The History of Paper Is Anything But Blank

It is amazing just how much we know about the history of stationery. Papyrus was the first popular light medium for writing. It was used in the Middle East and Europe after tablets and clay fell out of fashion. Papyrus production is believed to have begun around 3500 BCE in Egypt, and eventually became a sought-after item in the Greco-Roman world. Ancient Roman sources such as Pliny the Elder (c. 23-79 CE) suggested that a shortage in papyrus shipments from Egypt led to the eventual rise of another form of stationery—parchment.

Although parchment grew in popularity after papyrus, it had already been around for a very long time. As far as we know, parchment was first produced sometime during the Fourth Dynasty of Egypt (approximately 2613-2465 BCE). This material was created from animal skin that had been stretched out, scraped clean and dried free of unwanted moisture. Parchment had a few advantages over papyrus. For one, parchment did not mold and rot as papyrus did in the more humid regions of Greece and Italy. Even more importantly, parchment could be folded for more complex codices and books, while papyrus would snap and crack under the same stress. It is uncertain exactly when parchment overtook papyrus, but the Greek city of Pergamon is believed to have begun producing parchment in either the 3rd or the 2nd century BCE, during the reign of Eumenes I or Eumenes II.

In East Asia, another type of stationery was produced that would eventually displace parchment. The distant ancestor of modern paper is believed to trace well back before the production of Egyptian papyrus.  Based on the discovery of ancient stone tools, archaeologists and anthropologists have proposed that people in Southeast China may have begun producing barkcloth fabric from the beaten fibers of paper mulberry trees (Broussonetia papyrifera) as early as the 6th and 5th millennia BCE. Yet, this was far from our conception of paper. At first, the barkcloth was used for clothing and other aesthetic purposes, but, after thousands of years, it was utilized for writing. In the traditional folklorish account of the birth of paper, a man named Cau Lun (or Ts’ai Lun) is often given credit with the invention of paper in 105 CE. He is said to have created paper by mixing paper mulberry tree fibers with other substances, such as bast (a fiber from the phloem, or vascular tissue, of a plant) and discarded scraps of netting and hemp. Despite this story, many historians and archaeologists believe that this type of paper production in China began as early as the 1st century BCE. In corroboration of this, archaeologists digging near Dunhuang in Gansu Province found Buddhist writings on paper that was dated to around 8 BCE. Whatever the case may be, historians do not believe that paper stationary became a truly popularized item in China until the 3rd century CE. From China, papermaking traveled to Korea, and from there, it journeyed to Japan.

The expanding Islamic empires of the 8th century CE were responsible for spreading the use of paper westward. The first papermaking facility near the civilizations built around the Mediterranean Sea was constructed in Baghdad in either 793 or 794. There, the paper was made from more readily available fibers other than those from the paper mulberry tree. As a result, the paper from Baghdad was thicker, but less costly. Eventually, new paper mills were created in the Middle East and Europe. The cities of Damascus and Cairo were quick to pick up on papermaking. Similarly the Muslim-controlled city of Xàtiva, Spain, opened up a paper mill around 1120. Fabriano, Italy, also constructed its own paper mill in 1264, signaling that the use and production of paper was becoming more popular in non-Islamic Europe. England was probably one of the stragglers in local paper production, with a mill that opened up as late as 1588, in the town of Dartford.

Despite its rise in Europe and the Middle East, paper long remained an expensive and luxurious commodity that was not easily accessibly for all people. It would take industrialization and the invention of new machinery in the 19th century for paper to be mass-produced economically for the use of mankind.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Top picture attribution: (Collage of The Edwin Smith papyrus (left), Barkcloth clothing from Yunnan Province, China (Center), a vellum page from the Codex runicus (right), all [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).

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