Private Economies: Paper and Its Production in Elizabeth Gaskell’s Britain

By Daniel Haws (MA ’19), Department of English, Kansas State University

It seems like it was just yesterday when I questioned my grandmother’s peculiar practice of washing plastic sandwich bags. To me, Ziploc bags were a single-use product, and my young mind couldn’t fathom why one would need to recycle such an item.

My ignorance exemplified the fact that I didn’t live through the worst economic recession in the history of the modern world, as my grandmother did. The material realities of the Great Depression formed the foundation of her childhood, while the robust economy of Bill Clinton’s presidency formed mine. 

Her habit of saving those bags was part of what Elizabeth Gaskell would call her “private economy,” which is the act of “saving fractions of pennies in some one peculiar direction” (41).  My grandmother’s private economy cannot be examined without linking the practice of reusing disposable products to the abject poverty of her youth.

Just as I’m interested in the material conditions and the private economies of my grandmother’s life, Gaskell’s novel Cranford(1853) is interested in the material conditions and private economies of its characters. If we look closer, we might discover important context on the use of commodities in nineteenth-century Britain.

Mary Smith, the narrator of Cranford, talks about “an old gentleman of [her] acquaintance” who fretted over a family member tearing pages from his bank-book. Instead, he wished for the pages to be cut out, as the “little unnecessary waste of paper” vexed him endlessly (41). The irony being that the bank-book’s details—the loss of a substantial amount of the gentleman’s money—were less perturbing to the man than the torn pages. Envelopes also “fretted his soul terribly” as he couldn’t stomach such a waste of material (43). Like my grandmother’s practice, he turned envelopes inside out for re-use.

Paper today is cheap and disposable and fretting over its waste seems foreign in our age of material excess, but that hasn’t always been the case. Paper stretches back over 2000 years into human history. Its evolution has been a painstaking progression of trial and error that began with the pulping of plant-based rags by mortar and pestle in China—a process first recorded in the first century C.E.

Oldest existing piece of paper excavated from a tomb in Tianshui, China. Circa 179 B.C.E.

After the plant material was pulped, a mould and vat technique was used to produce individual sheets. This process was arduous and pricey, with each mill only producing around two reams a day. Rag paper continued into the nineteenth century as the primary source of paper in the world (Valente 209). As such, paper would have been a valuable commodity in the gentleman’s youth.

Nineteenth-century workers cleaning rags to make paper pulp. Mataura, New Zealand.

In the year 1800, around the time Gaskell’s “old gentleman” would have been a young man, there were 430 papermills in England and Wales (BAPH). While innovations in the manufacturing of paper were being made during this time, paper was still primarily produced by hand. Prior to the 1840s, envelopes were not widely used. Instead, writers would fold up and seal their letters with wax, which created a makeshift envelope (Pool 151). Envelopes must have struck the old gentleman as being fundamentally wasteful as he wouldn’t have grown up wrapping his letters in more paper.

This added context, like the realization that my grandmother lived through the Great Depression, informs us of the conditions the old gentleman would have experienced as a young person. While his behavior could be seen as peculiar by a modern audience, it likely has its origins in the material realities of his youth.

Video detailing traditional methods of paper production:

Works Cited

BAPH. “History of Paper Making in the United Kingdom.” British Association of Paper Historians (BAPH),

Gaskell, Elizabeth. Cranford. Oxford University Press, 2011.

Pool, Daniel. “The Mail.” What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew: Fascinating Facts of Daily Life in the Nineteenth Century, Simon & Schuster, 1998, pp. 150-152.

Valente, AJ. “Changes in Print Paper During the 19thCentury.” Anything Goes, 2012, doi: 10.5703/1288284314836.

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