Friday, March 6, 2009

An Airmail Journey into the Crane Past

As you probably know by now, people send me stuff that has to do with Crane's history. That's a good thing, being an historian....

The other day, I got an interoffice envelope with lots of fun things, but one stood out from the rest. Crane is a family business, owned and managed by members of the Crane family. But there are also other families whose members have worked at Crane for generations. We know the Murrays have worked there for five generations. And we know that the Drosehns have had more than 120 members of its extended family employed by Crane.

So, when I came across a piece of paper - the results of a papermaking trial in 1945 with the name Wellspeak - I knew exactly who that would have been. Charlie Wellspeak - that's him standing next to Mary Ward - is a retired papermaker and a curator at the Crane Museum of Papermaking.

But Charlie didn't start working for Crane until 1950 when he got out of the Navy, so I knew it had to be his Dad. Sure enough it was. Charlie tells me that he and his father used to make paper together at Crane's Old Berkshire Mill. Charlie the elder was the machine tender, aka the boss, and Charlie the younger was the backtender, aka the underling. Of course that's how it should be and how it's been done here for more than 200 years - passing down traditions and expertise from generation to generation. Charlie says his father was a tough boss, but "he could make that machine work when no one else could."

Back to the piece of paper Charlie senior made. It's a beautiful snowy white. It has a very soft feel in the hand, yet is crisp and rattly. There is no notation of the basis weight, but it's probably right around 16 pounds.

It was no surprise that this thin paper was being made for Air Mail, as its watermark confirms.

It was a surprise to me that the paper was not made from cotton or flax, but hemp.

"Oh sure," said Charlie. "We made paper from hemp all the time, especially carbon paper." Hemp has notoriously long and strong fibers, so it imparts excellent strength properties to thin papers like Air Mail or carbon.

I won't get into the politics of hemp as a viable raw material for paper made in the United States. I'll leave that to you.

I can tell you that this is one beautiful, strong piece of paper that Charlie's Dad made.

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