History of Paper

Mozelle Martin

Without Ts'ai Lun from Lei-Yang, China, paper would have never been created.

There would be no money, comic books, gift wrap, copy paper, artist sketchbooks, or any other kind of paper had Ts'ai not had the initiative in 105 A.D. to create this versatile product.

However, it's important to note that 3,000 years prior, Egypt's paperlike papyrus was being produced. The word paper is actually derived from the word papyrus.

Ancient Egyptians developed their version of paper by hammering strips of the papyrus plant until it became flattened. The Egyptians sold it to the Romans and Greeks until 300 B.C. After their papyrus supply was diminished, they made parchment paper out of animal skins.

As a member of the imperial court, Ts'ai Lun was fascinated with wasp nests. Using that obsession, he took a mash-up of wood pulp, spread it across a cloth screen, and noticed that the dried fibers formed a strong form of "paper." It could then be peeled off of the screen and written on.

The new material quickly became popular in government offices for packaging and envelopes. By the 7th century A.D., the Chinese had invented some of the most used paper types... toilet paper!

While Asia, including Japan and Korea, remained known for the art of papermaking for several centuries, around 1000 A.D., it migrated to the Middle East.

Arabians used linen instead of wood pulp, which created high-quality paper. These superior products were exported as far as possible due to the high demand. This way, paper art reached Europe and Italy during the 12th century.

In Italy, they took papermaking very seriously. They used standardized machine processes to create quality paper in quantity. They used water to power paper mills, used high-quality screens to dry the paper, and mastered the sizing process. They also added a new coating to improve the strength of the paper to become mostly anti-absorbent.

In the mid-1400s, German creator Johannes Gutenberg developed the printing press. This press changed papermaking forever. Even books moved from hand-copied to mass-production. As the demand for paper increased, so did the hunger for reading books.

The New World took up papermaking in the late 1600s after Mexico built the first paper mill.

William Rittenhouse, a German immigrant, introduced the paper process to Philadelphia in 1690 by starting the first paper plant.

Much of the paper produced in the mills was created from discarded clothing, old rags, and other miscellaneous textiles. Around 1840, Charles Fenerty, a Canadian, used a finer wood pulp instead. His process created a thinner and inexpensive paper called "newsprint." Like many ideas still today, Fenerty lost his idea to someone else because he did not pursue a patent.

As a result of its long history, paper has proved to be very versatile and is used for much more than just printing and writing. Civil War vet Charles Stilwell returned to Ohio as a mechanical engineer. He noticed paper bags were being used to carry groceries and supplies but that their quality was less than impressive. Seeing a need for improvement, he patented a machine in 1883 that made paper bags with a flat bottom, similar to those still used today.

If Ts'ai Lun could see beyond the grave, I'm sure he'd be astonished at how far his humble discovery or invention has become. Sadly, he likely has no clue that in today's world, we cannot pass through a day without seeing paper used in some way, from our copy machine to movie posters.

The bottom line is that authors, artists, writers, shoppers, and business people owe Ts'ai Lun a debt of gratitude for making our lives much easier.

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