A Brief History of Paper

Apple | Spotify | Amazon | Player.FM | TuneIn
Castbox | Podurama | Podcast Republic | RSS | Patreon

Podcast Transcript

There are four things that are considered to be the Great Inventions of Ancient China: gunpowder, the compass, the printing press, and paper. 

Despite the incredible impact that all four things have had on the world, the greatest cultural and social impact might very well be paper.

Even in a world awash in digital information, paper can still be found all around us for a wide variety of uses.

Learn more about paper and how it changed the world on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

When humans first developed systems of writing, it necessitated the creation of things to write on. 

The first writing surfaces were rocks and cave walls, which were a pretty finite resource. 

Eventually, clay tablets were used, which was better, but not by much. They were heavy, cumbersome, and extremely fragile. 

About 6,000 years ago, the ancient Egyptians developed a substitute for clay tablets called papyrus. 

Papyrus was an improvement over clay tablets in many ways. It was lighter, easier to transport, and wasn’t quite as fragile. However, papyrus wasn’t easy to make. 

It required harvesting thin strips from the inside of papyrus plants, which were then glued together. 

There was a great deal of demand for papyrus around the Mediterranean world. Demand for papyrus was so great that the papyrus plant was almost over-harvested to extinction. 

However, papyrus, too, had problems. For starters, was it was glued together it would often fall apart over time. Second, it became very expensive because production was monopolized by Alexandria. 

This led to the development of another writing surface, parchment. Parchment came from the skins of animals, usually sheep or goats. 

Parchment was much more durable than papyrus, but given how it was made, it, too, was expensive. Parchment became the go-to material for writing for centuries in the ancient western world. 

Over in China, they too had the same problem of finding surfaces to write on. The original solution used in Ancient China was animal bones and bamboo. Sometimes the bamboo would be cut into strips to allow for longer documents, but that was heavy and unwieldy.

Silk was also used, but just like with parchment, it was too expensive for regular use.

The Chinese solved the problem of a writing surface in a totally different way than they did in the west, and, quite frankly, a better way. It was more durable than papyrus and cheaper than parchment. 

It was paper. 

Paper, in its simplest definition, is just sheets of dried cellulose pulp. 

Cellulose is the extremely tough material that is found in the cell walls of most plants. 

We don’t know when exactly paper was invented or who the inventor was. 

In China, it is traditionally attributed to a court eunuch named Cai Lun, who lived in the late third century BC during the Han Dynasty. It is said he made the first paper with mulberry bark, hemp, and rags. 

While early forms of paper probably existed several centuries before Cai Lun, Cai Lun did create a written recipe that could be followed by later generations.

The oldest samples of paper which have been found date to 175 to 145 BC in northwestern China. 

Before I go any further, I should provide a brief explanation as to how paper is made. 

Making paper actually isn’t that hard. You could make it at home if you wanted to go through the effort of doing so.

The key is to break down the cellulose fibers. Let’s say you had some plant based material you wanted to use as your base. The first thing you’d do is soak the fibers in water to soften them up. Then you would beat the fibers to break them down. This could be done with a mallet or a mortar and pestle. 

You then add it back into the water to make it more liquid, and then pour it out onto a flat surface. Press out the excess water, and then when it gets solid, hang it up on a line to dry.

You can then finish it by potentially rubbing it with a stone to smooth out any rough spots. 

Obviously, modern paper is a bit more complicated process, but that is the basics of it. Create a wet slurry of fibers, spread it out, and let it dry. 

Paper in the Han Dynasty was primarily made from the bark of the mulberry tree, but later on, it was predominantly made from hemp. 

Believe it or not, one of the most popular early uses for paper wasn’t for writing but as wrapping paper. 

However, its obvious use for writing soon made the literary culture in China explode. Paper allowed for longer written texts to be created. Instead of piles of bamboo strips that were tied together, you could have a much lighter scroll that could contain more text and could be transported easier. 

Paper began to spread through China and began to be used more extensively by the 4th and 5th centuries. It arrived in Korea sometime around the 5th century and then in Japan after that.

Paper is believed to have arrived in the Indian subcontinent in the 7th century.

Despite the recipe for paper leaking out to other countries in Asia, it was still a closely guarded secret in China. 

People outside of China knew about paper, especially in the Islamic world, but not how to make it. 

The secret to paper-making arrived in the Islamic world at some point in the 8th century, possibly at the battle of Talas, which took place in 751 in modern-day Kyrgyzstan between the Abyssid Caliphate and the Tang Dynasty.  It might have been Chinese prisoners from that battle who took the secret with them to Samarkand. 

When paper making came to the Islamic world, it started spreading westward throughout all of the Muslim controlled lands. Paper mills arrived in Baghdad in 793, Egypt by 900, and Morocco by 1100. 

Muslim papermakers made many improvements to papermaking, including the ability to create thicker sheets of paper. They also mastered the art of making books out of paper. 

Previously, books or codexes were made out of parchment and were rare and expensive. Cheaper paper allowed for bookbinding to develop into its own art form. Paper also allowed Islamic scholars and artists to further develop Arabic Calligraphy.

It wasn’t a coincidence that papermaking coincided with the Islamic golden age. 

Papermaking became a big business. There were entire sections of cities such as Baghdad, Samarkand, and Cairo that were dedicated to papermaking. The Baghdad paper market had over 100 stores selling paper and books. 

In the 11th century, a Persian traveler in Cairo noted that food and other goods were sold wrapped in paper.

It was Muslims to brought papermaking to Europe through the lands they controlled in Sicily and Spain. 

