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.
That’s a lot!
What Actually is Paper?
As always, we need to define our terms.
What do we actually mean when we talk about paper?
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’.
What Came First? Paper or Writing?
Clay? Sure, why not?
Silk? Yes, please.
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
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.
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
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.
As if that wasn’t enough!
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
However, this pulp was mostly useless until a decade later.
Industrialization of Papermaking
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.
Paper Progress in Recent Years
People talk about living in a paperless society. But are we really there yet?
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?
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.
The papermaking process has traveled a long way from an art form, as it was in Ancient China.