A Blast from the Far, Far Past: Understanding the History of Paper

Understanding the History of Paper

Have you ever wondered where paper comes from and who invited it? Make sure you keep reading below to learn the complete history of paper.

Have you ever wondered how much paper we actually use?

We checked the records at the Environmental Protection Agency.

Apparently, today over 68 million trees each year are cut down to produce paper and paper products in the U.S. alone.

That’s a lot!

It’s understandable that people tell us to “save the trees” when we use paper. But, have you ever wondered about the history of paper? When did we start writing down on this white smooth stuff?

It got us thinking for a blog post. So, let’s take a look at the origins of the paper. Let’s go!

What Actually is Paper?

As always, we need to define our terms.

What do we actually mean when we talk about paper?

It seems strange to ask ‘what is paper?’. It’s the white stuff in our printer. Picasso painted on it. You know, William Shakespeare wrote on it.

Paper is a thin material. It is produced from the milling of plant fibers. It’s used for everything from creating business cards to packaging for food.

Why do we say ‘Paper’?

What about the word we call ‘paper’?

It comes from the Anglo-Norman word ‘paper’. Which originates from the Old French word ‘papier’. 

And of course, the French word comes from the Latin ‘papȳrus’. Which is related to the Ancient Greek pápuros. 

We know that the Egyptians and Greeks produced something they called ‘papyrus’. 

But apparently, this was much thicker. However, since it was produced from the papyrus plant. That’s why we call the modern-day paper, well, ‘paper’. 

What Came First? Paper or Writing?

Most of the time, the paper is useless without a pen. And a pen is useless with paper

They go together, right? Well, actually writing is older than paper. So, what did human beings write on before they invented paper? Pretty much, anything they could get their hands on.

Clay? Sure, why not?

Silk? Yes, please.

Stone? Duh!

However, eventually, people realized that animal skins work a dream for writing. That’s where parchment comes from! You needed to soak the animal skin in some water mixed with chalk. Afterward, throw some salt on it. You’re done!

But, as you’ve probably noticed, our paper is quite different. 

The Invention of Paper in China

The big difference is that our paper is made from trees. Or specifically wood. It was the Chinese who started to use bamboo strips to produce paper

Archeologists tell us this was happening in China from the 1st century. But it’s not easy to put an exact date on it. Nobody had a eureka moment! 

But, that’s not what Chinese tradition says. They say it was 100 years later.

So, let’s go with that.

We need to go back to 2nd century China. That was ruled by the Han Dynasty. But, it was a Chinese court official named Ts’ai Lun who originally invented the papermaking method. And yes, he was a eunuch! 

So, How did he do it? Well, back then there were no machines.

Instead, he created a mixture of the bark of the paper mulberry tree (also known as the tapa cloth tree), water. He also used hemp waste and cotton rags. 

This was subsequently dried out to produce a material which could be written on. This original discovery was experimented with and developed further in a wide range of sizes and dying methods. The invention of paper in China during this time was crucial the development of China.

It is worth noting that until the 18th century, China was the most technologically advanced country in the world. By the 10th century, the introduction of paper money allowed China to develop its economy further.

Spreading to the Islamic World

Due to the secretive nature of the papermaking process in China, other countries around the world did not adopt paper until around the 7th century.

Eventually, other Asian countries, such as Japan, Vietnam etc. picked up the trick.

However, before paper arrived in Europe, it spread to the Islamic world by the 8th century. The Muslims Arabs did not like the rough surface of the paper which was used by the Chinese. It may have been great to soak up ink from the brush strokes.

But the Muslim Arabs needed a higher quality of the paper.

What did they do?

They added a number of changes to the papermaking process to provide a brighter and stronger material.  

They added something called ‘sizing’. This was a mixture of starch and other ingredients to prevent the ink from sinking into the fibers in the paper

As if that wasn’t enough!

There was a more important contribution to the history of paper from the Islamic world. They also adopted the use of paper mills to produce the paper on a larger scale before the Europeans.  

According to experts, this was the moment papermaking transitioned from being an art form into an industry.  

Paper and Marco Polo

Have you heard of Marco Polo?

He was an Italian explorer. He wrote the ‘Book of the Marvels of the World’. He’s particularly famous for traveling to Asia, especially China.

Marco Polo traveled to China during the 13th century. Upon discovery of the paper money used in the country, he was amazed. He wrote in his book:

“With these pieces of paper, they can buy anything and pay for anything. And I can tell you that the papers that reckon as ten bezants (a coin) do not weigh one.”

That must have been incredible for him at the time. A bit like the internet for kids from the 1980s. Soon after Marco reported back to his homeland, Europe adopted the papermaking methods.

Paper was particularly embraced by the Italian cities of Florence and Venice. 

