The History Of Paper Part I

From the 1st to the 18th century

The wasps and the bees

The history of paper provides a fascinating insight into the shifts in world power and industrialisation over the past two thousand years. Whilst paper in some form has a lineage which dates back to the 1st century, it may come as a surprise to many, given the role paper occupies in our lives – and despite the forecast of a paperless society – that paper, as we know it today, has been around for less than two hundred years. It may come as even more of a surprise to learn that the two great events that mark this, the original invention and the switch to an abundant raw material and, so, modern industrialised processes, were inspired by observations of wasps and bees. In this, the first of three blogs, we will look at the gradual development from its origin in China through to the great changes in the early-nineteenth century. In subsequent blogs we will then look at the rapid developments during the rest of that century, and finally look at the products you buy today, the people who make them – and what some of the terminology means.

Origins in China

The invention of paper is usually attributed to an official at the court of the Han Dynasty in China, T’sai Lun, in the Christian year 105. However, it is probable from references in ancient scripts to believe that the process T’sai Lun used had been known for a hundred years before but he was the first to refine, systemise and fix a recipe. He developed this from his study of wasps and bees, where he saw that the material they used to build their nests was by a process of maceration, chewing the fibres so that the raw material, plants or cloth, broke down and formed a paper like product. It is this maceration process, breaking down the molecular linkages of the raw material to form new linkages, that set paper aside from all the similar products that had been used, and – despite great changes, both in scale and ingredients – remains as the basis of all paper making today.

Prior to this – and outside of China for many more years yet – the materials used for writing had typically been skins, or from plants or bark pressed and dried or, as in China, bone or bamboo.  Although commonly treated to provide a better surface or as a preservative, the base product involved had not undergone any shift in structure – so, effectively a plant leaf was still a plant leaf.  Two of the most common forms were papyrus, as in Egypt, or amate, as in pre-Columbian central America. So, though paper derives its name from the Greek word papyrus, that is because there is a connection with use, not the product.

T’sai Lun settled on a mix of mulberry leaves, other bast fibres, fish nets, old rags and hemp waste. These were mashed up by hand and then left to ferment, the extent of this being one of the great skills, before being poured, with water, into a sieve which retained the fibres. This was the other great skill – moving the sieve around to get the fibres to form strong patterns and the new molecular linkages whilst the ‘paper’ was still wet. A small amount of paper is still made exactly that same way today. Originally, the Chinese used paper as a wrapping material for delicate objects and medicines and it would be another hundred years before it became used for writing. It went on to be used by them as toilet paper, ‘a curious Chinese tradition’ one Arab traveller remarked, as paper cups and napkins, envelopes and by the 14th century the world’s first paper money. Paper became so highly prized that it was often used, or demanded, as tribute to the emperor.

Paper comes to Europe

As Chinese influence spread west, so Chinese papermaking spread and eventually, when the Chinese suffered a stinging defeat at the battle of Talus in 751, captured Chinese craftsmen took advantage of an old Arab tradition, buying their freedom by passing on the skills to their captors. From then it spread across the Arab lands, and via Morocco, first arrived in Europe in the 11th century. When the Crusaders captured Toledo in 1085, they also took possession of what is often described as the first paper mill, though it was almost certainly still a manufactory, with no continuous water process as in a mill.  For many years, paper making, in what is modern day Spain, remained a monopoly of Muslims, though this was broken when the then king of Aragon established the first water mill, at Xativa in 1282, where water was used to power the pounding of the fibres, though even then Muslims retained the monopoly to make hand-made paper for a while longer.

“In 1268 the skills of papermaking became truly refined”

Meantime, papermaking had spread across Europe, to Sicily in 1102 and then north to Fabriano, near Bologna, in 1268, and it is here where the skills of papermaking, introduced by Arab prisoners-of-war, became truly refined, with improved maceration, sizing with animal glue, to give a decent writing surface, and the invention of watermarks. It is probable that the idea for sizing came from the tanneries, for which the town was then famous. Despite the growing spread of paper mills across Italy and northwards, particularly to France, the artisans of Fabriano remained famous for their skills and the quality of their product for many years.

