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:
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:
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.