History of Paper: Who invented paper?
The Ancient Sumerians used stone tablets to write letters and tell their history. The Ancient Egyptians learned how to make paper from papyrus, which allowed for easier transport of books and important documents, but was difficult and time consuming to make.
The Ancient Chinese, prior to the first century CE, used stones, animal bones and hides, and wood to document laws and grain production, and to write letters to loved ones.
The production of paper, as we still know it today, began about 2000 years ago in Ancient China.
Early Paper Making in Ancient China
The earliest utilitarian form of paper was made during the Western Han dynasty (206 BCE – 23 CE ) when linen was used for paper as well as for cloth. This form of making paper was truly a labor, time, and cost intensive process. For example, to make good quality linen from flax, you must plant the flax seeds, hope for good weather, harvest the mature plants by hand, rot the fiber (retting), separate the fiber, spin, weave the linen material, and finally compress several layers of the material into “paper.”
Silk and bamboo were also woven into cloth and used as paper, but they also required a lot of labor, time, and expense to manufacturer.
These types of paper may have been called “chí ti” meaning “of (ti) paper (chí).”
Using Leftovers to Make Paper
During the Eastern Han dynasty (25 – 220 CE), an easier and faster method of making paper was developed. The person, historically given as a de facto father of papermaking, is Cai Lun. His role and work in Ancient China is debatable. He is sometimes described as a eunuch, an official in Emperor Hedi’s court (88 – 106 CE), and as the head of a royal workshop. Regardless of his duties, he is credited with developing a better way to make paper.
Using plant fibers from pieces of rope, old fishing nets, cotton rags, bamboo and tree bark, Cai Lun shortened the time to produce the raw material necessary to begin making the paper by several months. Next, he mixed wood ashes and water with the plant fibers and boiled it for about five weeks. Wood ashes are alkaline, which cooks or breakdowns the more acidic plant fibers.
After the mixture had sufficiently boiled, a gluing agent, such as the juice from boiled birch leaves, was added. This “glue” helped hold the plant fibers together and helped make a smoother, softer, and more pliable paper.
The plant pulp, cleaned with water and strained, was spread into sheets to dry.
The resulting thin, lightweight sheets of paper were easily transported, could be rolled to form scrolls or folded to form booklets, made into different sizes, and produced quicker and more easily than previous forms of “paper.” Additionally, as paper could be mass produced quicker, more easily, and at less cost, it would become more accessible to anyone in Ancient China and the surrounding countries.
History of Paper Continues: An Ancient Craft Still in Use Today
Papermaking hasn’t changed too much since the ancient Chinese began making paper unless we discuss the quantity of paper products generated (more than 5000) by the pulp and paper industries. Additionally, we’ve come a long way from adding ashes to the pulp, as there are now over 3000 chemicals that have various uses, for things such as, coloring, sizing, glue, buffers, acids, bleaching agents, polymers, and so on.
Today, paper is made from trees grown and harvested specifically for making paper, wood leftover from other projects (such as flooring lumber), and from recycled paper.
Interesting to note is that we continue to use Ancient Chinese ideas for making paper, such as using non-wood products to make paper. For example, although we call money “paper,” we should remember that some “paper” money, such as the US dollar and the Euro, are actually made from another plant fiber – cotton.