The practice of decorating paper with pleasing patterns and colors began in China, where paper was invented. By the 10th century, Chinese craftspeople were probably practicing a rudimentary kind of paper marbling, a complex process that results in sheets covered with sinuous, organic, often colorful designs.
This art traveled west along with paper making technology, and by the 15th century, paper marbling had become a sophisticated craft in the hands of the Persians and Ottomans. Europeans took up the practice in the early 17th century.
Anyone who is familiar with older books will recognize marbled paper.
These papers are not easy to make. They require colors to be laid down on the surface of a liquid in a tray. The colors are then combed and stirred in different ways to create a pattern, which is transferred to a piece of paper when it is laid on the surface of the liquid and slowly pulled off.
Marbled papers were expensive and associated with fine bindings in 17th and 18th century Europe.
People who couldn’t afford marbled papers but still wanted colorful decoration for their books did have a more affordable option—paste papers.
Sometimes called paste marbling, the process of making paste papers developed in Germany in the 17th century. This craft requires only the simplest kinds of equipment, and materials—A flat surface, water, paper, wheat paste, colors, and various combs, stamps and rollers to apply patterns. Only a modicum of skill is involved. Colors are added to cooked wheat paste, which is brushed unto wet paper and then manipulated with a variety of tools, including the fingers. Paste papers are essentially sophisticated finger paintings.
The collections of the Peter H Raven Library hold a number of excellent examples of paste papers used to decorate book bindings.
This is a copy of Prodromi Fasciculi Rariorum Plantarum Primus et Secundus by Jakob Breyne published in Danzig in 1739.
Here the paste papers were used inside the book. This copy of Otia Botanica by Philipp Gmelin was published in 1760 in Tübingen.
Paste papers continue to be made and used, though today you are more likely to find them on fine, limited edition bindings. What was once an affordable option is now a costly hand-made luxury.