Yes, Virginia, There Really Is Sandpaper in 1775

The Hay Shop Workroom

Okay, we would like to settle the perennial question (or statement) we get in the shop:  “Since you didn’t have sandpaper…” or “Did they have sandpaper?”  or “Was sandpaper available back then?”

Answer: Yes, we had it.  Proof?  Here goes:

Several 18th century sources confirm the availability of sandpaper as a commercial product.  So far, in my own work on the evidence, the earliest reference is a handbill ad in the British Library, ca. 1750, from John Wilkinson, grocer and merchant in Scarborough, England, offering it amongst an array of other goods:

The full Wilkinson ad

The sandpaper listing in the Wilkinson ad

Most of the documentation is like this, merchant ware ads where sandpaper is available, buried amidst other items.  Most writings in the past have concentrated on these ads.  Let’s take a different direction.

The earliest, solidly dated mention of sandpaper I’ve found does not offer it for sale, but mentions its use!  The British Legacy or Fountain of Knowledge, 1754 gives the following receipt for staining picture frames of pear wood a deep black:

Receipt for staining pearwood, mentioning use of sandpaper.

Tincture of steel? Don’t ask.  Don’t know. Yet.

A 1755 Pennsylvania Gazette ad by Philadelphia merchant John Bayley lists the stuff for sale, but we can do better than this.

In 1774 Virginia planter and land baron Robert Carter III sent an order to his London agents for a variety of polishes, abrasives, stones and miscellaneous items.  Here’s a sampling:

“1 quire of emery paper, coarse; 1 quire of Emery paper, fine; 3 lbs. emery powder, fine; 3 lbs. emery powder, very fine; 3 lbs. emery not powdered in Grain; 3 lbs. Rottenstone; 2 lbs. Tripole; ….6 lbs. Whiting; 1 Pumice Stone used by Pewterers….”

Additionally (I can’t resist this), he’s also ordering aqua regis, aqua fortis, borax, burnt umber, 5 oz. cochineal (expeeeensive!), “gum lacc, seed,” “gum lacc, shell” (seedlac and shellac, there you are, folks!), mastic, gum arabic, elemi, copal, sandarac, gum anima.  All of the latter are used in making spirit or oil varnishes.

Add that he’s also ordering “a Sett of Tools for cutting in Wood, a kind of Sculpture or Engraving.”  He’s either into a new hobby OR sponsoring the set up of a new local shop in northern Virginia, a practice often employed by Virginia gentry to spur the growth of the local artisan population.

I digress.  Back to sandpaper.

Jump to 1775.  Carter wrote the following receipt in a day book of ‘useful information:’

“To polish wood – Take brown paper, make it wet with glew, then scatter fine sand thereon, through a hair sifter – Sandpaper is equal to fishskins.”

The latter sentence refers to the common use of dogfish or sand shark skins as abrasives. Years ago we experimented with sand shark skins here in the shop, with very successful results.

NOTE:  Unfortunately, I can’t reproduce the original Carter document sections because the original records belong to another institution and I don’t have their permission to publish from them.  It’s called proprietary rights and good museum ethics.  Even in the age of the Internet.

Last, the inventory of the personal estate of Williamsburg saddler Alexander Craig includes “Sandpaper” valued at 2 shillings, 6 pence.  While that amount of money might equal a day’s earning for a journeyman cabinetmaker, the document doesn’t specify the amount of sandpaper being valued, nor have I yet found a period unit price for the stuff.

But we had it.  We used it.  And it was there.

We have copies of all these items (and more) here in the shop.  If you are ever by and would like to see them, let us know.  The Robert Carter references are taken from microfilm of his papers at Duke University and Virginia Historical Society.  The PA Gazette and British Legacy are taken respectively from Accessible Archives and Eighteenth Century Collections Online, a subscription database from Gale Digital Archives which holds over 200,000 period books digitized and searchable, in cooperation with the British Library.  Yes, you must pay for access to the latter, but many colleges and universities have it (such as William and Mary across town here).  Check your nearest institution library.

While the Internet may have its uglier excesses, you gotta love it for this sort of work.  Revolutionary.  Okay, I said it.  You can start throwing the fruit (or sand!!!) now.



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23 Responses to Yes, Virginia, There Really Is Sandpaper in 1775

  1. Ron says:

    Very interesting article thank you!

  2. John Vernier says:

    I am quite sure I have seen Tincture of Steel referenced as a medication, but that hardly gets to the bottom of the matter. Do you have some sense of when glasspaper started to supercede sandpaper?

  3. Steve S. says:

    Thanks for putting all this material into one place. I really appreciate the academic legwork that goes into even a small research project like this.

    Does anyone know if any 18th century sandpaper still exists? I know sandpaper isn’t exactly a “collectable” tool, but surely somebody has some early sandpaper in a collection somewhere. What’s the earliest sandpaper known to exist?

  4. Brian says:

    Could “tincture of steel” be the sort iron-laden solution we make and use today to ebonize woods with high tannin? You know, the liquid you get when you dissolve steel wool or rusty nails in vinegar.

    Love the blog! Any harpsichord/spinet updates?

    • Tom Dugan says:

      Well, iron in vinegar was my first thought, but wasn’t sure what the relation to logwood was, so I Googled “logwood mordant”. This was the second (IIRC) hit from aurorasilk:

      “Logwood requires a mordant to develop the colour and fix the dye. With tin mordant, Logwood gives hues in the reddish violet to true purple range. With alum mordant it gives purple to blue purple. With chrome one generally gets a blue toned charcoal. With iron the colour is gray to black, usually with a decided blue cast. Tin give a purple and is the only dye process I know that requires Cream of Tarter to develop the brightest, clearest and fastest hue, at least in the acid waters of the Pacific Northwest.”

