Unwrapping the connection between Egyptian mummies and Maine papermaking

Posted Oct. 26, 2012, at 6:51 p.m.
Sue Wolfe, author of “&quotMummies in Nineteenth Century America, Ancient Egyptians as Artifacts”."
Courtesy of Steve Lanava
Sue Wolfe, author of “"Mummies in Nineteenth Century America, Ancient Egyptians as Artifacts”."

PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — Have any rag-based documents, newsprint or currency lying around? Take a look at it, because the main ingredient could very well be mummy rags straight from Egypt by way of southern Maine paper mills.

Just in time for Halloween, noted expert in mummies Sue Wolfe was speaking Friday night on “Mummies in Maine? Curiosities, Commodities and Cultural Connections” at the Northern Maine Community College library.

Long thought to be the stuff of urban legends, mummy rags, taken from bodies found in mass Egyptian graves in the mid-1800s, were widely used in the New England papermaking process, according to Wolfe.

“In this country from the time of the American Revolution to around 1900, all paper was made from rags and there was a rag shortage,” Wolfe said Friday, shortly before her talk at NMCC, which was sponsored by the Haystack Historical Society. “At the time linen was needed for use as plugs in firearms so there were not a lot of scraps for the papermakers to use.”

It was not until 1854 when New York chemist Isaiah Deck traveled to Egypt looking for Cleopatra’s lost emerald mine that a solution presented itself, Wolfe said.

Deck may not have found any emeralds, but he did stumble across huge communal burial pits full of mummies.

“Deck proposed if each mummy had a specific amount of linen used in its wrappings and that was over 5,000 years of wrapping mummies, there was a lot of perfectly good linen that could be used,” she said.

As fate would have it, around the same time the Alexandria to Cairo railroad was under construction and as workers dug their way down through yards of sand to solid bedrock, they kept on finding more and more mummies and a seemingly endless supply of linen rags.

Not ones to waste what was left after the wrappings were removed, 19th century Egyptians ended up using smaller mummies — including cats and dogs that had been mummified — and mummy pieces as fuel for the steam engines on the trains, Wolfe said.

“They were dry, had been covered in oil and had had pitch gum stuffed in their noses,” she said. “In a land where there was not much timber, coal or [fuel] oil it made sense.

“There grew a thriving business in Alexandria for the unwrapping of mummies and those not used for train fuel were actually ground into fertilizer for use in English country rose gardens,” Wolfe said.

For years modern day local lore spoke of miles of mummy linen coming into Maine to supply papermaking mills in Gardner and Westbrook, Wolfe said. The trouble was there seemed to be no way to prove it.

“Nowhere could we find anything that said ‘mummy rags,’” Wolfe said. “All I found were references to paper made from ‘Egyptian rags’ or ‘From the land of the Pharaoh.’”

Another issue was that the paper was not always made from 100 percent mummy rags — it was often mixed with other cloth.

“No one could find any records about mummies or wrappings being imported,” she said. “But in 2006 I was doing some research on something unrelated to mummies and came across the broadside for the [1859] Norwich, Connecticut, Jubilee and it said it was printed on paper made from wrappings taken from Egyptian tombs.”

That, Wolfe said, was her smoking gun and the hunt for further proof was on.

She was later able to determine that by the 1850s rag merchant Samuel Dennis Warren was busily importing mummy wrappings for papermaking and ended up building the town of Westbrook around that industry.

“You could say Westbrook was the town mummies built,” Wolfe said. “Any mills in Maine that Warren had any connection with — and he had a connection to most — used mummy rags.”

Paper from those mills was shipped up and down the East Coast for use in newsprint, currency and other documents.

“There is probably a lot more mummy paper out there than people realize,” Wolfe said.

When cholera broke out in mill towns around Maine, people blamed the mummy rags and Warren was called in to testify before a senate committee in the 1880s.

“But the only town to not have cholera was Westbrook,” Wolfe said. Warren — a stickler for cleanliness — told the senators that was because he had not built those other towns, she added.

Regardless, the mummy rags had nothing to do with the cholera, Wolfe said.

Stories that entire mummies were brought in by the shipload to Maine are unsubstantiated and actually counter to the region’s economic sensibilities, according to Wolfe.

“There was no way any Yankee ship’s captain was going to carry that much dead weight,” she quipped.

To make the paper, the rags were literally left to rot in giant, wet piles before being shredded into a goo resembling oatmeal, Wolfe said. It was then passed through a screen and pressed into paper.

Last year when invited to speak at the International Mummy Congress in San Diego, Wolfe was approached by noted mummy expert Bob Brier and asked if the process would still work.

“I said sure, I have some rags if you have a blender and a piece of screen,” she said. “But before he could say anything, his wife said, ‘Not with my blender you won’t.’”

Eventually, using mummy linens for making rag-based paper stretched from Maine to upstate New York to Wisconsin before the chemical process to turn pulp wood into paper was perfected around 1900.

Wolfe is the author of “Mummies in Nineteenth Century America, Ancient Egyptians as Artifacts” and works as the senior cataloguer and serials specialist for the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester, Mass.

She maintains an online database of mummies in America and is always on the hunt for new mummies. Just this week, Wolfe learned there is a mummy head at the Hudson Museum at the University of Maine, which she plans to visit. She might even stay for a talk on the head slated for 6 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 30, at the Bangor Museum and Center for History at 159 Union St.

Wolfe also speaks to children and adult groups throughout the year, assuring young and old that, despite Boris Karloff and Hollywood’s depiction of them, mummies are really rather gentle creatures not the the least bit interested in returning from the dead and preying on the living.

Wolfe acknowledges that the modern-day fascination with mummies and ancient Egypt often borders on the macabre. But she also points out how the examination of mummies has helped with cultural and medical advances.

Still, she does have plans to have her own body cremated when the time comes, just in case.

“I don’t want someone digging me up a thousand years from now and using me as a specimen of a 21st century librarian,” she said.

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