Home > Learn more >Papermaking > History of Paper

Susan Kinsella

What's the first thing that comes to mind when the question is posed: "What's paper made from?"

Just about everyone responds, "Trees," or "Wood." People assume automatically that paper is made from wood, that paper and wood are synonymous.

But in fact, paper has been made from wood only since the mid-1800s; up until the 1850s, paper was made from recycled linen and cotton rags. When the paper indusry was established in the United States, it was a recycling industry. Rags were so valued for papermaking that one mill in Massachusetts used as its paper's watermark the words, "Save Rags."

Throughout the centuries, the practice of papermaking has evolved again and again in response to economic growth, historical influences, available raw materials, and the social issues of the day. As social needs have changed over the years, the composition of paper has also changed and has in turn fueled powerful social changes and development. In fact, some argue that the social, technical and economic progress of nations is inextricably linked to the production and use of paper.


The invention of paper is usually attributed to Ts'ai Lun, an official in the Chinese royal court, in A.D. 105. The invention of paper solved a pressing problem of the time. Back then, scrolls of silk were being used as books. But the development of calligraphy and the animal hair brush, and the resulting proliferation of literature, created the need for a writing material that was cheaper and more practical than pure silk. In fact, part of the Chinese ideogram character for "paper" means "silk." Ts'ai Lun's paper was made from rags, used fishing nets, hemp and China grass. The invention of paper was so important to China that the Emperor made Ts'ai Lun a noble.

The Arabs got papermaking 600 years later as one of the spoils of war. The Central Asian city of Samarkand was fighting the Chinese and captured a number of prisoners, two of whom were papermakers who were released in exchange for teaching the Arabs how to make paper. The Arabs wasted no time in improving papermaking techniques - they were probably the first to make paper from linen - and they spread the techniques throughout the Middle East and into Spain.

Europe, however, didn't start papermaking until several centuries after the Arabs began making paper. The Christians who took over the Arab paper mills after driving the Moors from Spain were far less skillful and made inferior papers. And although trading cities such as Venice imported paper from the East and some mills in Italy produced outstanding rag papers, the rest of Europe was slow to embrace the new technology.


For these reasons, when Gutenberg produced his first Bible around 1456, Europe was still predominantly using parchment and vellum for printing, rather than paper. Parchment is the skin of a sheep or goat that's been prepared for writing; vellum is a fine parchment made from the skins of calves, lambs or kids.

Gutenberg printed several copies of his Bible on parchment; to print just one, he had to use the skins of 300 sheep. Now with that kind of resource demand, obviously there weren't enough goats and sheep and calves in Europe to allow the mass production of books. So here was this grand new technology - the printing press - and no way to realize its potential, until entrepreneurs saved the day by improving and expanding the technology of making paper from linen rags. At first, paper was called "cloth parchment."


Because we live in a world that paper and the printing press helped to create, it's difficult today to imagine just how much the European world was transformed by the development of paper to work the printing press.

A bookseller in the Middle Ages seldom had many ready-made books in his shop. If you were one of the fortunate few who could read, you most likely would go in and order a book to be copied down for you and pick it up several months later; or, if you were very ambitious, you would simply borrow the first few pages of the book, take them home and copy them down yourself. Then you'd come back and borrow the next few pages.

Imagine the confusion and disbelief when someone appeared with many copies of the same book. There's a story, perhaps apocryphal, about Gutenberg's financial partner - when he offered 20 identical copies of the Bible to a bookseller in Paris, he was quickly forced to flee for his life. People were certain that the only explanation for this bizarre occurrence was that he was in league with the Devil.

The lower cost of printing books on paper, and their subsequent availability, stimulated the foundation of new schools and universities. Because books were now more numerous, educational opportunities that were once restricted to the nobility and upper classes became more available to other classes in society, with dramatic increases in levels of education and literacy.

When you change from an oral culture, where everything is communicated in stories and the spoken word, to a literate culture, where people get their information by reading, you change even such fundamentals as the process of thinking. Suddenly people don't have to carry all their knowledge in their heads. They don't have to develop elaborate ways of memorizing. They start to think in a more linear fashion because now they can work out on paper the complicated thought progressions that they hadn't been able to do in their heads.

The art world was also transformed by improvements in papermaking. Previously, artists had to practice their techniques and develop their drawing abilities on canvasses that they painted over and over again, so most paintings were actually lost - hidden under layers and layers of new paint. When paper became available as a cheap type of "canvas," artists could go wild practicing their sketching, and now these sketches could be saved. For the first time, drawing became an important art form in itself.


As time went on, paper came into wider and wider use. The first paper mill in the United States was established in 1690 in Philadelphia, and it was a recycled paper mill using rags to manufacture paper.

