History Publications


Unreliable Mills: Maintenance Practices in Early Modern Papermaking

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Technology and Culture





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On 16 January 1772, a notary, a papermaker, and a carpenter entered the Prélat paper mill to complete their inventory of the estate of Claude Chapon, the owner of the mill, who had died two days earlier. On the ground floors of what were in fact two adjacent buildings they found a worn-out vat, two sets of five stamping mills in dire need of repairs, a leaky retting vat, a partly broken sorting table, and two crumbling masonry storage tanks. Only two screw presses were deemed in fair shape. Upper floors also drew disparaging comments, the notary recording, for instance, the thinness of the drying loft ropes and the worrisome conditions of several beams. However, almost four hundred reams of fresh or ready-to-ship, high-quality paper were found on the premises. The Prélat was an active mill, and work had stopped only that very morning, after all remaining processed rags had been made into paper. It would soon resume. The contrast evident at the Prélat on that January morning between a high level of activity and a derelict work environment will not surprise those familiar with legal or paralegal inventories of early modern worksites. It is the starting point of the present inquiry.