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rags for paper

rag. A piece of cloth torn off; a tattered fragment; a shred; a tatter; hence, a fragment; a bit; a patch. — Webster, 1882

After breakfast, next morning, the peddler drove the cart to the kitchen door and Mother brought all the bits of rags, from the ragbags where she had been saving them since his last visit, and traded them for tinware. – Farmer Boy manuscript

In Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Farmer Boy (Chapter 12, “Tin-Peddler”), Mother Wilder trades all the rags she has been saving for a whole year for tin products made by Nick Brown, the tin peddler. While rags might be new material, more often they were simply pieces of old worn-out clothes, sheets, and towels, all made from natural plant fibers (typically cotton or linen) in those days before synthetics.

What did the tin peddler do with these rags? He sold them! The rags were used in the manufacture of fine paper, as outlined below. In Farmer Boy, the tin peddler also performed the job as ragman – someone who drove around the countryside gathering up worn-out clothing and other bits of cloth. Rags were bought by the pound by rag pickers, who sorted through the bits and separated wool from cotton and then sold rags by the pound to the paper mills. During Almanzo’s childhood, a large number of paper mills were in Massachusetts and Connecticut and other New England states. The rags were then washed and cut into pieces, then ground into pulp that was rolled into sheets of paper.

While common paper was typically made from wood pulp, the addition of rag material added to its quality. The very finest papers were of 100% rag. The period picture at right shows bins of rags, shredded and ready to be used in the paper-making. The navigation button that brought you to this page is of an etching on paper by the artist James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834-1903) titled “The Rag Picker,” executed in 1858. It shows a woman sorting through her collection of rags. The newspaper item below is from the Frontier Palladium, Malone, New York, November 1862.

An early definition of paper reads: “A material made in thin sheets from a pulp of ground rags or other fiber, and used for writing or printing upon or for wrapping.” To expand on this, true paper was defined as being “made of rags or other vegetable fiber, reduced to a pulp, gathered into a sheet, felted in setting, and dried.” Paper thus produced has been around for over two thousand years; the Chinese produced vegetable fiber paper out of rice, bamboo, and bark. From China, paper-making spread to Asia, Europe, America. As the process of paper-making spread, so did the materials used in its manufacture – eventually giving rise to the use of cotton, then flax.

It wasn’t until about the 12th century that the Spaniards began using linen and cotton rags in paper-making, instead of the raw material itself. It was found that rags pounded into pulp made a paper that was less brittle, which was a very good thing. At the time of Farmer Boy – when flax was grown as a staple on almost every northern farm and spun into linen – linen rags and worn-out articles of linen clothing were sought after by paper mills in New York and Pennsylvania. Could it have been that The War of Northern Aggression had somehow made cotton a little harder to come by? Could it have been that cheap northwest trees for paper pulp and the transportation to get it from here to there hadn’t yet arrived on the scene?

Could it be that the publishing industry was on the rise in New York and that paper was sorely needed? Newspapers even advertised for women to save their rags (and old newspapers) for collection; the following poem appeared in a Massachusetts newspaper:

Rags are as beauties which concealed lie,
But when in paper how it charms the eye.
Pray save your rags, new beauties to discover,
For paper, truly, every one’s a lover;
By the pen and press such knowledge is displayed
As wouldn’t exist if paper was not made.
Wisdom of things, mysterious, divine,
Illustriously doth on paper shine.


Enter Nick Brown, the tin-peddler. He traded his tinware for Mother Wilder’s “good, clean rags of wool and linen” (Farmer Boy, Chapter 12, “Tin-Peddler”), which he would then sell to a rag merchant for about four cents per pound. Laura Ingalls Wilder was astute to include the superior quality of Mrs. Wilder’s rags, as there were at least five different categories of rags purchased by rag merchants. Mr. Brown’s standing as a rag seller would depend on the quality of rags he collected, and while many fictional stories include a tin peddler as a lower class and dishonest traveling merchant (and excellent story-tellers), Mr. Brown seems to have been both honest and highly regarded by the Wilders.

