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The secret of manufacturing paper, which originated in China, spread with printing; before long, printing on paper enormously increased the flood of information sustaining the world. Rags and vegetable fibers were first used to make paper; since the nineteenth century, whole conifer forests have been felled to supply enough wood pulp to meet papermaking demands.
Paper, a thin, felt-like material made of cellulosic fibers from plants, is widely used around the world for writing, drawing, and wrapping. The English word paper derives from the similar material used by ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans: papyrus.
Paper in Antiquity
Predecessors of paper, known by the generic term “tapa,” are found in nearly all cultures in the equatorial zone and are used also for decorating and clothing. They are produced by beating the inner bark of plants such as the paper mulberry, fig, or daphne. In ancient Egypt, papyrus was made accordingly from the pith of the papyrus plant.
The oldest papermaking technique—still in use in a few locations in the Himalayas, China, and Southeast Asia—derives from a combination of this pounding technique and felting techniques (felting involves pressing together materials so that they adhere to form a large whole). To make a pulp, plant bark that has been cooked is beaten with a wooden hammer to form a thin fibrous layer that then is dissolved in a vat with water. The papermaker pours the quantity of pulp needed to make one sheet onto a mold consisting of a wooden frame with a fabric or bamboo screen and spreads it with his hand evenly across the screen. The mold is lifted carefully; the water drains off and a sheet of paper forms on the screen. Then the mold is placed in the sun or near a fire to dry. When dry, the sheet easily peels off the screen and, apart from possible smoothing, requires no further treatment.
As recent findings of very old paper in Chinese tombs show, paper has been produced in China ever since the last two centuries BCE. In 105 CE, the court official Cai Lun allegedly invented papermaking from textile waste (that is, rags). This was the birth of paper as we know it today. Chinese papermakers developed a number of specialties, including sizing (making the paper ink-proof), coating, and dyeing. They introduced bamboo as a fiber plant, beating it after cooking it in lye. Paper served for such diverse purposes as writing, drawing, wrapping, clothing, protection from weather, decoration, windows, and even for balloons and kites. Last but not least, paper was used for special currency to be burned in honor of the ancestors.
The Spread of Papermaking
Chinese papermaking techniques reached Korea at an early date and in 610 were introduced to Japan, where papermaking was becoming a skilled craft. The ultimate was the production of shifu, paper yarn woven into beautiful fabric.
Knowledge of papermaking also spread from China to Central Asia and Tibet, and then on to India. The Arabs, in the course of their eastern expansion, became acquainted with the production of the new writing material near Samarqand, and paper mills were subsequently set up in Baghdad, Damascus, Cairo, and later in Morocco and Spain. Using screens made from reed, the Arabs made thin sheets of rag pulp and coated them on both sides with starch paste, which could be colored. This gave Arab paper its good writing properties and its fine appearance. Arab technique spread into medieval Europe, and European innovations, especially the paper machine (multiplying the production rate), spread throughout the world during the nineteenth century.
European Handmade Paper
In medieval Italy, papermakers from Genoa, Fabriano, and Amalfi tried to improve on the Arab technique. Their innovations included the use of water power, stamping mills (derived from fulling mills, which shrank and thickened cloth) to pound the rags, molds made of wire, couching (setting the forming paper on a felt to be pressed), the screw paper press, dip sizing with animal glue, and a production process based on division of labor.
Three kinds of paper were produced: writing paper, printing paper (mostly unsized), and cheap wrapping paper, also used for drafts. Printing paper caused the evolution of the graphic arts (woodcut; engravings). Work at the vat normally involved four people: the vatman, who made the sheet using the mold; the couchman, who worked in time with the vatman, placing the sheet on the felt; the layman, who removed the moist sheets from the felt after pressing; and the apprentice, who had to feed pulp to the vat and keep the vat heated. Up to nine reams (4,500 sheets) of paper could be made during a working day averaging 13 to 15 hours.
Technical progress continued. In the sixteenth century, hand glazing (polishing) using a glass or stone burnisher was supplemented by the use of the glazing hammer similar to a forging hammer. Toward the end of the seventeenth century a much more efficient tool, the so-called hollander beater, supplemented or even replaced the stamping mill.
The watermark, invented in medieval Italy, provides the historian with an unsurpassed dating and authenticating tool. The real watermark, a figure in the paper sheet, is seen by the naked eye. In hand papermaking, it is formed by a curved wire that is sewn onto the screen of the mold; the wire reduces the thickness of the sheet, thus making the figure transparent. Later, after the invention of the paper machine, a roll covered with wire gauze impressed the watermark on the wet paper web. The watermark serves as a papermaker’s trademark. By comparing a watermark with others of a certain date or origin, the paper historian is able to determine age and origin of a document or print. Shadow (countersunk, embossment, intaglio) watermarks are produced on a mold that carries a fine, embossed woven wire, and appear as images, like a black-and-white photograph.
The Advent of Industrial Papermaking
From the sixteenth century, paper became more and more important for administrative and commercial purposes, and, as more people were trained in writing and reading, for private use, too. The debates of the church reformers and new works of science were widely published by printing on paper, and popular pamphlets, romances, and plays were distributed in print all over Europe. Newspapers, which from the beginning of the seventeenth century had come out with weekly issues, changed during the eighteenth to a daily format, and became—censored by the government in most countries—the sole means of shaping public opinion and spreading news of scientific progress. The ideas of the Enlightenment and of the French Revolution were supported by the development of the print mass media at the end of the eighteenth century.
