Lunar Refractions: High-Water Mark

The rain falls ever harder, and noon is as grey as six in the morning. I’m in a tiny mill town in the Salzkammergut region of Austria, and it’s rained consistently for the past eleven days. Although the geographic distances aren’t much, this Austria is culturally quite far from the Vienna of Zweig, Hundertwasser, Jelinek et al., and even farther from the Mozart delirium (chocolates, operas, and 250th birthdays) now taking place in Salzburg. I’ve come here for a congress of papermakers, and suppose Steyrermühl was chosen more for the historical presence of paper along the Traun River than for the industrial paper mill that now seems to be the sole life of the town.

I’ll be giving a brief presentation about watermarks—those oft-misunderstood marks most visible when paper is backlit. Over the past few months, as I considered what I might bring to this show-and-tell, I got sidetracked.

Getting over History

On my way north from Italy I traveled through Trentino-Alto Adige, or Südtirol, and stopped in Bozen and Meran. When I mentioned this to an Italian friend from a bit farther south, he was repulsed, asking whWmovie_2y I would want to go someplace where everyone’s a Nazi. This was said in jest, of course, but not completely. I said such an opinion would be like saying all Italians are Fascists, to which he replied “no, that’s very different, you see, because we had partisans fighting the Fascists, but none of the people stood up against what was going on in Germany and Austria.” Our little disagreement aside, when I was considering how to introduce watermarks, I figured my first stop should be Google; after all, fewer and fewer people still think of going to a printed, bound, multi-volume encyclopedia. So, I googled “watermarks,” and the first link, followed by many others in the top ten, was the website of a documentary that debuted last year about a Viennese Jewish female swimming team, the women’s forced flights to several other continents in the nineteen-thirties, and their recent reunion. That’s one more strike against my bicker-backup. I’m either naïve, or would just really like to think that people and nations can eventually get over their histories.

A Do-it-Yourself Digital Future

Several more of the top ten links for “watermarks” sent me to sites for creating my very own digital watermark to protect documents and impart my otherwise generic, Wonderbread copy-paper printouts with a distinguished air. The truth is that real watermarks, as they were born several hundred years ago, are an endangered species, while their imitators are proliferating right and left. I’m not saying this is a bad thing, or trying to change the inevitable course of things; I just mean that it’s really refreshing when I meet someone who has even a vague idea of these symbols’ rich past.

Baselstab01_1 I’m enchanted by these signs. The subtle white-on-white mark, transparently traced out by minute differences in thickness, can be missed if one isn’t paying attention. There are catalogues upon catalogues of the most common signs used—grapes, coats of arms, hands, initials, anchors, fool’s Propatria caps—and, like runes or linear A, their origins and meanings remain largely mysterious. They have political implications as well: one of the more common watermarks in European handmade papers is the Pro Patria (any Vaterland remarks, anyone?) mark, usually a sword- or staff-wielding sovereign enclosed by a fence or within a walled city-state. Imitation, quality control, and copyright issues had come up in paper long before the industrial revolution and information-age; the Baselstab, or Basel crozier, was first used by papermakers in Basel, as it is the city symbol. Because they also made what was widely known as the best (and most expensive) paper, this mark was copied all around Europe, allowing the lesser papermakers in many countries to tell their clients it was a high quality imported paper, and therefore charge them significantly more.


Then there are the kitschy chiaroscuro watermarks with heads of state and other prominent figures—oversized, more pompous relatives of the tiny ones found in paper currency. The practicality of the line watermark, usually used as a maker’s mark or mill’s signature, is more humble, and more easily written over, than the flashy, cameo-like portrait chiaroscuro sort.

I suppose it’s the sheer understatement of most watermarks that so attracts me. As directing trends produce more and more thirty-second television spots with hundreds of images flashed for mere milliseconds, and Photoshop allows anyone to crank up the contrast to create oceans of saccharine, Technicolor images of a brighter, better world, watermarks are a humble, slow, quiet presence. The signs are there, and are easily overlooked.

Previous Lunar Refractions can be found here.