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The Story of Paper

Amanda is a retired educator with many years of experience teaching children of all ages and abilities in a wide range of contexts.

Colored Paper

We mostly take paper for granted but what would life be like without it?

We mostly take paper for granted but what would life be like without it?

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.

Egyptian Papyrus

Ancient Egyptian Papyrus was an early form of paper made from reeds that grew along the banks of the Nile.

Ancient Egyptian Papyrus was an early form of paper made from reeds that grew along the banks of the 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

A fragment of a Sumerian clay tablet with cuneiform script embedded into it. Before the invention of paper writing was difficult and not easy to transport.

A fragment of a Sumerian clay tablet with cuneiform script embedded into it. Before the invention of paper writing was difficult and not easy to transport.

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?

Ogham Stone

An ancient Druid stone from Ireland, showing Ogham, an early form of writing composed of groups of straight lines. Before paper was invented, sending a letter would have been quite difficult!

An ancient Druid stone from Ireland, showing Ogham, an early form of writing composed of groups of straight lines. Before paper was invented, sending a letter would have been quite difficult!

The Invention of Paper

Archaeologists have discovered the earliest paper known to have been 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 first real paper was made in China from textile rags. The earliest known paper comes from the 2nd Century AD.

The first real paper was made in China from textile rags. The earliest known paper comes from the 2nd Century AD.

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

In Japan, paper has been used for centuries not just for writing on but for making things, such as these beautiful artificial roses.

In Japan, paper has been used for centuries not just for writing on but for making things, such as these beautiful artificial 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.

Johannes Gutenberg

The first printing press was invented by Johannes Gutenberg. With the invention of printing, paper had finally come of age.

The first printing press was invented by Johannes Gutenberg. With the invention of printing, paper had finally come of age.

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!

Paper Factory

A modern Swedish paper factory.

A modern Swedish paper factory.

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

Most modern paper is made from sustainably managed forests and recycled materials.

Most modern paper is made from sustainably managed forests and recycled materials.

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

WhenWhereWhat

2nd Century AD

Ancient China

Paper made from rags

5th Century AD

Japan

Paper used for art

13th Century AD

Spain and Italy

The first paper mills

15th Cebtury AD

Germany

Gutenberg's Press

17th Century AD

Italy

First paper money

19th Century AD

Scandanavia

Paper made from wood pulp

21st Century AD

Worldwide

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?

Paper Poll!

One Question Quiz

For each question, choose the best answer. The answer key is below.

  1. Who were the first people to use toilet paper?
    • The Chinese
    • The Ancient Egyptians

Answer Key

  1. The Chinese

© 2013 Amanda Littlejohn

If you'd like to make a comment, I'd love to hear from you!

Amanda Littlejohn (author) on March 13, 2014:

Hi Chitrangada and thanks for your kind comments.

I'm glad you found this interesting.

Bless you :)

Amanda Littlejohn (author) on March 13, 2014:

Hi Jess and thanks so much for your comment.

Boy, I'm learning a lot here - paper mills reaching 100 degrees inside and stinking of rotten eggs as you drive by! Doesn't sound so nice, does it?

Thanks for a fascinating contribution.

Bless you :)

Amanda Littlejohn (author) on March 13, 2014:

Thanks for your lovely contribution, Dolores.

That sounds like a wonderful paper-making project. And so what if the paper was a bit gray and heavy, it's the process that counts, isn't it?

I have a feeling that I read a great hub by you on paper-making craft - or am I imagining that?

Thanks for a great comment.

Bless you :)

Amanda Littlejohn (author) on March 13, 2014:

Hi dragonflycolor!

Yes, I share your passion for the sheer sensuality of paper. I find it very easy to be distracted in a stationary store or an art store by all the different textures and colors.

Thanks for your comment.

Bless :)

Amanda Littlejohn (author) on March 13, 2014:

Hi Flourish Anyway!

Thanks for your fascinating contribution. I imagine that, while interesting, working in a paper mill must be very demanding work. I hadn't realized just how hot it got in there, either.