Further developments in printing during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries resulted in a steeply rising demand for paper, especially for new printing grades. This and the tremendous upsurge in papermaking soon led to a serious shortage of raw material and to regulations governing the trade in rags to ensure the local production of paper for administrative purposes. The systematic search for substitute pulping materials met with little immediate success.
Already in the eighteenth century, there had been some concentration of handicraft activities in big factories, which still depended on skilled papermakers organized in open guilds. Efforts to step up production and to have many jobs done mechanically culminated in the design and construction of paper machines. A Frenchman, Nicholas-Louis Robert (1761–1828), built the first paper machine using an endless wire screen, patented in 1799. It was further refined in England by Bryan Donkin (1768–1855) and by Henry (1766– 1854) and Sealy Fourdrinier (d. 1847). Soon, other types were developed, such as the Dickinson cylinder machine. Fourdrinier-type and cylinder machines gained ground in the nineteenth century and were extended to include a dryer section; the technology steadily improved, leading to considerable increases in production speeds. With the increasing industrialization of papermaking, small operators who were unable or unwilling to pay for machines were forced to survive with piece work or by producing special grades and cardboard, but they were sooner or later compelled to discontinue their activities.
The decisive turn in developing the U.S. paper industry was initiated by Joshua Gilpin, who in 1815 brought from England not only the plans of the Dickinson cylinder machine but also Lawrence Greatrake, a leading paper engineer. Special paper machines were successfully built (including the so-called Yankee cylinder machine), and soon the United States led the world in paper production and in per capita paper and board consumption (more than 300 kilograms per year in 1980).
The industrialization of papermaking was marked by some definite trends. First, all work sequences previously performed by hand were mechanized, thus steeply raising the demand for energy. Then, efforts were made to obtain rag substitutes on an industrial scale, and appropriate industrial plants were developed. Straw was suggested as a raw material but proved unsuitable because it produced low-quality paper. Only the 1843 discovery that one could use ground wood pulp, followed by the invention of chemical pulp (first patents in 1854), solved this problem. Pulping (the extraction of fibers from wood by mechanical or chemical means) became an industry of its own. Just from its start, two big problems arose: wood grinding produced fibers of minor quality, prone to decay in a short term, especially if applied together with acid rosin size. Thus, most books and newspaper produced between 1850 and 1980 containing wood pulp are endangered and need conservatory treatment. Because of heavy water and air pollution, chemical pulping plants were—already in the nineteenth century, together with the then newly founded chemical plants producing synthetic dyestuffs—the first targets of popular ecological movements and legislation. A further stage was marked by the enlargement of the web width (web is the term for the continuous sheet of paper produced in mechanized paper mills), an increase in working speeds, the introduction of electric drive, and the development of machines designed specifically for the production of particular paper and cardboard grades. Web working width grew from 85 centimeters in 1830 to 1,100 centimeters in 1990, while production speeds rose from 3 to 5 meters per minute in 1820 to more than 2,000 meters per minute in 1995. Consequently, paper prices dropped, leading—starting also in the nineteenth century—to the production of very cheap booklets and magazines intended for a growing literacy of peoples around the world.
Alongside the development of printing, new paper grades were created, together with specialized paper such as punch cards, stand-up collars, tube papers, flong (stereotyping paper), pergamyn (parchment imitation), ammunition papers, envelopes, tobacco paper, toilet paper, and so on. The use of new materials (thermomechanical pulp, deinked waste paper, new fillers, process chemicals, and dyes) and new sheetforming techniques, neutral sizing, greater stress on ecology, and—most effective—automation brought further improvement.
Paper consumption grew from medieval times to the end of the eighteenth century by a factor of fifty. Since then, paper and board has become a worldwide, large-scale commodity with exponential growth. Statistics from the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) have led to a forecast of about half a billion tons in 2010, of which about two-fifths will be produced in the fastest growing industrial market, Asia.
Technical and commercial changes have led to specialization in certain paper types, development of new paper grades, and new commercial entities and structures brought about by corporate mergers or by company groups with their own raw-material supply and trading organizations. The evolution of new sheet-forming principles and chemical pulp processes, along with increased demand in the global market (especially in developing countries), trends in chemical pulp prices, and location problems are again increasing the capital needed to be a successful competitor, which in turn is leading to the formation of big company groups with international operations. Papers for technical use form an increasing market.
Environmental problems have led to changes, too. Introduction of new forestry principles, fiber recycling from waste paper, heat recovery, closed water circuits, and replacement of aggressive chemical processes in pulping have improved the formerly poor image of the pulp and paper industry. Up to 60 percent of the total fiber consumption is covered by waste paper, thus saving forests from over-cutting. Modern papermaking processes are running quicker, consuming less water and energy, minimizing pollution, and are again producing long-lasting paper.
The electronic revolution in data processing and private and public communication appears not to be affecting reliance on paper and probably will not until an easier-to-handle, more lasting, cheaper storage medium for the memory of mankind is found. Even then paper will remain a ubiquitous helper (for example, in packaging and hygiene) in daily life.
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- Gravell, T. L., & Miller, G. A. (1983). A catalogue of foreign watermarks found on paper used in America, 1700–1835. New York: Garland.
- Hills, R. L. (1988). Papermaking in Britain, 1488–1988. London: Athlone Press.
- Hunter, D. (1952). Papermaking in pioneer America. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
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