The J Whatman 1794 Codex Binding


Our longterm ambition has been to attend the CODEX exhibition in Berkely CA. For us it's a big deal. Last year we sent them our CV and much to our delight we were accepted and offered a place.

We knew that we needed a centerpiece book to show in one fell swoop what it is we do; books, handmade papers and pattern printing.

Three years in the making - here is the story behind the J Whatman 1794 Codex Binding

In 2018 we were offered the opportunity to buy rare and valuable 18th century handmade paper from a retired bookbinder in America.

The collection comprised of papers from Holland, France, England and America, all made in the 1790s or earlier. Being paper fanatics and of course vintage paper being our business I simply couldn't say no, so I scraped the money together and bought everything. The parcel duly arrived a few weeks later.


Inside that parcel was, for me, the most important part of the purchase; a huge but broken book of J Whatman 1794 paper.

I love Whatman - the history and quality of their paper makes them, in my opinion, the most important papermaker in European history. Everything they made from the 1740s through to the 1960s when they shut down was absolutely the best quality. If you don't know about Whatman but you do know about Rolls Royce or Faberge then that's where we're at with this paper.  

You can read a lot more about J Whatman here.

j whatman codex book

Having received plenty of photos from the seller I knew exactly what we were getting. The book was in several bits but most importantly the book block (the paper inside) was intact and given that it's 220+ years old, in remarkable condition. 

map of the USA 1974

To put into context how old the paper inside this book is; George Washington was president and most of the west of America was not even mapped. Here is a map of America published in 1794. 

j whatman codex book

The original binding was not in good condition and it certainly wasn't a beautiful thing either. It was made as a record/ledger book and frankly it was rather underwhelming to look at.

j whatman codex binding

The bookbinder's ticket inside shows it as being made by George McDowell & Co of South Street, Baltimore, Maryland. There are a few records of their existence in local business listings up to about 1815 but we know nothing more about them. 


j whatman codex book before

What made this particularly interesting was the size of the binding (20 x 12 inches) and the quantity and quality of paper inside it; hundreds of large sheets.

In the best of times we come across a handfull of matching sheets of very old unused paper in a decent condition but to come across hundreds of sheets is a once in lifetime event. It simply doesn't happen.

This is a large book containing virtually a full mill pack of paper (18 x 23") simply folded in half and sewn. This size of paper was known as "Medium" and would have been used in ledgers and record books.

j whatman 1794 watermark

How do we know what the paper is? Luckily old handmade paper usually contains a watermark and a countermark which makes identification straightforward!

The watermark is the pictorial image and the countermark the name and date. Here the countermark reads "J Whatman 1794". Paper was countermarked for customs and excise purposes i.e the taxman! 

j whatman 1794 handmade paper

The watermark in paper is more elaborate than the countermark; in this instance a fleur de lis atop a shield (often an identifyer of paper size) with the Whatman monogram below.

It's a linen rag text paper with a laid surface. It was made as a general purpose paper for writing, books, drawing and painting. 


The aim of this project was to make the ultimate Properly Made Book. It's taken us three years to complete.

Every element from the box to the paper inside is handmade. The printed paper on the box and the endpapers are printed in-house. Many of the tools used to make the decorative gold patterns have been made by us.

In order to make the J Whatman 1794 Codex book we had to take the original broken book to bits and start again.

The book block was removed, undone, strengthened and resewn. It'll be good for another few hundred years now. 

j whatman codex book

Because we live and work in Scotland we decided to make a Scottish Wheel binding; a hugely elaborate exercise in gold tooling.


 j whatman codex bindingThe J Whatman Codex Binding - the ultimate Properly Made Book.

Big, beautiful, totally handmade; a unique, one-off masterpeice. Because of the rarity of the paper inside it is absolutely impossible to remake.