In Farmer Boy, Mr. Brown gives token gifts of tinware to Eliza Jane, Alice, and Almanzo. One can only wonder if the “gift” the tin-peddler gave to Royal Wilder was the desire to become a traveling salesman?

The paper-making process during the time of the Little House books.

The antiquity of the paper manufacture is probably excelled by but few other products of civilization, Chinese historians carrying it back to a point far in the twilight of our history. In England it was first introduced near the close of the fifteenth century, and in this country in 1693, at Germantown, Pa. The materials from which paper is produced are numerous, but wholly of vegetable origin, neither wool nor hair possessing the capability of being reduced to a fibrous pulp, a prerequisite to the formation of paper. Linen and cotton rags, straw, the leaves and stalks of the okra plant, jute stalks, manila, hemp, and even wood fiber, are all used in the manufacture of paper. No substance, however, can equal good linen rags, of which the toughest and finest paper is made. Next in rank are cotton rags from which the best writing and note paper is made. In this manufacture great care is taken in the selection of the material and in every process.

Gathered from all parts of the country by tin peddlers and by peripatetic ragmen in cities, the rags arrive at the mill in bags, a portion of the stock, perhaps, coming in pressed bales from over the sea. The first proves is sorting, and then the rags are cut, usually by girls, by means of a fixed blade in a bench, like a short upturned scythe, the operator picking them up by handfuls and drawing them over the edge of the blade. Each girl is furnished with a sandstone rifle, and when a large roomful of girls are at work the sounds remind one strongly of a gang of mowers at work before the days of the mowing machine. A second sorting, for the removal of all buttons, hooks and eyes, and hard seams, follows, and the rags are then dusted. The duster is a large cylinder, the surface of which is of fine woven wire, inside of which is a shaft carrying arms set around it in a spiral form, and revolving at a higher rate of speed than the cylinder. This difference in speed gives the rags a thorough stirring, while the spiral arrangement of the blades facilitates the exit of the rags, which traverse the cylindrical sieve from end to end. White paper can be made from colored as well as white rags, and for the removal of the color as well as the dirt they are submitted to a boiling with lime water. The rags are placed in a large rotating boiler made of half-inch plate, mounted on journals and driven by proper gearing, as a worm and wheel. Through the hollow journal steam is admitted and kept at a pressure of from forty-five to sixty pounds, representing a heat from 292 to 308 degrees. Lime water, in the proportion of about one part by weight to ten or twelve of the rags, is mixed with them, and the boiler is set in motion. usually a charge requires from eight to twelve hours’ boiling. Even this severe test does not fully purify the rags, which are next passed through an “engine.”

To the uninitiated a brief description of this apparatus is necessary. It is a tank of oval form, the walls or sides rising two and a half feet from the floor. This is partially divided longitudinally by a straight upright partition, not extending to the ends, however, but leaving a space between its ends and the tank’s sides, of a width corresponding to that between the sides of the partition and those of the tank. On one side of this partition, across the center of the tank, is a toothed drum, the teeth or blades of which alternate with fixed teeth at the bottom. These teeth tear the rags to tatters, but without destroying the fiber. A stream of water is constantly passing through the tank, and is constantly removed. This is done by a wheel of fine wire netting that revolves on the side opposite to the toothed drum, taking up the mass, but detaining the pulp, the water running off through the shaft of the wheel, which is hollow. Thus the water is used only while making a single passage around the tank, the current being produced and maintained by the rotary movement of the beater or tearer. The condition of the rag material when it comes from this cleansing engine is that of a coarse pulp, technically known as “half stuff,” which is subsequently submitted to the action of another engine, known as a beating engine, but essentially the same as the cleaning engine.

