There was not a single paper mill in Amsterdam until the 19th century. Despite this fact, Amsterdam was the location of the most important centre of the paper industry in Europe in the 17th and 18th century and Prof. Dr. Daniel Bellingradt from the Institute of Book Studies at Friedrich-Alexander-Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg (FAU) is conducting research to find out why. It was so important, that the exchange of information across Europe slowed down if problems arose with paper production in the Netherlands. In his project, funded by the Hans Böckler Foundation, Bellingradt is conducting research into the reasons behind Amsterdam's importance for the paper industry.
Paper is now taken for granted to such an extent that even researchers don't give it much consideration. This is not true of Prof. Dr. Daniel Bellingradt. He is researching Amsterdam in the 18th century as Europe's most important place of trade for paper.
The paper trade in the early modern period and modern communication
One aspect Bellingradt is investigating is the influence of the paper trade on society. Communication in Europe relied heavily on trade with paper goods. If paper in Amsterdam was in short supply or expensive because demand had risen too quickly or if the paper could not dry properly due to wet weather, the effects were quickly felt by both newspaper publishers, book printers and court administrations across Europe. Even though paper was manufactured in other locations in Europe, 'Dutch' paper was considered the best and often the most reasonably priced. 'I am fascinated by the fact that the historical paper trade reminds us of the material and economic conditions of communication at that time, encouraging us to take a closer look at the situation today. On what - if no longer on paper - does communication still depend today?', asks researcher Bellingradt.
Location is everything - Amsterdam and the paper trade
But why has Bellingradt chosen Amsterdam as the subject of his research if there wasn't a single paper mill in the city until the 19th century?
Amsterdam in the early modern period was one of the most famous trading centres and was the most important city in the Netherlands. As a port, it was a hub for trading goods, organisational services and information, which also benefited the paper trade. In the second half of the 18th century, traders in Amsterdam exported an impressive quantity of paper via waterways. They shipped an average of 100 million sheets of paper annually to Hamburg alone during the 1770s and 1780s.
Paper manufacturing also flourished in towns near Amsterdam. Large quantities of paper of a very good quality was manufactured in Veluwe in the south, Oortmarsum in the east, and Zaanstreek to the north west, which made Dutch paper a bestseller across Europe. The Dutch manufacturing method, which involved shredding the raw materials more finely thus producing finer paper, even enticed industrial spies who sought to steal the secrets behind it.
Networks and types of paper
As part of his project, Bellingradt is investigating the networks that play a role in trade - who is making what with whom and for how long? To do so, he is using invoice books, insurance files, letters and property deeds as sources. At the same time, he wants to find out what was being traded. In addition to one hundred types of printing and writing paper, traders sold packaging paper and cardboard. Used paper was also highly popular as a source of raw materials in order to make more paper. This means people knew how to recycle even in the early modern period. To understand how much paper was shipped where, single traders are used as examples. One single wholesaler shipped up to 70 million sheets of paper per year from Amsterdam to Hamburg alone.
Prof. Dr. Daniel Bellingradt has been a junior professor for book studies and, in particular, historical communication research, at FAU since 2014. After completing his doctoral degree in Berlin in 2010, he worked at the University of Erfurt and the University of Mainz. He has now been awarded the Maria Weber Grant for outstanding young researchers from the Hans Böckler Foundation for his research. Award winners can apply for a substitute for up to twelve months who takes over some of their teaching duties, so that they can concentrate on their research.