Saturday, May 19, 2012

The Hoax

Sometimes, tea staining is not enough, as a story I first came across on Boing Boing earlier this week demonstrates.

In professor T. Mills Kelly's class, students act out clever public hoaxes. But while Wikipedians are easily fooled, Redditors exposed the latest jape—Do you think my 'Uncle' Joe was just weird or possibly a serial killer?— instantly.

The short version- an attempted internet hoax quickly unraveled under examination because the organizers tried to rush things along. You can find a much more detailed look at the failed mythmaking in the original Reddit thread and the followup article at The Atlantic. It's a fascinating story, but there is one particular aspect I found interesting- the aging job on the supposed stash of newspaper articles. Sadly, it appears most of the original photographs have been removed from the Reddit thread, but this shot is still floating around.

Quite a few of the Reddit comments picked up on the dodgy aging of the newsprint. It's mottled and uneven, with some spots showing little browning while the right edge is so darkened as to look burned. The one nice touch is that notch in the upper right hand corner. It's a pretty convincing duplication of the way old, heavily oxidized newsprint crackles and tears along the grain of the paper, but the treatment isn't carried out consistently along the edge.

At a guess, I think the creator of the aged clipping was reasonably clever, but didn't have much experience with aging paper. After printing out the story on standard 20 lb. printer paper they applied the tea stain by dipping the paper in a bath and then transferred it to a flat, non-absorbent surface to dry. You'll find the directions for doing that in dozens of places, and it's what produced the heavy mottling on the left hand side of the clipping. Then they trimmed down the article to size and recreated the look of extreme edge oxidation with lemon juice and a heat gun.

For a piece of newsprint that's been allegedly stored away for years in a trunk that mottling just doesn't ring true. Since the clips allegedly date back to the mid 1890s the original newsprint would have been wood pulp. Under cover and away from sunlight it will steadily breakdown, but the process occurs very evenly as the lignin in the paper reacts with atmospheric oxygen. You wouldn't get some spots with barely any tinting and others heavily discolored. The variations would be much more gradual.

That problem could have been solved by using a slightly different staining process. To get an even, subtle tint you need to stain the paper and then let it dry very, very slowly. Dipping the paper in a bath and then drying it on a counter-top or cookie sheet can take hours, but it's still too fast.

I would have used a glass sheet as the working surface for the whole process. The first step would be to lay the paper on the glass and apply the staining solution with a sponge to the entire surface, then flip the paper and treat the other side. Let the paper get totally saturated. Then lift it up and gently float it on the layer of staining solution on the glass. Apply even pressure with a damp sponge to the paper and gently push out any air bubbles and excess staining solution from under the paper. Done correctly, the paper will mold itself to the surface of the glass under a layer of the staining solution.

Then you wait.

As the liquid slowly evaporates you'll get a very smooth and even tint across the entire sheet. By gently applying more of the staining solution along the edges of the paper you can prolong the process by maintaining the seal between the paper and the glass. That keeps the paper from lifting, limiting evaporation to just one side of the sheet and preventing any significant mottling. In the end you'll have a faux clipping that has a much more realistic oxidation tint.

In the end I don't think properly aging their prop clippings would have helped the hoaxers much. Their biggest mistake was in rushing the trailbuilding for the story with the iffy Wikipedia entries. But anyone attempting a similar project, purely for entertainment purposes of course, should be aware that there are ways to make their props more believable.


CoastConFan said...

The difference in the amount of paper aging is due to the difference between wood pulp fiber paper and linen rag paper and residual acid from processing. The process of making wood pulp is to introduce acid to break down fibers so they can be rearranged into sheets of paper. The residual sulfur-based acid, in varying quantities, remain in the paper, which causes the paper to self destruct starting in just a few years. Environmental factors can accelerate this deterioration. Wood pulp paper was produced commercially in the early 1870s so keep in mind the date of the prop document you are creating. So called linen rag could have only a little to no acid, depending on the quality of the paper. Cheap newspaper paper had among the highest levels of acid of any paper. A good quality linen rag paper could last centuries with no deterioration or yellowing, again depending on storage environment.

Raven said...

Of course, under the circumstances, I'm rather glad they had not stumbled across a fine propmaking educational site like this, so that they could in all ways serve as a bad example.

This sort of "non-entertainment usage" is why the HPLHS license for its props carefully limits their use, lest anyone try using one of the 1920s IDs as a real live modern ID to commit some form of fraud.

docschottslab said...

Also, speaking as a historical linguist, there are some serious problems with the language of the paper, especially the headlines.
"Police grope in dark; killer still at large!"
Newspaper headlines rarely use gerunds, and serve to focus the reader's attention on the incomplete story - not tell the whole story. They also leave out most articles of speech.

...and I'm commenting like a year on. Still. Something to keep in mind if you're doing your own prop papers.