Printing books in days of yore

Confederate printers improvised with rags, wallpaper during paper shortage

Mike Selby

Cranbrook Public Library

“Rags! Rags!! Rags!!!” read a small ad placed in a Georgian newspaper in July of 1863. Not only were “rags” desperately needed, but also “old ledgers, cash books, old journals,” and “old blank books of any kind.” Wallpaper, as well as gift wrapping paper, would also be most welcome. Any readers who had this kind of material were asked to send it Wellington Stevenson—the owner of the very newspaper which this odd advertisement appeared. Stevenson found himself in the worst position a publisher could ever be in: he was out of paper.

By the time his ad appeared, the United States had been fractured in half for two years. The complete eradication of slavery ignited the American Civil War, with a clear line drawn between the Northern and Southern states. While many have at least heard of Confederate currency, less known is the Confederate Imprint: thousands of books printed in what was at the time being called the Confederate States of America.

As the South broke away from the rest of the country, it no longer wished to be dependent on reading material from the North. This may have been more practical than political. Whether they wanted it or not, the South wasn’t getting anything from the North. They were also unable to acquire books from Europe, and the North had effectively blockaded the South’s sea ports. With the capture of New Orleans, sheet music—of prime importance to southern culture—was no longer available.

Declaring their independence from the United States, the Confederacy wished to print “Southern thought, imagination, and taste,” hoping to instill “an independence in thought and education.”

Of course, this was easier said than done. Not only had paper become an endangered species, but ink did as well. Ever resourceful, the Confederate printers tried new recipes using fig juice, poison oak, pomegranates and a plant known as American pokeweed. Even black shoe polish was tried at one time, but the printing became messy and illegible.

Just what books were they able to publish?

The first book published under the Confederate imprint was a typical yet bizarre one titled “Mutual Relations of Masters and Slaves as Taught in the Bible.” Written by Woodrow Wilson’s father, this book somehow equated “slavery” with “freedom.”

More interesting is “A Manual of Military Surgery,” which was bound in fabric from an old dress; and “Rifle and Infantry Tactics,”–bound in wallpaper. “Tanhauser: Or The Battle of the Bards” is a book of poetry printed on a paper-like material used for making coats. “Southern Confederacy Arithmetic” and “Our Own School Arithmetic” were both bound in wave-grain cloth. (Did they really need their own arithmetic?)

Kittrel J. Warren’s “Ups and Downs of Wife Hunting” would almost be the oddest title of the Confederacy Imprint, if it was not for “A Complete Biographical Sketch of Stonewall Jackson: Giving a Full and Accurate Account of the Leading events of his Military Career, His Dying Moments, and the Obsequies at Richmond and Lexington.” At only a few dozen pages, this title is almost as long as the book itself.

Another short work was “Ordinance of secession, passed Jan’ry 19, 1861, with the Names of the Signers.” It, however, was completely printed on silk.

Unlike their currency, the Confederate Imprint ended long before the war did. But in that brief flash of independence they were able to print 7,000 items; an amazing example of a people’s ingenuity and resolve under the worst of circumstances.