Submitted by Sharra Grow on
By Alex Teoh
Southeast Asia is not known for its tradition of paper making and book binding compared to the Chinese, European or Middle Eastern civilizations. Its environmental conditions of warm temperatures and high humidity are found to accelerate the deterioration of organic materials like paper and books. This has been further aggravated by the occurrence of natural disasters—such as floods, fires and tsunamis—and World War ll. However, as a paper and book conservator in Southeast Asia, I have had the privilege of handling some local writing materials and unique binding structures like the Javanese (daluang) bark paper and Malay manuscripts with bamboo stick bindings. Recently I came across some 1920’s books with the label “printed on Rubber Latex Paper”. To understand the material, I conducted some research on its origin, characteristics and usage.
During the British Empire Exhibition held at Wembley Park, England, from 23 April to 1 November 1924, a number of handbooks were published and distributed that promoted the economy and produce of British Malaya. Published by the London-based Malay States Information Agency, these handbooks included titles such as British Malaya: Trade & Commerce, Rubber Planting in Malaya, Coconut Industry in Malaya, Big Game Shooting & Motoring in Malaya and Mining in Malaya.
The agency was set up in 1910 as the Malay States Development Agency, which was renamed Malay States Information Agency in 1911. Its mission was to provide information to prospective investors to boost land cultivation and trade in British Malaya. Through various public relations initiatives, advertisements and exhibitions, Malaya’s primary produce (including rubber, coconut, pineapple and gambier) and minerals, such as tin, were made known to the British Empire and to the world. In 1928 the agency was renamed for a second time as the Malayan Information Agency and occupied a building called Malaya House in London’s Trafalgar Square.
In addition to producing handbooks about topics related to Malaya, the agency also subtly aimed to show off Malayan products in other ways. What is interesting to discover is that on the title page of each handbook published by the agency for the British Empire Exhibition is the line, “The text portion of this pamphlet is printed on Rubber Latex Paper”. The printed pages appear off-white, slightly glossy and, after all these decades, still in good condition. The wove paper has a uniform surface, not ribbed or watermarked, and has a thickness of around 0.10 mm (similar to the 70gsm paper used today for photocopying).
WHAT IS RUBBER LATEX PAPER?
Rubber was, of course, the chief agricultural product of the Malay Peninsula at the time. Commercially planted since 1895, British Malaya supplied more than half of the world’s rubber by the 1930s. Rubber latex paper was made by mixing liquid latex into paper pulp during paper making. The process, incorporating rubber latex in wood pulp to make paper, was developed by Professor Frederick Kaye of the Manchester College of Technology and patented in 1920.
It was then commercially tested with free shipments of rubber latex sent to paper mills in England, Holland, Belgium and the United States. During the 1920s the price of rubber had slumped, and rubber export restrictions were instituted to halt falling prices. As such, any new uses of rubber to increase demand would have been welcomed by Malayan planters and rubber investors.
As for the properties of rubber latex paper, it was reported in the Straits Times in April 1922 that rubber latex appeared to “improve the texture [of paper] and makes the paper more uniform when viewed by transmitted light” ("Rubber for Paper Making" Straits Times, 22 April 1922, 2). “The feel of the paper, especially with paper containing large amounts of rubber, is much improved and becomes pleasant to the touch…” The Straits Times further reported that “paper containing rubber latex is more water-repellent than the same paper without rubber, and a suitable treatment of the fibres in paper-making with rubber latex will give a water-proof paper”. In addition, the “electrical resistance and dielectric properties of paper may be improved by the addition of rubber latex”. The paper also becomes more absorbent with better hydration, and production cost will also be reduced considerably.
In May 1922, both the Straits Times and Malaya Tribune reported that rubber latex paper had increased “folding resistance” (a measure of the resistance of the paper to cracking along the crease when folded) and “bursting strength” (per square inch calculated to a thickness of 0.1 millimetre). For instance, an ordinary piece of untreated printing paper had a bursting strength of 7 pounds and a folding resistance of 2, while paper treated with rubber latex had a bursting strength of 20 pounds and a folding resistance of 250.
