Teach PA History
From Rags to (Paper) Riches: Explore Colonial Papermaking
Equipment & Supplies
  • Day One: Dictionaries Day Two: Blender Fluffy dryer lint (the amount needed depends on the size and quantity of papers each student makes) Water Old newspapers Dishpan (one per student group) Deckle (one per student group) Several absorbent towels for each student group

Day One

1. Ask students, "Can you imagine a world without paper? What kind of everyday objects would not be around if paper did not exist?" Ask students to brainstorm a list of what would not exist without paper. List student responses on the chalkboard. (Books and newspapers should be on this list.)

Tell students that paper is an ancient invention that has been around for thousands of years. Today it is made from wood pulp, but that has not always been the case. Ask students, "What do you think was used to make paper throughout the ages?" [Answers could include papyrus or parchment (sheepskin).] Tell students that there was a specific way to make paper in colonial America that they will learn about in this lesson.

2. Tell students: From the first permanent English settlement in North America at Jamestown, Virginia, in 1607, until 1690, all paper used in the American Colonies was made in Europe and imported. Ask students, "How do you think this affected how many books, pamphlets, or newspapers were printed in the colonies?" [Answer: It probably limited the quantity printed.]

Tell the students that an immigrant named William Rittenhouse built a paper mill along a stream near Philadelphia in 1690. (Write the name "William Rittenhouse" on the chalkboard.) It was the first paper mill built in the British colonies, which meant that paper was now more widely available. Floods washed away the first two paper mills, but William and his sons kept rebuilding at the same locations. (Show a photograph of Rittenhouse Mill)

Tell students that one of Rittenhouse's partners was named William Bradford, who was a successful printer in Philadelphia. He used the paper produced at the mill for printing books.

3. Tell students that they will be working in cooperative groups to read and understand an excerpt of a poem written in 1692 that describes the Rittenhouse paper mill in Germantown. Divide students into groups of four. Assign each group member to one of the following roles: READER, VOCABULARY ENRICHER, SYNTAX SPECIALIST, and DISCUSSION DIRECTOR. Briefly outline what each role entails.
· The READER is responsible to read the primary sources aloud to the group.
· The VOCABULARY ENRICHER will use a dictionary to look up any words that the group doesn't understand or that don't make sense given the context.
· The SYNTAX SPECIALIST will copy down phrases or lines of the poem that still don't make sense to the group even after the VOCABULARY ENRICHER has looked up any unfamiliar words. (Explain that "syntax" has to do with the way words are put together in writing.)
· The DISCUSSION DIRECTOR will lead the group in discussing the questions and write down their answers.

4. Distribute Student Handout 1- Poems about Papermaking and Student Worksheet 1- Understanding Poems about Papermaking(one of each per group). Groups should work for 20-25 minutes reading and analyzing the poem excerpts.

5. When students finish their group work, provide follow-up discussion on their responses and draw some conclusions about papermaking. Refer to Teacher Guide to Student Worksheet 1- Understanding Poems about Papermaking for possible answers to the questions.

6. If students have not done so independently, make sure that they understand that colonial papermakers used linen rags as the main ingredient for making paper. Explain how the paper mill housed a water-powered trip hammer that pounded the old linen rags into pulp. The pulp was combined with water and poured into a deckle (wooden paper molds with screens on the bottom). After the fibers settle and the water runs out, the paper is turned out of the deckle and allowed to dry.

Inform students that they will get to try this process themselves during the next period.

Day Two

1. Review the learning students did during the previous period. Inform the class, "Today we are going to make our own paper using modern-day "scraps of fabric" [dryer lint]."

2. Write the following terms on the board:

· Deckle
· "pull a sheet"

Explain that a deckle is what we call a paper mold, and it is simply a screen stretched across a wooden frame. Papermakers like Rittenhouse used large ones, but we will use much smaller ones today.

Also explain that the process of making a sheet of paper is called "pulling." As they will see, the deckle is pulled up through a vat of pulp, and that is what forms the paper.

3. Demonstrate the paper making process before students have a chance to try it out on their own.

· Before you begin, prepare your work area by covering it with plenty of newspapers. Also, make sure you have several "thirsty" towels nearby, since making paper can be a wet, messy process.

· First, combine fluffy dryer lint with water in a blender (a ratio of ½ cup of lint to 2 cups of water works well). Blend it for about a minute. Make sure the pulp mixture is smooth and well blended.

· Fill the dishpan between half and two-thirds of the way with water. Add the pulp and mix it gently with your hand. Stir the slurry frequently as you go, since the pulp tends to settle on the bottom of the vat. The thicker your slurry, the thicker your paper will be. If the mixture looks cloudy, it will make thin sheets of paper. If it looks milky, the sheets will be thicker. As you pull sheets you will need to add more pulp to keep the mixture thick enough. Make batches of pulp in advance so the students don't have to wait so long to pull their sheets of paper and so you can be available to supervise and assist.

· Submerge the deckle in the dishpan and move it around to get an even coating of the pulp mixture on the screen. With a smooth and swift motion, lift the deckle out of the vat. (This is called "pulling" a sheet of paper.) If the pulp is uneven or clumped on the deckle, simply put it under the water and try again. After you have pulled an even sheet of paper, allow excess water to drain back into the vat. Set the deckle on one of the towels to let more of the water drain off.

· In a quick motion, flip the deckle onto the newspaper. Lift the deckle off the new sheet of paper; the damp piece of paper should remain on the newspaper. If it doesn't separate from the deckle, you may have lifted too fast or there is still too much water in the paper.

· Gently press the new piece of paper dry with a towel. Allow it to dry overnight. To make it smooth, press under some heavy books.

4. You may wish to divide the class into small groups with 6 to 8 students in each. Groups should have their own stations with all the materials needed already set out. Distribute Student Handout 2- Papermaking Instructions. Remind students to follow the steps you demonstrated (and as listed on the handout). As you supervise groups, be prepared to blend and distribute more pulp as students need it.

5. After all students have made their sheets of paper and cleaned up their stations, distribute Student Worksheet 2- Comparison and Contrast of Papermaking Methods. Tell students to fill out this Venn Diagram with as many similarities and differences between the ways we made paper today and the way William Rittenhouse and his sons did around the turn of the eighteenth century. Collect the papers at the end of the period.
Back to Top