The Long and Complex History of Paper

From its invention in China in 200 B.C., paper has transformed our ability to retain and transmit knowledge.
Marcia Wendorf
Gutenberg Bible 1450sDepositphotos

Before the invention of paper, people wrote on clay tablets, papyrus, parchment and vellum. In ancient Mesopotamia, Egypt and Iran, cuneiform characters were placed on wet clay tablets with a stylus made from a reed.

Tablet Rimush
Tablet Rimush

Parchment is made from the untanned skins of of sheep, calves or goats, and it has been a writing medium for over two millennia. Vellum is a finer quality of parchment that is made from the skins of very young animals, such as lambs and calves. Vellum was used to create scrolls, codices, and books.

Produced from the pith of the Cyperus papyrus plant, papyrus was used in ancient Egypt and other areas around the Mediterranean. The earliest evidence of papyrus was unearthed in 2012 at Wadi al-Jarf, an ancient Egyptian harbor located on the Red Sea coast. Dating from 2,560 – 2,550 B.C., the papyrus rolls describe the last years of the building the Great Pyramid of Giza.

Before the invention of paper, the Chinese wrote on pieces of bamboo or on silk, but silk was expensive, and bamboo was heavy. Officially, paper was invented in 105 A.D. by a Chinese court official named Ts'ai Lun, but in 2006, a fragment of a paper map bearing Chinese characters and dating from 200 B.C. was found at Fangmatan in northeast Gansu Province.

What Lun had done was mix together the bark of a mulberry tree, hemp, and shredded cloth rags with water, mash the mixture into a pulp, press out the liquid, and hang the resulting sheets out to dry in the sun.

The word "paper" was derived from the word "papyrus", Ancient Greek for the Cyperus papyrus plant, and paper was quickly adopted by the Chinese. It then spread via the Silk Road to other parts of the world.

Other Uses for Paper

The Chinese used paper for padding and wrapping, and starting around the late 6th century, they used it as toilet paper. In 589 A.D., the Chinese scholar Yan Zhitui wrote: "Paper on which there are quotations or commentaries from Five Classics or the names of sages, I dare not use for toilet purposes."

During the Tang dynasty (618–907), paper was used to make tea bags, and during the Song dynasty (960–1279), the Chinese government produced the world's first known paper money, or banknotes. Around 600 A.D., the Chinese invented woodblock printing, and by 740 A.D., the first printed newspaper was seen in China. During the Tang dynasty (618–907), China was the world leader in book production.

Papermaking then moved to Korea, where production of paper was recorded as early as the 6th century A.D. The Koreans created a pulp comprised of the fibers of hemp, rattan, mulberry, bamboo, rice straw, and seaweed.

In approximately 610 A.D., a Korean monk brought papermaking to Japan, and at locations along the Silk Road, paper was found that dates back to the 2nd century A.D. Papermaking reached Tibet around 650 A.D., and India after 645 A.D.

The Chinese closely guarded the secret of papermaking, and they tried to eliminate other Asian centers of papermaking to create a monopoly. But, in 751 A.D., the Chinese army was defeated by the Ottoman Turks at the Battle of Talas, and some paper makers were captured and brought to Samarkand.

A prisoner would be released if he could teach ten Muslims any valuable knowledge

The Arabs learned papermaking from their Chinese prisoners, and in 793 A.D., the first papermaking industry appeared in Baghdad. The Arabs also tried to keep the papermaking process a secret, and Europeans did not learn how to make paper until several centuries later.

During the 8th century in Samarkand, Muslims created water-powered pulp mills, and they began binding books using silk thread and covered them with leather-covered paste boards. By the 12th century, a street in Marrakech, Morocco was named "Kutubiyyin" or "book sellers street" because it contained over 100 book stores.

Papermaking in Europe

Thanks to the crusades, the Spanish learned to make paper around 1150 A.D., making theirs the first paper industry in Europe. The Spanish refined the process, creating paper mills that used waterwheels. The oldest known paper document in Europe is the Mozarab Missal of Silos, dating from the 11th century.

France had a paper mill by 1190 A.D., and by 1276, Italy had two paper mills. The first paper mill in England was created by John Tate around 1490 A.D. near the city of Hertford. In 1453 A.D., Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press.

Papermaking in the Americas

In the Americas, by the 5th century, the Mayans were using a material similar to paper called amate. Made from tree bark, the earliest example of amate was found at Huitzilapa near the Magdalena Municipality, Jalisco, Mexico, dating to 75 B.C. European papermaking spread to the Americas, first in Mexico by 1575, and then in Philadelphia by 1690.

In the 1830s and 1840s, two men on two different continents set out to make paper out of wood. German Friedrich Gottlob Keller and Canadian Charles Fenerty sought to pulp wood, and by 1844, they announced that they had invented a machine that extracted fibers from wood and made paper out of them. Fenerty also bleached the pulp, making the paper white. By the end of the 19th-century almost all printers in the western world were using wood instead of rags to make paper.

Paper, Pen and Ink

The new paper, along with the inventions of the fountain pen, mass-produced pencil, and steam driven rotary printing press caused a major transformation in 19th century life. They allowed for book publishing, schoolbooks, and newspapers.

Today, paper is made from trees farmed specifically for that purpose, and from recycled paper. Recycled paper is used in newspapers, notebook paper, grocery bags, corrugated boxes, envelopes, magazines, and cartons.

Paper mills also use wood chips and sawdust left over from industrial processes. In the U.S. today, more than 36 percent of the fiber used to make new paper products comes from recycled sources.

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