The use of rubber latex aroused much interest and garnered considerable news coverage in 1922 and 1923. Besides paper-making, there were suggestions to use the substance in other industries, such as adding it to the raw materials for making paper food containers so that these would be “stronger, tougher, and more damp-proof than at present”. In a letter to the editor of the Straits Times dated 14 November 1922, R. Gunton Turner of Bahau proposed using rubber latex in the manufacture of the paper for currency notes. There was also a suggestion that Malaya start manufacturing paper as well.
However, the economic outlook was still rather bleak at the time, and paper manufacturers were not all receptive to adding rubber latex into their raw ingredients. Due to rubber export restrictions and shipment costs, variable prices and additional costs were a worry to the paper mills. There were also concerns about the licencing cost of this technology, the effect of latex on the pulp mixing equipment and the lack of branding of the rubber latex paper.
COMMERCIAL LATEX PAPER
Although there was resistance from paper manufacturers, there was still demand for rubber latex paper. It was used for printing the company reports of several major public-listed companies and associations in Malaya, including Guthrie & Co., Fraser and Neave, Ltd., Robinson and Co., Singapore United Rubber and the Planters’ Association of Malaya. The first newspaper to be printed on rubber latex paper was the Investors’ Chronicle in London in 1923, and the innovation was promptly announced in both the Malaya Tribune and Straits Times.
For the Malaya Pavilion at the British Empire Exhibition in 1924, the 2,000 copies of pamphlets produced for sale used two tons of paper, of which three percent was rubber latex.
A company that commercially manufactured latex paper was Messrs Lepard and Smiths, Limited, one of the oldest established paper merchants in London. They produced envelopes, bank and bond papers as well as cream laid writing papers, known as “Latex Papers”, at their warehouses in London. These were then shipped and stored in Singapore and elsewhere to meet demand. In Singapore and Malaya, latex paper was advertised and sold by major merchandisers like Fraser and Neave, Ltd., John Little & Co., Ltd. and G.H. Kiat & Co., Ltd.
In 1925 and 1927, the printer Rickard Ltd located on Cecil Street embarked on a targeted advertising campaign for its latex paper. The marketing slogan in the daily newspapers was “Keep Up the Price of Rubber by Having All Your Printing Done on Latex Paper ” and “To Managers of Rubber Estates – Insist on Having All Your Printing – Letter Heads, Memos, Check Rolls, Etc. Etc. Done on Latex Paper”. Similarly, the advertising message used by the bookshop G.H. Kiat & Co. was “Are You Helping the Rubber Industry by Using Latex Paper?”
In 1926, John Little & Co., Ltd. offered a new series of Christmas greetings cards featuring “etchings of local beauty spots by Mrs G. Sinclair”, printed on a special grade of latex paper. John Little launched their exclusive stationery brand of writing pads, note paper and envelopes called Rubtext Stationery in 1929. These use “distinctive high quality paper with semi-smooth finish” and are made in two finishes, antique and ripple, with each finish in four colours: white, sea blue, maize and mauve.
However, after the 1930s, not much is recorded about the supply and demand of rubber latex paper in Malaya.
Today, natural rubber is still an important raw material in the production of many household and industrial items. Although the term “rubber latex paper” may not be familiar to the younger generations today, what we have are handbooks and publications that serve as reminders and evidence of this interesting invention that is so much a part of the history of Singapore and Malaya.
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The original article, titled "Printed on Rubber Latex Paper”, was first published in BiblioAsia, volume 18, issue 1 (April-June 2022), a publication on the culture, history and heritage of Singapore by the National Library Board. This paper (including all research footnotes and bibliographic information) can be found here: https://biblioasia.nlb.gov.sg/vol-18/issue-1/apr-to-jun-2022/rubber-late...
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Alex Teoh was trained in the UK at Camberwell College of Arts, University of Arts, London as a paper and book conservator. Since returning to Asia in 2007, he has been involved in various conservation and restoration projects in Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore. His current focus is on the local material culture of the written text in South East Asia, including the use and conservation of daluang (bark paper) in Javanese and Malay manuscripts, local book bindings, and the use of local spices and herbs as pest deterrence. Alex can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org
(Read the article and see all the images in the August-September 2022 "News in Conservation" Issue 91, p. 12-17)