Paper in Europe 

The oldest paper document in the Western world is called the Missal of Silos. This dates back to the 11th century. 

But, Europeans made a number of important improvements to the papermaking process. 

This started with the Spanish. 

They started to produce a paper by using water wheels. Yes, that’s hydro technology. 

This was in the 13th century. It significantly increased productivity. But also meant producing paper was not so labor intensive. And by the 15th century, the Europeans gave up their gold and silver coins. 

They started using paper money. Genius or big mistake? We’re not sure yet.

However, the papermaking process was a smelly affair. 

The noise and smell generated from the production of the paper were so bad that medieval law was introduced to restrict where you could build the paper mills. 

In the 17th century Europe, the paper was produced with the fibers from trees. But the manner in which to extract of the fibers had not altered significantly for over 500 years. 

However, the Hollander Beater, a Dutch invention, effectively extracted the fibers. This allowed the papermaking process to be even quicker and high quality since ‘virgin’ fibers could be added to the paper.

Let There be White Paper

Have you ever dipped the paper in a mug of coffee as a kid to make it look old worldly?

That’s because the paper was not white back then. It was a kind of creamy or skin color.

So, when did paper became white?

A number of important improvements to the papermaking process had to take place. That starts with a French the guy named Nicolas-Louis Robert. 

He designed a machine was a flat screen. This machine laid the foundations for how we produce paper today.

This was followed by a second Frenchman. This one called Claude-Louis Bertholett. He was a chemist. He invented the chemical beaching process. This allowed machines to produce white paper

This was the late 18th century. That’s around the time of the French Revolution. It was the revolutionaries of French who took up the white paper first.

The Rise in Demand  

Now we’re in the 19th century.

The Industrial Revolution has changed everything from how people work, live, sleep and eat. Paper is in high demand. We need it to make everything by the 19th century. 

Most importantly, newspapers and paperback books have transformed communication and the novel. And so are the materials used to produce paper

That’s why the cotton rags which were crucial to the papermaking process became highly sought after. This meant that the government had to introduce lots of laws to regulate supply and demand. 

Paper from Wood

After a white, cotton rags were no longer the common material used for papermaking. 

People started to experiment with different alternatives to cotton.

What about using some straw? Some asked.

Other questioned whether we could use wool? 

Nothing seemed to work quite as effectively as cotton.

That was until 1843. A German inventor arrived on the scene called Friedrich Gottlob Keller. He invented the machine which ground-up wood and produced pulp. 

However, this pulp was mostly useless until a decade later. 

Then, two little-known American inventors devised a method of transforming this pulp from the wood into chemical pulping. They were called Charles Watts and Hugh Burgess.

Industrialization of Papermaking

As a result of Watts and Burgess, this the groundwood pulp became the most important material in the papermaking production process. 

In the 19th century, papermaking transformed into an industrialized production process on giant scale across Europe, and North America.

Innovation didn’t stop here.

Towards the end of the 19th century, the production process became nearly entirely automated. 

This allowed manufacturers to produce paper quickly and effectively to a high quality. 

You could source paper in a wide variety of types.

The paper could be made suitable for flyers or newspapers, as well as, books or magazines. 

Paper Progress in Recent Years

People talk about living in a paperless society. But are we really there yet?

For most people in the world, paper remains part of the day-to-day. The demand for paper continues to grow. Demand for paper is forecast to double by the year 2030. Can you believe it?

There are always new paper solutions. People are constantly making improvements to paper.

Now you can get paper which changes color over time. This opens up the possibility of producing tags on food products which change color when the food expires.

According to the American Chemical Society, there are now paper batteries. They say this could be used in communities which don’t have access to electricity sources.

You discover more about the many designs and innovations in business cards here. 

Challenges Ahead for Paper

There are numerous challenges ahead for the paper industry. 

Did you know that it requires 5 liters of water to produce a single piece of A4 paper?

Have you heard that over 50 percent of waste from businesses is paper waste? We know that paper comes from trees. Deforestation is a major environmental problem too.  

It is important that paper is recycled to be used again and again. This has created another major industry in the papermaking process.

The History of Paper 

The next time you use paper, think about the journey this everyday object has traveled to get to you. There’s a long and rich history out there. The history of paper is a fascinating journey of a thousand years. 

That’s why it’s so important to use paper wisely.

The papermaking process has traveled a long way from an art form, as it was in Ancient China.

But that doesn’t mean art and design cannot be performed on paper. Check out our website to discover more about our art and design archives

Austin Terrill

Austin is the founder and CEO of Print Peppermint. He loves art, graphic design, printing, music, recording gear, synthesizers, and ice cream. He lives in Berlin with his wife and two children.
Currency
EUREuro