      The fabric folks are still heavily into this stuff.

    • My first thought, too. I’ve used the iron filings/oak nut galls/vinegar solutions here with reasonable success. And yes, just glued and nailed on the right cheek to close off the other side of the keywell. Pictures to come.

    • That’s what I think it was/is — and I was about to reply saying that, but I see you already did. 🙂

  5. Dennis Heyza says:

    A web search indicates Tincture of Steel is an alcoholic solution of the chloride of iron. It appears to also have been use in formulas for browning rifle barrels and, surprisingly, as a styptic.

    At least according to an anonymous barber.

  6. Thanks for all the comments and help on the subject. I wondered if the stain formula would set off some talk. Since I do occasionally stain pear wood for black key covers, this is worth pursuing. The start of another topic to pursue, never ends. Best.

  7. matt says:

    So glad your back blogging. Really enjoy it. Would the sand paper or the ingredients to make it be made locally? Or was this all being odered and shipped from England?

    • Right now, the evidence indicates that it came from England. Merchants running stores were agents for commercial houses back in England, so imported goods composed most of their inventory. They would purchase harvested crops and tobacco from planters and arrange shipment to England, and planters usually gained credit on the merchants’ books to purchase items from the store. Robert Carter’s order of abrasives from England indicates that he assumed such items were regularly available, and he seems to be pretty sharp and knowledgable about such things, as we have found in researching the contexts of other orders of his. Thanks for the comments, Matt, we’re trying….

  8. Dave Ray says:

    Thanks for blogging again as others have said. I realize it’s added chore to your very busy and fruitful day, but it is beneficial to us all.

  9. Pingback: Arts and Mysteries: The “Mystery” Revealed | The Literary Workshop Blog

  10. Tom Kelleher says:

    Thank you for this. This is wonderful. I think that the point however is that the ancients used sandpaper to prepare surfaces for a finish, NOT for people who did not know how to use a sharp blade or even sharpen a blade to safely grind away at wood with an electric motor in order to shape/smooth it. THAT is how most moderns/ non-craftsmen use sandpaper today.

  11. Martha Katz-Hyman says:

    Ed, according to the doctrine of “fair use” that is part of U.S. copyright law, you are allowed to use brief quotes from materials owned by other institutions or individuals as long as you give the complete citation and location unless the institutions and individuals require permission for the specific use. Check with Susan Shames: it would be good to have the actual quotes!

    • Thanks, Martha. I was referring to reproducing actual scanned images of the documents, as I did with the materials culled from ECCO. But thanks for the tip… and encouragement!

  12. A tincture is a type of herbal preparation in which the alkaloids, glycosides, minerals, and essential oils of a plant are extracted into a solvent. The liquids that are most often used as solvents are high-proof alcohols such as vodka or brandy, or occasionally apple cider vinegar or even vegetable glycerin
    So I would think,a rust solution similar to placing steel wool soaked in vinegar,and after a week you get a rust solution,used like a stain to ebonize wood.

  13. Bob Burgess says:

    Chest of Books: shows Tincture of Steel as a medicine, taken internally:

    Treating Erysipelas With Sulphurous Acid (Acidum Sulphurosum)

    A sulphurous lotion will often give great relief to the burning pain of erysipelas, and its constant application is said to cut short the malady. Dr. Hewson records twenty-seven cases of various degrees of severity – seven of them idiopathic, and all treated by the local use of a sulphite lotion (sodae sulphitis gr. x. ad 3 j.) applied on lint covered with oiled silk; it bleaches the skin and “destroys the inflammation” (Philadelphia Medical Times, i., 1868). Mr. Pairman describes great and immediate relief to pain in a severe case of facial erysipelas from a lotion of equal parts of glycerin and sulphurous acid: the patient recovered at the end of a week, but tincture of steel and other remedies were given internally; relief, however, was clearly traceable to the lotion, and it deserves to be more generally used than it is at present.

    Read more:

    The Free Dictionary (on line) further states that Tincture of Iron is:

    (Med.) an alcoholic solution of the chloride of iron.

  14. Bob Burgess says:

    From Wiki, an earier (1688) reference to sand paper:

    The first recorded use of sandpaper was in 13th-century China when crushed shells, seeds, and sand were bonded to parchment using natural gum. Sandpaper was originally known as glass paper, as it was coated with particles of glass rather than sand. Glass frit has sharp-edged particles and cuts well whereas sand grains are smoothed down and do not work well as an abrasive. Cheap counterfeit sandpaper was often passed off as true glass paper; Stalker and Parker cautioned against it in A Treatise of Japaning and Varnishing published in 1688

    • I’m not so sure about that Stalker and Parker reference. They consistently refer to horsetail rush (Dutch-Rush in their words) as a fine abrasive used in finishing and surface preparation. Their verb choice follows: so instead of “to sand” they write “to rush.” A good example is their first rule of varnishing (p.16 in the Tiranti edition): “Therefore let your wood which you intend to varnish be close-grained, exempt and free from all knots and greasiness, very smooth, clean, and well rush’t.” We’ve blogged about this here. We’ve seen references to glass paper from the early nineteenth century on, but don’t know when they first show up. Perhaps it is in Stalker and Parker, but we’ll need to read it yet again…

  15. Bob Burgess says:

    A Treatise of Japaning and Varnishing is available on line: – I have done a quick search and cannot find the above reference – a read of the whole book may find it…

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