Beginnings of a History of Paper: China AD 105

The Chinese Han Dynasty is said to have been where the inception of paper occurred. A court officer, Ts’an Lun, took rags which were actual waste left from the textile makers of the time and processed them into a raw material that he used to make paper.

This brought forth other Chinese innovators who developed specialized paper by size, surface, and color. One of the most well-known specialties of this time was paper made from the bamboo plant. This involved a process of dipping the paper in lye in order to make it thin and smooth. The added benefit was it repelled insects.

Because of the rapid progress in innovations with paper, China as a culture excelled in overall progress. The papermakers could not keep up with the ever-growing demand for paper, especially by the Chinese government.

Expansion: Asia AD 610

By this time, word had spread to other parts of Asia, specifically Korea and Japan of the techniques for making paper that was being used by the Chinese. Then, these same techniques were rapidly picked up by travelers from Tibet and India and brought back to their regions. Now, paper mills were spreading all over the Asian region.

The process itself used in these paper mills was similar in each country which was to take the inner bark fibers of a mulberry tree and beat them by hand. Then layers of the fiber were immersed in lye in quick succession to create the smooth quality of the paper. This process is still done today by some of the old masters in these regions.

As many Arab tribes began to move to the East, they became aware of the paper mills and tried to recreate the process on their own. Consequently, several mills were built in cities like Cairo, Morocco, and Baghdad. Because Arabs did not have the same type of trees to retrieve material from for paper as the Asians did, they used rags as the original inventor from China, Ts’an Lun, had done. They were not familiar with his process, and so invented their own which produced a rough pulp that had to be sifted through reeds that acted as screens to remove the thick pulp substance and produce thin sheets. These sheets were then painted with starch paste to make them smooth and firm enough to write on.

Europeans - 14th Century

With the paper process in the Arab region gaining notoriety in Morocco and Spain, the technique makes it way to other areas including Europe. Italy especially becomes a leader in papermaking around this time in the cities of Amalfi and Fabriano where they worked on trying to improve upon the Arab technique.

What the Italians did was improve upon not only the outcome of the product but how the product was produced. They improved the way in which the pulp was filtered, used water as an energy source for the machinery they used, created slides that fed the actual rags through the machines and invented “dip-sizing” which improved upon the curing process of the surface of the sheets.

All of these improvements led to paper becoming more of a commodity in Europe. This demand led to a German councilman named Ullmann Stromer to build a paper mill in Germany. Up until now, everything that was documented was written out by monks, nuns, or government writers for the purpose of posterity, so this constant need for literature increased the productivity of paper tenfold.

European Paper Mill Expansion- 15th-16th Century

European businessmen started to realize that the increasing need for paper was also an increasing need for more paper mills. So, through the middle of the 15th century to the end of the 16th century, Germany grew its paper mill factories to 190 mills.

The paper was usually manufactured in teams of four men who each had their own job to perform: a vatman carried the pulp to a sheet mold; the couch squirt took the sheet from the mold to a piece of felt to dry; the layman pressed the felt and then removed it to dry; the apprentice had to keep the vat at a specific temperature for the process to continue. This work day, (13 hours), would normally produce about 4,000 sheets of paper.

Then, Johan Gutenburg invented the printing press around this time, and now information could be mass produced. The need for paper skyrocketed.

Paper Technology Improvements - 17th and 18th Century

The Dutch “borrowed” the innovations of the German paper mills and took the lead in paper production in the 17th century. They introduced a tool referred to as the “Hollander Beater” that mashed pulp in a much more efficient manner. The printing press created a massive shortage in raw materials for producing paper, so inventors began to work on a system that would produce paper on a much larger scale.

By the 18th century, this idea came to fruition. These new and improved paper mills were referred to as “manufacturies.” This created a need for skilled papermakers, so craft groups were formed to work in the larger facilities. With a growing need for papermakers and not enough skilled workers to hire, inventors developed more machines to take the place of skilled workers. In 1798, J.N.L. Robert created the very first flat-screen paper-producing machine. This was incorporated with the invention by Claude-Louis Bertholett three years previous of a bleaching technique to whiten paper. This made the French the first culture to ever use actual white paper as we know it today.

New Machines – 19th and 20th Century

The flat-screen machines were improved upon with better drying sections. Gradually, the entire system at this time became completely automated. Paper was now a full-scale industry with a fully automated process of prepping, pulping, filtering, and finishing.

Through these 200 years, new materials have been developed to refine paper and make it more durable and versatile like new fillers and thermos-mechanical pulps, as well as new sheet forming options and sizing.

History of Paper for the Future- 21st Century

In the paper industry, recycled paper is becoming a standard way of paper processing. The techniques have evolved as well to produce a variety of papers that include embossed, torn, crumpled, twisted, folded, pleated, glazed, waxed, waterproof, crepe, and enameled and many more.

Technology is even imbedded in paper today which is called “intelligent paper.” This is paper that will change color while it is still in the package to show a consumer or manufacturer the paper is past its sell date. Scratch and sniff paper for aroma marketing to consumers, and radio IDs imbedded in paper for legal documents to be traced.

Who knows what the future has in store for paper ten, twenty and even 100 years from now…?