Newspapers started appearing in the late 1600s and early 1700s. Newspapers, and the increased communication they offered, began to affect the conduct of government and commerce. Newspapers played an important role in spreading political information in the pre-Revolutionary and Revolutionary period, not to mention during the formative period of our nation's institutional and industrial history.

Increased demand stretched the supply of rags to the limit until the shortage became so acute that there were actually "rag wars" during the mid-1700s. Nations passed laws forbidding rags to be taken out of the country - so, of course, rag smuggling became a lucrative profession. England even decreed that the dead could be buried only in wool; this was probably a move on the part of the wool manufacturers to protect their weakening industry, but it also served to save cotton and linen rags for papermaking.

Throughout the eighteenth century, there was an intense search in Europe and the U.S. for a new fiber source of paper. Contests were held, universities offered prizes, and inventors and laboratories worked feverishly to come up with a new source for paper. Inventors would often print a book on their newly-invented paper that described how the paper was made. And so we ended up with books printed on paper made from asbestos, straw, swamp grass, marsh mallow, and esparto dune grass from certain beaches in Spain.

The first patent for a paper using deinked waste paper as part of its fiber source was issued in 1800 in London. It was not until the 1840s that the initial development of the papermaking machine in England and experiments in groundwood pulping in Germany and Nova Scotia enabled the commercial production of paper. The first groundwood pulp mill in the United States was established in 1867 in Massachusetts. Experiments in chemical processes for preparing wood for papermaking took place during the 1850s and 1860s in Europe and America; commercial production of wood pulp by the sulphite process was achieved by 1887 in Ontario.


Imagine how people saw the vast natural resources in the United States in the mid-1800s. Seemingly endless forests stretched forever. Trees grew everywhere, so a mill could be located just about anywhere as long as it was near a water source. Trees could be harvested any time of the year, so the mills didn't go through seasonal periods of surpluses and shortages as they did with other fiber sources. Trees could be cut as they were needed, unlike fibers like straw which had to be stored in large volumes and which could then spoil. With this new wood pulping technology, the United States must have appeared to be a papermaker's version of nirvana.

This breakthrough in papermaking technology fueled a huge expansion in business that eventually led to the development of the modern corporation, which was unable to function without tremendous supplies of paper. The paper industry in the 1850s created changes so far-reaching that it was one of the transformative factors in the development of the United States. Not the least revolutionary change was the astounding drop in newsprint prices that advances in papermaking technology afforded - newsprint prices that were 28 cents per pound in 1864 had plunged to two cents or less per pound by 1897.

Wood's position as America's paper source was solidified at the turn of the century when federal and state governments enacted laws to spur industrial development. Companies were granted tax credits for resource depletion, and virgin resource industries were granted favorable freight rates. These incentives were successful in influencing the types and structure of investments and industries that were established; many of these incentives are still in effect. [See Welfare For Waste: How Federal Taxpayer Subsidies Waste Resources and Discourage Recycling - follow links to download]


Paper was first developed by Ts'ai Lun from recycled materials - from rags, fishing nets, hemp and China grass. It wasn't until a little more than a hundred years ago that paper began to be made from trees, and then it was because quantity, not quality, required alternative fiber sources.

We live in a very different world today. Today we have water shortages - especially in the West. We suffer from air pollution, energy crises, depletion of natural resources.

Perhaps the profligate use of natural resources made sense at the dawn of the 20th century, when developing the nation was a national goal. Perhaps it was reasonable in the mid-1800s to see trees as an unlimited fiber source, when the population was much smaller, there were fewer businesses, and paper was relatively limited in use. But those conditions clearly do not apply now.

Fortunately, we have an alternative. Recycled paper saves enormous amounts of water and energy over virgin papermaking processes. It produces far less pollution. It saves trees. It cuts down on our solid waste. It's a far cleaner, less toxic manufacturing process. And it allows us to stop trashing resources and start treating our trash as a valuable resource. There are also increasing numbers of papers being made from annual crops or agricultural residues, bypassing the need to cut forests for paper altogether.

We are again at a point of crisis. This time it is environmental. And again, it is paper that can lead us out of it. Papermaking technology has changed the development of society many times in the past. It can - and should - do it again now.

This article, adapted from a 1989 speech given by Susan Kinsella at an environmental paper seminar at the National Press Building in Washington, DC, was first published in Resource Recycling, June 1990. Dr. Thomas Kinsella, Associate Professor of British Literature at The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey and a specialist in antique bookbindings, provided invaluable assistance with historical references and perspectives.
[an error occurred while processing this directive]