The Story of Paper
The History of Paper
Have you ever wondered where the word 'paper' comes from?
The origins of the word give us a clue to the origins of paper itself.
'Paper' is derived from 'papyrus' which is what the Ancient Egyptians used to use to write on. Papyrus wasn't paper as we would think of it today but it was a very close cousin. Papyrus was made of reeds - which grew readily along the river Nile.
The earliest writing is known from Sumeria, dating back about five thousand years ago and is called 'cuneiform.'
The Sumerians scratched their letters into clay tablets with a sharpened stick. You can imagine that it was a very long and difficult process.
The tablets were heavy and got broken easily, too.
Sumerian Cuneiform Tablet
In Britain, the Druids had a form of writing called 'ogham' which they used to carve into stone or wood.
From the earliest times people have sort easier and more effective ways of writing things down and sharing information.
It is hard for most of us to imagine what life was like before we had mobile 'phones and computers. Imagine what it was like before paper!
So who invented paper and when?
The Invention of Paper
Archaeologists have discovered the earliest paper known to be used.
It was made of cloth rags left over from the textile industry in early China and dates back to the first or second century AD.
Nobody knows the name of the person who first invented it but it soon became very popular. It was light, smooth and could be written on in flowing ink. It could also be folded and rolled up. Suddenly it was possible not only to write quickly but to transport writing easily over long distances - never truly possible with large stones and clay tablets! The impact of paper was wide-reaching.
Really, we can talk about the 'paper revolution.'
Early Chinese Paper
The Spread of Paper
By the fifth century AD, paper was being widely used in Japan - not only as a material for writing on, but also to make the inner walls of houses and works of art such as paintings and paper flowers.
The art of origami which is the art of folding paper to make the shapes of animals, flowers and people, was invented in Japan at about this time.
The use of paper spread rapidly throughout the rest of the world.
In Asia and the Middle East, the quality of paper-making was improved by coating the rags in starch. This gave the finished paper a much smoother surface which was easier to write on.
Japanese Paper Roses
The Development of Paper
The techniques for the manufacture and production of paper where developed significantly in Europe from the thirteenth century onwards.
One very important development was the use of water wheels to power the paper-making process. These small but efficient water driven paper factories were called 'paper mills' as they used the technology previously developed for grinding corn.
In Spain and Italy, the paper mills were able to produce a lot of high quality paper very quickly. This made paper more readily available and cheaper to buy.
Very soon after this, parchment and papyrus - which had still been in use - became a thing of the past.
Printing and Paper Money
The first mechanical printing press was invented in 1450 AD by Johannes Gutenberg. He was a German goldsmith.
There had been other attempts to make printed works, but it was Gutenberg's invention that made the widespread and cost-effective distribution of books, pamphlets and other printed items, finally possible.
The spread of the printed word led to the Renaissance in Europe - a period of history in which there was a flowering of learning, sciences and the arts.
In 1694, the first paper bank notes were printed - even money, once made of silver, gold or copper, was now made of paper!
Modern Paper Making
Paper was made out of textile fabric right up until the nineteenth century when there was a shortage of cotton.
Everyone had become dependent on paper for almost everything from the bank to the bathroom and so the search was on for a new material to make paper from.
One of the first experiments was with straw but it made a very poor quality product.
Eventually, it was discovered that wood pulp could be used to make excellent paper.
Modern paper is made in highly mechanized factories from wood pulp.
Modern paper-making takes up a lot of energy and water equal to about 20% of production costs.
Sustainable Paper Forest
Paper and the Environment
Given that paper uses up so much energy, water and of course, trees, new methods have been developed to help safeguard the environment.
Worldwide, the amount of paper that is made from recycled materials is about 30% of total production. The world leader in paper recycling is the United Kingdom where 70% of all paper produced is made from recycled paper.
Paper can be recycled up to seven times before the fibres become too fragile.
Modern paper-making also uses cereal straw in the mix to reduce the overall amount of cellulose from wood that is needed.
Many forests are now managed on a 'sustainable' basis. This means that for every tree that is cut down, two or more are planted to replace them. The sorts of trees that make the best paper, such as spruce and larch, are also very fast growing.
In more and more forests the trees are never cut down at all. A method of harvesting called 'coppicing' is used. using this method, only parts of the tree are removed, allowing the plant to regrow.
Inside a Paper Mill
Summary of The Story of Paper
2nd Century AD
Paper made from rags
5th Century AD
Paper used for art
13th Century AD
Spain and Italy
The first paper mills
15th Cebtury AD
17th Century AD
First paper money
19th Century AD
Paper made from wood pulp
21st Century AD
Sustainable and recycled paper
I hope you have enjoyed learning about the story of paper.
How many things can you see if you look around you now that are made of paper or have paper in them?
Paper really is one of the most important materials in the world today. We can use it for so many things!
How many things can you think of that paper can be used for? Do you think there will ever be a time when we won't need paper anymore? Or do you think paper is here to stay?
Did you learn something new about paper from this hub?
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© 2013 Amanda Littlejohn