History of Paper

The essence of papermaking remains relatively unchanged since its development thousands of years ago. Pulp, or wet plant matter, is mashed and beaten until the long strands of fiber begin to separate. The pulp is run through a mesh, on top of which the fibers weave together to form a natural tapestry. This sheet of wet pulp is couched, or pressed off against another surface, where it is left to dry, usually under some combination of heat and pressure. 


“Ts’ai Lun, an Emperor’s eunuch, is often credited with paper’s invention in the year AD 105.” (Hiebert 1). However archeologists have found paper in Central Asia that far predates Ts’ai Lun (Kurlansky 30). Papermaking spread from Asia to the Middle East and eventually Europe. Wherever paper took root, cultures adapted the process to include the most suitable native plants. Third century Chinese artists preferred paper from mulberry bark and bamboo (Kurlansky 33). Eighth Century Japanese paper was created using gampi as well as mulberry bark. Nori is another form of Japanese paper made from seaweed (Kurlanksy 313).  As paper spread to the Middle East, Arab papermakers used hemp from old discarded rags (Kurlansky 55). The Egyptians grew huge quantities of flax to make linen, which proved to be a great source for high quality paper. Paper arrived in Europe relatively later on, where cotton, hemp, as well as flax from old rags were all used to make paper (Kurlansky 187). Finally North America caught on, and the first paper mill established in the present day United States made paper from flax. I spent some time working at a small paper making studio called Carriage House Paper in New York. We were making paper out of abaca, kenaf, flax, cotton linters, and even discarded old blue jeans. 


And from the beginning this paper was used to package goods. A traveler in Cairo in the year 1040 wrote in amazement that “the vendors of vegetables and spices are furnished with paper in which everything they sell is wrapped.” (Kurlansky 57) 18th Century English factories manufactured brown and blue paper wrapping, packaging, and encasing firearm cartridges (Kurlansky 190). And around the time the Dutch created a special violet paper to wrap sugar (Kurlansky 231). The English even developed an early precursor to corrugated cardboard called pasteboard, a common packaging material made from gluing several sheets of paper together (Kurlansky 190).


In the early 1700s a Frenchman named René Antoine Ferchault set in progress a series of investigations that would ultimately shift the paper industry towards trees. Ferchault was enchanted by wasps, he observed how wasps took natural wood material and broke it down into fine paper to make their nests. As wood was a plentiful resource at the time,  the world caught on, and now nearly all of the world’s paper comes from trees.


Paper’s versatility lies in the fact that it can be made from any plant, from the mighty Redwood to the humble garden weed. However the overwhelming majority of paper today comes from trees. A dirty process that involves either deforestation or unhealthy monoculture tree farming, followed by an energy intensive treating and bleaching phase. And along with the environmental impacts of tree based paper, trees are far from the best economical option as they take a very long time to grow and are not very space efficient.


So why do we still use paper from Trees? Well trees were a cheap and almost disposable resource when the western paper industry developed. Thus the manufacturing technology and infrastructure around industrial paper making developed to support tree-based paper. Although new environmental awareness has allowed us to recognize that trees are not an ideal source of paper, alternative fibers “must compete with a well entrenched incumbent” (Dougherty 130). “Kenaf, hemp, and flax are fast growing crops that have been used for paper making. These and other dedicated crops hold the promise of shifting our fiber source to annually renewable crops that can grow with few pesticides in many climates” (Dougherty 131).


Dougherty, Brian. Green Graphic Design. Allworth Press, 2008.

Hiebert, Helen. Papermaking with Garden Plants & Common Weeds. Storey Pub., 2006.

Kurlansky, Mark. Paper: Paging through History. W. W. Norton & Company, 2017.

Ian Montgomery