Thanks for your kind words. I do think that the story of paper is a fascinating one and one that, even in the digital age, does touch all our lives in one way or another.

Bless you :)

Chitrangada Sharan from New Delhi, India on March 13, 2014:

Very informative, educative and well researched hub!

Voted up and tweeted!

JessBraz from Canada on March 12, 2014:

Awesome hub!

The town I live in used to be a "paper making town". The main employer here for several generations was the paper mill, it was shut down several years back. The only thing left from the old paper mill is the one lone smokestack that still stands there. When the factory was in operation, if you drove by that part of town, the air had a very distinct "rotten egg" smell because of the paper mill. I definitely don't miss that!

Very interesting hub! Voted up!

Cheers.

Dolores Monet from East Coast, United States on March 12, 2014:

When my kids were young, we always had summer projects. One year, we decided to make paper. We used dryer lint and plant materials gathered from the back yard. It was so informative for the kids as well as for me. It was a big mess, and you know how kids enjoy messy projects. The paper was a bit to gray and kinda thick but it was paper nonetheless!

dragonflycolor on March 12, 2014:

I love paper. I love the different textures, the appearances it can give, and all the different artastic creations one can make with paper. Thanks!

FlourishAnyway from USA on March 12, 2014:

I spent several years working in paper mills in locations throughout the country, so this certainly brings back memories of the very distinctive smells and the heat (it routinely got over 100 degrees in the mills that I worked at). It really is a fascinating process to see. You did an excellent job at integrating history, application, and industry. Voted up +++ and sharing.

Amanda Littlejohn (author) on October 10, 2013:

Hi dahoglund!

Thanks for your comment. I enjoyed researching this so I am glad it was worth it. Yes, I think Norwegian Pines are one of those tall, straight and very fast growing varieties that make reasonable lumber. I'm not sure that they are used for paper - although I could be wrong about that. I wonder where the wood for your local mills comes from?

Thanks for reading. Bless you :)

Don A. Hoglund from Wisconsin Rapids on October 10, 2013:

Well researched and informative. I live in an area full of paper mills so I have become conscious about it. There are a lot of evergreen trees here that are barend of branches until fairly high up. My son told me that they were Norwegian Pines that are planted by the lumber companies. apparently they grow fast and can be easily replaced.

sharing with followers

Amanda Littlejohn (author) on March 31, 2013:

Thank you Rajan!

I'm so happy that you enjoyed this. Yes, coppicing makes perfect sense both in economic and ecological terms. Did you know that while modern methods of coppicing are a bit different, coppicing itself goes back thousands of years?

Thanks for your kind vote. Bless you :)

Rajan Singh Jolly from From Mumbai, presently in Jalandhar, INDIA. on March 30, 2013:

Well this is awesome information. I like the idea of coppicing the trees. That will help the environment in the long run.

Voted up and interesting.

Amanda Littlejohn (author) on March 22, 2013:

Hi MarieAlana1!

I agree. Paper is an amazing material that we can do so much with. Recycling paper for art is a great idea! You are fortunate to live near such a place. Do you use it? Do you make art yourself?

Bless you :)

Marie Alana from Ohio on March 22, 2013:

Paper is so much fun. There is a place close to me that recycles old paper for art.

Amanda Littlejohn (author) on March 20, 2013:

Thank you, Audrey!

It's another one of those everyday things that we seems to take for granted but ids actually fascinating once you look into it.

Bless you :)

Audrey Howitt from California on March 19, 2013:

This is a wonderfully informative hub! Thank you!!

Amanda Littlejohn (author) on March 08, 2013:

Thank you! I loved writing it, too! :)

Life Under Construction from Neverland on March 08, 2013:

very useful and informative!! i love reading it.

Amanda Littlejohn (author) on March 08, 2013:

Hi Vellur, thank you for your kind words. The world of paper does have some really interesting information doesn't it?

Thank you for reading this and for your kind vote. Bless you!

Nithya Venkat from Dubai on March 07, 2013:

A lot of information and insight into the amazing world of paper. Well researched, great hub. Voted up.

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