A History of Paper and Papermaking

Written by Michele Wheat

Paper is an integral part of daily life, and it has been made and used for thousands of years. The word "paper" comes from the word "papyrus," which is a plant that ancient people began using to make a thick and pulpy material that became paper. The Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans were among some of the first societies to use paper. Ancient Chinese people were also instrumental in the origins of paper, developed by the iconic T'sai Lun. Although papermaking has changed significantly over the ages, it remains an important product in almost every industry.

The Origins of Papermaking

Before the invention of paper, some people used scrolls of silk to write on and to make books. Silk was impractical and expensive, though, so people sought a different material that would be suitable. The origins of paper trace back to the Chinese Han Dynasty in the year 105 A.D. Initially, the Chinese used rags to make pulp, which became paper. Eventually, they began using de-fibered bamboo as the main ingredient. Within about 500 years, papermaking advanced westward through Asia, the Middle East, and Europe. The Arabs were the first to begin applying a special coating to paper to make it easier to write on the surface. Gradually, equipment advances automated some of the processes, including powering the machinery with water in papermaking mills. The Dutch contributed to the papermaking process by inventing the Hollander Beater, which made it easier to produce paper pulp. In the 19th century, producers began using wood to make paper, and large wood-grinding machines made it possible to increase production amounts and decrease production time. Widespread industrialization in the 20th century was responsible for full automation of the entire papermaking process as well as the ability to refine the product by introducing various grades and coatings. As technology has moved forward, recycling in papermaking has resulted in new ways to make paper. Other unrelated products, such as insulation, are also now made from post-consumer paper products.

T'Sai Lun

Some call T'Sai Lun the father of paper. T'sai Lun was an official in Han Emperor Ho Ti's imperial court. Archaeological evidence suggests that T'sai Lun had the idea to break open the bark from a mulberry tree, separating it into fibers. He then pounded these fibers to make them into a thick pulp. After spreading the pulp onto a screen, submerging it in a vat, and pulling it out, the fibers were knit together into a thin layer that would then dry to become a sheet of paper. This paper product was called "T'sai ko-shi," which meant "distinguished T'sai's paper." Later adjustments led to improvements in quality by adding rags, hemp, and discarded fish nets to make the pulp.

Today's Paper

Current technology has enabled many different advances in paper products from cardboard boxes to wristbands, including features such as glazing, waterproofing, embossing, and more. It's possible to imprint electronic circuits onto paper instead of traditional circuit boards. Paper mills have also been improved to have higher production rates while operating more efficiently with fewer adverse effects on the environment. When using recycled paper to make new paper, many manufacturers add new pulp to the recycled materials, which helps with binding and strength. Recycling paper instead of using all new materials consumes about 40 percent less energy and also produces less water pollution.

Important Paper Terms

When discussing paper, a number of terms will likely come up in conversation. Paper with a neutral pH balance is called acid-free paper. The opacity of paper refers to how much the ink is apparent on the underside. Parchment paper is a special type that is made of animal skins. Recycled paper is a paper product made from consumer waste, and mixed paper is a type of paper that comes from a variety of recycled sources. The absorbency of paper refers to its retention of a liquid solution or printing ink. Coated papers involve the application of a coating to either one or both sides. This coating may be a mix of carbonates or latex, and it helps create a higher-quality surface for printed materials. Meanwhile, unfinished paper is taken directly from the machine without adding extra surface treatments to it.

Originally, all paper was handmade. Today, handmade paper refers to products that are made by a person who manually submerges a mold into a vat and performs the special movements required to knit the fibers together. And some paper products have extra filler added to the pulp that improves the brightness, opacity, or smoothness of the surface.