Thursday, July 20, 2006

Rag content

Who uses it: Papermakers and printers
What it means: The percentage of paper that consists of cloth fibers (cotton, linen) rather than wood pulp. The higher the rag content, the stiffer and thicker the paper tends to be.
How you can use it: When describing purity.

Long-time readers of this blog may remember a story my hairdresser told me a year or so ago, about the use of mummy wrappings in Gardiner's paper mills during the Civil War. I looked around the Internet for evidence to support the story, but everything I found said the story was possible, but unlikely.

It just goes to show how flawed the Internet is as a research tool. Last night I managed to hear most of a lecture to the Kennebec Historical Society by historian Susan Wolfe called, "I. Augustus Stanwood had a Paper Mill in Maine: The Enduring Story of Mummy Paper." According to contemporary reports, as many as four paper mills in Gardiner used mummy wrappings as source material for paper slurry between the late 1850s and the mid-1860s. The shortage of fabric and cotton fibers available for papermaking eventually led Stanwood to pioneer the process of making paper from wood, but not before he'd shipped in thousands of tons of linen from Egypt.

The remains inside the mummies probably didn't make the trip, although some may have. Ms. Wolfe described the brutal process of "unwrapping" the mummies, which consisted of splitting the mummy down the center with an axe and dumping out the contents. Those contents -- not just human, but cat, bird, and crocodile as well -- became fuel for the railroads and bone-meal fertilizer for Egyptian farmers. No one thought of the mummies as people; Islam forbids mummification, and Westerners weren't necessarily respectful of live Egyptians, much less dead ones.

So the mummy wrappings came to Maine, often still holding their original shape, to ragpicking women and children who sorted through them for papermaking. One contemporary account blamed a cholera outbreak on the mummy wrapping, but that's unlikely; cholera is a water-borne illness, and these rags were full of sand, not water. Because of the herbs and oils used in mummification, mummy rags made a dark paper that might have been used as newsprint, wrapping paper or butcher paper. It would be surprising if any survived to this day, and even if it did, Ms. Wolfe explained, it would be almost impossible to prove that the paper had been manufactured from mummy wrappings.

Still, it fires my imagination. In the gray light of a Maine winter, women sorted through rags that were thousands of years old, representing the wealth of a great lost society. People said the rags smelled terrible, which I don't want to imagine.

But I do wonder whether anyone in Gardiner has a blue scarab beetle or some other amulet in a desk drawer somewhere, a hand-me-down from Grandma, who found it in a pile of smelly old rags.


SJ Wolfe said...

I am so glad you came to my mummy paper lecture! And thanks for putting me in your blog!
SJ Wolfe

AnswerGirl said...

I was fascinated, and I'm so glad you came to Gardiner -- and so flattered that you stopped by!