The Story of a Watermark

In the early 19th century when paper was made by hand, a watermark was produced when thin wire was shaped into a design or letters, and then sewn into the mold used to make the paper. When a sheet of paper was held up to the light, the watermark could be read. It would identify the maker of the paper or, in some cases, the paper broker.


Photograph of a watermark, from UD’s Thomas Gravell Watermark collection


Thomas Gravell (d. 2004) was an engineer for E.I. Dupont de Nemours and Company for thirty five years.  After his retirement in 1975, he discovered a means of accurately and inexpensively reproducing watermarks, and he became an authority on early American varieties.  Gravell spent the last part of his life tracking down, identifying, and reproducing a huge number of early American watermarks, for a number of institutions, including University of Delaware Special Collections.

In 1979 Gravell and George Miller published an annotated catalog  entitled American Watermarks, 1690-1835.  Containing 700 illustrations, it became the definitive work on the topic. In 2002 Delaware’s Oak Knoll Press published a greatly revised and expanded edition .


Cover of the revised edition of American Watermarks 1690-1835, from Oak Knoll Press, 2002


In 1980 UD Special Collections began acquiring  collections of manuscripts of Gravell’s two books on early watermarks, along with slides, index cards and photographs.  In 1995 two professors at Virginia Tech created a searchable, online database of 7,000 images from the Thomas L. Gravell Watermark collection at UD.

Three of the watermarks in Gravell’s book came from one or both of the paper mills of Roger Kirk and his sons. The paper mills of R. Kirk & Sons operated in Chester County Pennsylvania during the first decades of the nineteenth century.

Recently L. Harvey Kirk II (UD ’69),  a descendent of Roger Kirk,  contacted UD Special Collections, looking  for reproductions of the Kirk watermarks found in Gravell’s book.

After he was directed to the online database from Virginia Tech,  Mr. Kirk discovered an image of one of the watermarks that included a detail not found in the version published in Gravell’s book.  Because it was exposed differently, the version in the database reveals a signature from the page:  “Thomas Jefferson Esq.”  The identity of this particular document is uncertain. The original document is part of  the Thomas Jefferson papers at the Library of Congress, one of the institutions for which Gravell reproduced watermarks.

Needless to say, Mr. Kirk is excited to find out the identity of at least one person who used paper from his ancestors’ paper mill!



Detail of a page with the watermark of R. Kirk and Sons, bearing Thomas Jefferson’s signature, from the Gravell Watermark Archive database



Inverted image of the R. Kirk watermark, with the signature of “Thomas Jefferson Esq.” right side up. From the Gravell Watermark Archive  database.



Link to the finding aid for the Thomas Gravell Watermark collection at University Delaware Special Collections.

Link to the Gravell Watermark database at Virginia Tech.

Curtis Small

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