“I thought water marks were stains made by rain drops, splashing water or worse yet the remnants of an accidentally tipped-over glass of water which made paper brittle, smelly, and ruinous.” That is all true when the phrase consists of two words ‘water mark’ but not when it is framed as one word ‘watermark’.
A watermark was the signature or trademark of a papermaker. It was typically a flat (nearly two-dimensional) outline of an image. In some instances it was a flower, or an animal, or a coat of arms, or letters, or numbers. Whatever its design, it represented and distinguished the papermaker, but not all paper since watermarking began in the thirteenth century was marked; generally this was used only for medium or fine quality writing or printing paper.
The historical chronicle of American-made paper probably began as early as 1690 with the Rittenhouse family producing paper from a paper mill on a stream later known as Paper Mill Run, which flows into the Wissahickon Creek near Germantown, Pennsylvania. Today, visitors to the Philadelphia area still see vestiges of the Rittenhouse name in several locales in mid-town. The first Rittenhouse watermark was the word “COMPANY”, and through the years of the Rittenhouse ancestral lineage, other designs and letters were used to identify the family legacy.
Aside from the Rittenhouse clan most other American watermarks were relatively simple designs, though a few stood out for their unusual pictorial uniqueness, like Simon Close’s two-headed deer, Henry Katz’s cat, Abraham Keller’s tulip, and Isaac Copeland’s harp. American Eagle watermarks range from rather scrawny, plucked specimens to the noble spread-winged, shield-shape federal bird clutching arrows with one foot, and an olive branch with the other.
Why all this fuss and bother over the subtle and almost invisible identification of who produced the paper. Most people never even investigate the papermaking source because they are unaware of how simple the detective work can be. Turn on a table lamp at home; hold the paper in front of the light, and chances are the watermark will be easily seen by the naked eye.
Watermarks can be an important key to establishing approximates dates for undated manuscripts. Since many American mills operated for fairly short, known periods of time, watermarked paper manufactured at those mills has both a date before which it could not have been used and a date after which it becomes increasingly unlikely that it was used.
Watermarks have successfully been used to detect forgeries. An instance comes to mind; a letter dated from Valley Forge in 1778 and supposedly signed by George Washington is on paper watermarked with the date 1815. Dated and datable watermarks can also help to establish whether a document is an original or a bona fide copy.
One more clue: since watermarks can be viewed from either side of the sheet of paper, reading them properly can occasionally present a problem. From which side of the paper should the watermark be read? Answer: know your history: because of a traditional practice adopted from the use of the quill pen, the heavy or double line in watermark letters properly occurs on what would be the down stroke. Practice writing at home and you will see what I mean. The letters in all watermarks should be read from the side of the paper that displays them as follows: “A V W Y M”. Keep in mind, all you document-detectives, that the letter “J” was not used until the middle of the seventeenth century and was not in general use until late in the eighteenth century; and the letter “I” was used instead during those years.