

Crabb, George.  A Family Encyclopædia, or, An Explanation of Words and Things Connected with all the Arts and Sciences.  New York: C.S. Dunning, 1831.  Link to Philcat.

Sinclair, George.  Hortus gramineus woburnensis.  London: Printed for J. Ridgway, 1825.  Link to Philcat.


  1. Gail says:

    This was fascinating to read. I had just marveled over the endpaper in a Rizzoli book and now I know the history of its making. When will the library have an exhibition of historic papers?

  2. KAY says:

    Very interesting and a great way to celebrate National Library Week. Hard to imagine the effort it took to create such beauty .

  3. Susan says:

    I love marbling but I’ve been limited to what you can do with water and oil. Your mention of the stuff to make real size makes me interested in going for it some time. I didn’t know what the function of ox gall was, though it’s always in materials lists. There’s a story of Leonardo da Vinci as an apprentice: the master artists sent him to the marketplace with the command “to buy the paint that’s all the paints in one.” It was supposed to be a joke, a kind of hazing; but da Vinci is said to have brought back exactly what they asked–and I’m thinking he used ox gall. Either da Vinci discovered it, or it was well known in Northern Italy in the quattrocento.

  4. Britta Karlberg says:

    Please PEM, request your Librarian Emeritus to curate a show on the art of paper. A section on paste papers would naturally include mention of Rosamund Loring, who not only was the preeminent 20th century paste paper maker in America, but also the force that held the Peabody Museum together during World War II.

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