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A watermark is a change in the thickness of the paper that can be seen when you hold the paper up to the light. The different tones are made by a design on the mold. Wire watermarks are just that, marks made up completely of lines. These lines can form letters, numbers, portraits, or designs. These watermarks look like something out of a very simple coloring book. Light and shade watermarks have tones made by relief sculptures on the mold. These tones give the mark depth and look more like works of art.

Types of Watermarks

Dandy rolls are used for the mass production of watermarks by machines. The dandy rolls pass over the wet sheets of paper to make the mark. Dandy rolls look like large rolling pins with designs on them. These watermarks are not as clear as those made in handmade sheets. When a watermark is made by hand, the design is on the mold and the pulp lies on top of the design as the sheet of paper is being made.

The earliest watermark can be traced to Bologna, Italy in 1282. The watermark was a cross with circles at the points. Watermarks were also once known as "papermarks". These marks had several uses at their creation. One use was to act as a papermaker's trademark, so that whoever used the paper knew who made it. Watermarks were also used to indicate the size of the paper, the quality, the date it was made, or the location of the mill in which it was made. Some watermarks were symbols of secret brotherhoods or religious beliefs. These marks allowed the groups to identify their members. By the Middle Ages, papermakers considered their work true art. The use of watermarks expanded as did the number of designs. Common watermarks included:

stars sun moon animals
crosses ox heads papermaker's name papermaker's mill
unicorn human hand leaves human figure
flowers pinecones grape clusters acorns
papermaker's tools anvil scales waterwheel
tongs simple symbols fruit grain
trees plants insects bull's head

These watermarks came to symbolize many things.
Anchor -
slow and steadfast
Bull -
patience and strength
Cross -
Christianity, the 4 corners of the earth, the 4 winds
Cross&snake -
spiritual rebirth
Clover leaf -
the Trinity
Circle -
water, universality, eternity
Dove -
Eagle -
royalty, victory, power, and authority
Phoenix -
resurrection (used on George Washington's personal watermark)
Right hand -
fidelity and labor
Scales -
equality and justice
Unicorn -
moral purity, unity, and strength

In 1848, the light and shade watermark was invented by an Englishman named William Henry Smith. The light and shade watermark created more detail than the wire watermark. It was used in paper money to make counterfeiting more difficult. On the left is an example of a light and shade watermark. The mold used to make this watermark is shown on the right.

Light and shade watermark
Watermark mold

Today watermarks have many uses. While they are still used to make counterfeiting more difficult, watermarks are also used in paper currency, legal documents, identification cards, stationary, or simply for ornamentation. They are also being used to identify old papers and trace their history. This is a very hard process, because variations in the watermark can exist from one paper to the next, even if they were made on the same mold. Identical twin molds were used in mills long ago to increase speed in production. It is also hard to decipher the maker and date of old papers, because they were made when there were no copyright laws. This allowed a less talented papermaker copy the watermarks of a skilled craftsman and attempt to pass his paper off as the true quality paper. Chain lines, or the stitches used to attach the wire to the mold, can also be used to date the watermark prior to 1800.

Look at Portrait watermarks

Discover Commercial Watermarks

Examine Japanese Watermarks

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Renewable Bioproducts Institute at Georgia Tech - Atlanta, Georgia
Last updated - July 12, 2013