Treasure beneath the letters: Embossed Paper Mill Marks






I have a burgeoning collection of ephemera, and I recently received some letters which gave me pause. On the upper left corner was an embossed mark which took my breath away. This particular letter had an embossed pagoda with the initials HB? HE? at the foot of the stairs. I thought perhaps this was a mark of personalized stationery but when I started to peruse my collection, I found another, and then another. The one with Parson’s Paper Mill in Holyoke decided I was not dealing with personal stationery I was dealing with paper mill marks—like a watermark, but instead an embossed mark in the upper left of the paper.. I started down the rabbit hole.


There’s tons of information on watermarks through the ages. Watermarks are pressed into paper usually as part of the moulding process and are visible if you hold the paper up to the light. Early US paper mills used watermarks and I’m sure you’ve seen marks on old paper. They are especially frequent with business correspondence—like on bond or linen paper. But that doesn’t explain the raised marks I was finding.

They seem to be on letters from 1815 to the 1890s. I haven’t found one past 1900, but my search is still in the infancy.


Parson’s Paper Mill in Holyoke takes you down a lovely rabbit hole about the history of Holyoke, and paper mills in general. In 1885 Holyoke was the largest producer of paper in any city. Parson’s Paper Mill was the longest operating of all of them.


What I began to look for was a directory of these embossed marks. There are resources for paper mill directories and watermark directories but so far I’ve only found a mention of embossed watermarks and a partial list of ‘embossed watermark’ descriptions. Surely there must somewhere be a visual guide. Perhaps it’s only me that cares. But I’m starting to hunt for the lovelier ones, as treasure hunters do. If you have a resource for me, please drop me a note!



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