But still further cleansing is necessary. The material is next mixed with chloride of lime and again passed through the engine. It is then heaped upon drainers, and looks like a mass of half-melted snow. The white, however, is a dead white, having no brilliancy. To receive this quality it must literally be colored. As the laundress blues her clothes to make them whiter, so must the paper stuff be blued, and when so tinted it has that same quality of whiteness as wind-driven snow, which always shows a bluish tinge. This is quite different, however, from the blue writing paper so affected by the fashionable twenty and thirty years ago, and now the favorite tint in the South and in England. That is really blue paper, while our usual white paper is merely tinted sufficiently to remove the dead, yellow, lusterless appearance of absolute whiteness. The bluing is ultramarine, as used in calico printing and for other manufacturing purposes, made from silicate of soda, alumina, sulphurets of iron, and carbonate of soda, and not from lapis-lazuli. This is mixed in powder with the half stuff just before the final heating.

After the final heating the material is apparently a thin, milky fluid, having no trace, to the unaided eye, of the fibrous character that it really possesses. Formerly the paper was formed by hand, the workman dipping a rectangular sieve into the fluid pulp, and depositing the sheet of pulp on a piece of felt to dry. But very little paper is made so now, the Fourdrinier machine having taken the place of the hand workman. This “machine,” as it is called par excellence, is a wonderful production of skill; it is almost wholly automatic in action, and works with marvelous exactness. It is scarcely possible to describe it without detailed engravings, but a brief account of its work may aid in its comprehension. Some of these machines are not less than six feet wide and seventy-five feet long, requiring a building by itself, and making a sheet of paper over five-feet in width. The pulp is pumped into an elevated tank, from which it is delivered to the machine through an adjustment gate opening from a reservoir. The amount of pulp fed to the machine regulates and determines the weight of the paper, and of course it must be governed absolutely and exactly, the speed of the machine being a constant. The pulp flows on to a roller, which deposits it on an endless apron of fine woven wire, which has a constant jarring motion, tending to shake out the water and aid in the homogenous union of particles. Thick rubber straps on each side of the endless apron determine the width of the sheet. Passing between rollers which compress it, the sheet of pulp goes over perforated boxes from which the air is exhausted by a pump, and much of the remaining moisture is driven out by atmospheric pressure. A bath of liquid glue gives a proper sixing to the sheet after it is fully dried by cylinders heated by steam. The sheets, dampened by glue, are taken to a drying room, from whence, all wrinkled, they are submitted to a calendar consisting of a stand of rolls, three of chilled iron and two of paper. These latter are made of manila paper cut in disks, with a hole for the axis or shaft, and compressed by hydraulic pressure. When turned and finished, these paper rolls are as smooth and almost as hard as iron, presenting a highly finished surface. The sheets are then trimmed by a machine suggestive of the guillotine, and ruled. The pens used on the ruling machine are of peculiar form, made of sheet brass and fed with ink by a wick. Most of those used in this country are made by one concern in Harrisburg, Pa.

Book paper is made of old paper entirely. The processes are similar to those employed in making paper from rags, except that, owing to the more pliant nature of the material they are not so long continued.

Jute is used for making coarse paper, such as is used extensively for flour bags, for which it is well adapted, being very tenacious of fiber, a full-grown man having been carried by four persons, each lifting a corner of a sheet of jute paper from which bags are made, designed to hold a quarter of a barrel of flour—forty-nine pounds. The jute stalks come in lengths of from ten to fourteen inches. They are imported from Calcutta, and of the same material from which gunny cloth and gunny bags are made. The stalks pass through a rotary cutter, with stationary knives and knives set in a cylinder, by which they are torn to coarse shreds. A boiling under steam pressure, in a rotary boiler, with lime, follows, when the mass is heaped and allowed to “sweat” a few days. It passes through the cleaning engine, as do the rags described above, is bleached with chloride of lime, and sixed with a size made of rosin and washing soda. The after machining is similar to that used on writing paper.

Envelope paper and fine wrapping papers are made from old manila rope, and paper for paper-collars from cotton rags. In both cases the processes are of a similar character to those employed in the manufacture of paper for writing purposes. A necessary requisite for paper making is pure water; so paper mills are never found on the banks of sluggish streams or the shores of a marshy, muddy pond. The coloring matter for tints is introduced into the beating engine when finishing the half stuff.


rags (BW 3, 9; FB 2, 12, 17; LHP 5; BPC 33; PG)