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Half the cost of a book

By Simon Eliot


For most of the history of the printed book, from Gutenberg in 1455 onwards, the most expensive part of the material book was paper. Until the mid-nineteenth century, by which time paper was being made by steam-driven machines using esparto grass and wood pulp rather than traditional linen rag as raw material, paper commonly represented at least half the cost of a book’s production.

Paper, its quality, its quantity and its provision was therefore a recurrent theme in the deliberations of the Delegates (those who ran Oxford University Press). On 20 May 1791 ‘the very best paper made by Whatman’, a specimen of which the Delegates had seen, was to be used for the new quarto edition of Aristotle’s Poetics. This almost certainly would have been wove paper rather than the more traditional laid paper (which had a chain and wire pattern). Wove paper, which had no such pattern, was first developed by James Whatman between 1754 and 1756, though it only became widely manufactured in the 1780s and 1790s.

Fourdrinier paper-making machine in Wolvercote Mill in the late 19th century. From The History of Oxford University Press.

Fourdrinier paper-making machine in Wolvercote Mill in the late 19th century. From The History of Oxford University Press.

The excise duty on paper was a frequent problem for all printers and publishers. The reorganisation of the duty in 1794, whereby it was charged by weight rather than ream, had the effect of making the burden heavier; paper duty was to change again in 1801, 1809, and 1819. In 1795 there was a discussion between the Delegates and those who ran Cambridge University Press (the Syndics) on how to respond to an increase in paper duty. In June 1808 they were again exercised by the rising cost of paper and its effects, in particular on the printing of bibles. This preoccupation is not surprising. In 1779 the Delegates’ accounts recorded that over £762 had been spent on paper alone, 55.3% of a total expenditure of £1,378 of the Learned Press and, though perhaps an exceptional year, the proportion of the Press’s costs represented by paper remained very high throughout these early decades. In 1800, for instance, the Learned Press spent £825 on paper or 34.6% of its total expenditure of £2,382.

An Act of 1794 also required the dating of watermarks in paper in an attempt to prevent a fraud that might otherwise have taken place during the process of ‘drawback’. This requirement was rescinded in 1811 but many papermakers continued to date their paper. Drawback allowed those entitled institutions (including the two university presses) to claim back the duty paid on paper that was subsequently used to print bibles, new testaments, psalms, and books of common prayer. A similar arrangement had been established by an Act of 1712 which allowed the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge to claim a refund of duty paid on paper that was then used to print works in Greek, Latin, oriental, and ‘northern languages’.  By the early nineteenth century the drawback on paper was worth a considerable amount to OUP. As production increased so did the amount of paper used, the duty on which the Press could now claw back. In 1804 the sum was £1,088.3.5, by 1808 it was up to £1,891.3.0 although this was exceptional. On average drawback amounted to £1,088 per annum between 1804 and 1817.

In 1800, and for many decades afterwards, learned printing was small beer to the Press. In 1800 the paper bought for bible printing was valued at £7,542.17.0, nine times the value of paper bought by that part of the Press devoted to producing learned books. The printing of bibles may have been regarded as an act of piety, but by the early nineteenth century was becoming a big business amid the dreaming spires of Oxford.

Simon Eliot is Professor of the History of the Book in the Institute of English Studies, School of Advanced Study, University of London. He is general editor of The History of Oxford University Press, and editor of its Volume II 1780-1896.

With access to extensive archives, The History of Oxford University Press is the first complete scholarly history of the Press, detailing its organization, publications, trade, and international development. Read previous blog posts about the history of Oxford University Press.

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