At first, paper was still seen as a poor substitute for parchment, made from animal skins and the commonest form of writing material in Europe at the time, but with improving technique and quality and with costs falling dramatically, to about one-sixth the cost of parchment for quality products, paper became used virtually exclusively for writing and, together with the development of the quill pen and suitable inks, spurred the developments of the early retail stationery industry, a subject dealt with in an earlier blog.

Paper becomes widely available

It was not until 1490 that the first paper mill was founded in England, by John Tate at Stevenage but by then paper had begun to transform society in ways that would have seemed unimaginable to T’sai Lun at the Chinese emperor’s court. Without it Gutenberg’s press, invented in about 1440, would only have been just a dream. From this came the ability to make the written word available to anyone with basic education, a greater questioning of the truths, and in time the Enlightenment. With paper freely available, at least to those with some means, it also became possible to put thoughts into writing in ever increasing quantities, whether as tracts to spread ideas or as letters to pass on news of events and convey thoughts and feelings. Without paper, there is no widespread availability of the Bible, crucially in the vernacular and not just Latin, no Chaucer, no Shakespeare; paper is king!

But the sheet mould way of making paper, despite the refinements in quality and reduction in costs from the 13th century onwards, remained little changed between its invention in China and the late-18th century.  Mechanisation, as we saw in Spain in 1282 and subsequently in Italy, was confined to the processes of maceration, trip hammers to pound the fibres being driven by water being the most notable change, but the actual process of making the paper was still by hand. Once the fibres of the basic materials, such as rags, had been pounded they were allowed to ferment, how far being a matter of skill, then boiled, washed to remove impurities and then beaten to a pulp, dye added if required and, finally, transferred to a vat.  This pulp mixture, usually with between 5% and 10% solids, is then turned into paper through the sheet mould process.

“Making paper remained little changed between its invention in China and the late-18th century”

In this process, a mould consisting of a flat frame holding a screen, made with a sieve-like material, such as an open weave cloth, with a further frame, called a deckle and just like a picture frame, and sitting atop the main frame, is dipped into the vat of wet pulp. The frame is then carefully withdrawn from the mixture and, whilst the deckle contains the water run-off and the water drains through the screen, the frame is carefully tilted to-and-fro to distribute the, by now reconstituted, fibres evenly, creating a layer of entwined fibres held together by natural bonding properties, the maceration process having created those vital new molecular linkages. Once the main body of water has drained away, the still wet material left on the sieve is carefully dried with a sponge, the deckle is removed and then the, by now, paper is transferred to a suitable surface to complete the drying process, often just by exposure to open air.

By the late-18th century, industrialisation was already transforming the world, first with water and then steam power, and in France, despite the turmoil of the Revolution and its aftermath, there were some who were turning their minds to radically developing the centuries old paper making process – but that is a story for our next blog.

* The picture of the wasps’ nest is of the exhibit at the Frogmore Paper Mill Museum, in Apsley, Hertfordshire. This museum is not only a treasure trove of exhibits and information on papermaking but has a working papermaking set-up. Be sure to take the guided tour.

By the way, the paper featured at the top of the blog piece was handmade by Kathy at the Frogmore Musuem using traditional paper-making techniques.

No Comments Yet
  1. Very interesting and educational story about how paper cane to be. Lot of history about who when and how in paper. This is something I’ll share with my viewers about paper and will give who was the person who posted this story. I’m the type of person that like yo know the when, how’s, where and whys on how products got started and the creation of these products. We use paper everyday many different types we know paper come from trees, but different paper not how other countries make they paper and how and why behind it.
    Thank you for sharing,
    Larry Berrones
    Reviewer on YouTube
    Larry’s Fountain Pens.

  2. Years ago I tried making my own paper using existing paper(newspaper)by blending with water in a blender; it was fun so when I saw a guy at an art/crafts show who made paper out of plant fibers I thought “this is what I want to do some day”…I still may when I am retired this year. It’s a fascinating process.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.