The primary material used for papermaking by Muslim papermakers was rags and other excess linen.

Papermaking in Europe spread slowly. It started in Spain and Italy and slowly spread north. 

England didn’t have a successful papermill until 1588, and it didn’t reach Scandinavian countries like Sweden until the 17th century. 

With the explosion in printing presses in the 15th century, the demand for paper increased dramatically, which increased the number of papermakers throughout Europe.

Up through the 19th century, papermaking was mostly still an artisan process. Paper was still made with old rags and linen and mostly done by hand, individual sheets at a time.  Paper was cheaper than the alternatives, like parchment, but it was still pretty expensive. 

The thing which radically changed the paper-making process was the development was the creation of a machine that could create one continuous sheet of paper. The machine was known as a Fourdrinier, named after its inventor, Henry Fourdrinier. 

The fourdrinier could create giant rolls of paper, which not only increased the amount of paper that was produced but also allowed for new uses for large pieces of paper, such as wallpaper. 

At this point, you might have noticed that there is one word that I haven’t yet mentioned. I haven’t mentioned the very substance of which most paper is made out of today: wood. 

One of the reasons why rags and other fibers such as hemp, mulberry, and flax were used in papermaking for so long is that they were easy to work with. 

A tree has a lot of cellulose, but it is very difficult to turn into pulp.  You would have to hammer wood for a very long time for it to be turned into a pulp.

It wasn’t until the late 18th century that the first paper made from wood pulp was produced, and it wasn’t until the 1840s that wood began to be used on a regular basis in the production of paper. 

Friedrich Gottlob Keller in Germany and Charles Fenerty in Nova Scotia both simultaneously created mechanical processes for creating wood pulp. 

Mechanical wood pulping worked, but it was improved upon with chemical wood pulping. The first chemical used was sulfuric acid, but that process was eventually replaced with calcium bisulfite in 1867.

The industrial production of paper in the 19th century allowed for increased newspaper and book printing, as well as paper packaging for mass-produced consumer products. 

One problem was that wood-based paper wasn’t as robust as paper made from linen, so it deteriorated more rapidly. Official documents still used paper made from rags. 

The sulfite process was the dominant pulping process entering the 20th century, but it was later replaced by the kraft process. 

The kraft process was developed in Germany in 1879, and the first paper mill to use the process was built in 1890. 

The kraft process used sodium sulfate, and it was possible to recover almost all of the chemicals used in the pulping process, and could be used on a wider variety of trees, which made it overtake the sulfite process by the 1940s.

Much of the paper produced in the early 20th century was very acidic due to the use of alum in the paper-making process. In the second half of the 20th century, there was a shift to acid-free paper for higher-quality uses like hardback books. 

The 19th and 20th centuries also saw increased diversity in types of paper based on composition and coatings. 

Thicker paper cardboard was developed in the 1860s for packaging, and corrugated cardboard was developed in 1871. It was originally created to provide a liner for stovepipe hats. 

The use of paper in the bathroom dates back almost as far as the invention of paper. As early as the 6th century in China, there were reports of the use of paper for bathroom usage. 

In 14th-century China, an estimated 10 million packages of toilet paper were produced annually, with special perfumed versions created for the emperor and his family.

The true mass production of paper for bathrooms started in 1857 when Joseph Gayetty of New York marketed a product he called a “Medicated Paper, for the Water-Closet.” He sold packages of 500 sheets for 50 cents.

The rise of computers and the internet has changed the paper industry. Paper, such as newsprin,t has decreased but has been offset by an increase in packaging material and cardboard. 

The largest paper producer in the world today is China, which regained its status as the world’s largest papermaker, which it held over 1000 years ago.

Globally, there is over 400 million metric tons of paper produced annually. 

Today there is a mind-boggling amount of various papers which are produced. There are different sizes, weights, colors, and coatings which can be used for a wide variety of purposes. 

The odds are that almost everyone listening to this episode will use several different types of paper every single day, and there is probably some paper product within your immediate vicinity right now. 

Given the importance and ubiquity of paper across the world over the last 2000 years, it certainly has earned the distinction as one of the Four Great Inventions of China. 

The Executive Producer of Everything Everywhere Daily is Charles Daniel.

The associate producers are Thor Thomsen and Peter Bennett.

Today’s review comes from listener Superman1234567890!!! over on Apple Podcasts in the United States. They write:

Amazing Podcast

I would give it 6 stars if I could. I discovered this podcast right around December 1st with THE VASA, and it has been my favorite episode ever since.

I listen to this so much that I don’t listen to music anymore, just the sound of your voice, which I would argue is better. When I am not listening, I read the transcripts on your website. In fact, I am well on my way to the audio-based completionist club, however, if there was a literary completionist club, I would be in it twice, going on a third.

A well-made show and I’ll be listening for the rest of my life for sure.

Quick question: Do you consider professional chess a sport? This is a very heated debate at the moment, and I would like to know your opinion.

Thank you, Superman! For the record, no, I don’t think chess is a sport, and that’s fine. Just because something is competitive doesn’t mean that it’s a sport.

I was heavily involved in high-level academic debate in high school and college. It was a huge part of my life, and I took it really seriously, but it wasn’t a sport. I think to be a sport, there has to be some sort of physical or athletic component. 

As for the literary completionist club, you will get special access to the completionist club library with its many leather-bound books and my smells of rich mahogany.

Remember, if you leave a review or send me a boostagram, you too can have it read on the show, and you can now leave reviews on individual episodes on Spotify.