The history of paper is deeply linked to that of culture and science.
The trigger that started the history of paper is simple and at the same time very important.
Man had an urgent need: to communicate certain information to his fellow men in written form. The information had to be fixed on a light and strong support that was easily transportable. The invention of paper allowed us to replace papyrus and parchment with a material that is easier to make and, with the improvement of production techniques, cheaper.
The advent of digital media has perhaps obscured the fundamental role of paper in the dissemination of knowledge, however we must not forget that until a few decades ago the transmission of any notion passed through a sheet of paper.
In this sense, the first definition of the paper provided by the Encyclopedia of Treccani boys is interesting: “An indispensable material for spreading ideas in everyday life. Over the centuries, the charter has contributed enormously to progress, to the participation of citizens in democratic life and to the increase in the average level of culture and education. “
The history of paper has accompanied the evolution of man over the centuries: from the transmission of new scientific and philosophical knowledge to the dissemination of education, up to the conquest of a political and historical awareness that gave way to the birth of modern states .
History of paper: its origins in China
Historical sources attribute the invention of paper to Ts’ai Lun, a dignitary of the Chinese imperial court who in 105 AD. he began to produce sheets of paper using scraps of used cloth, tree bark and fishing nets. The Chinese jealously guarded the secret of its production for many centuries, until, in the 6th century AD, their invention arrived in Japan thanks to the Buddhist monk Dam Jing. The Japanese quickly learned paper-making techniques, and began using a pulp derived from mulberry bark to produce the precious material.
History of paper: introduction to the Arab world
The Arab world discovered the secrets of paper making in AD 751, when the governor general of the Baghdad Caliphate captured two Chinese paper makers in Samarkand, and with their help started a paper mill in the Uzbek city. From there, thanks also to the wide availability of hemp and linen, two excellent quality raw materials ideal for making paper, the production spread to other cities in Asia, in particular to Baghdad and Damascus.
The paper processing procedure followed by Arab craftsmen involved the fraying and maceration of the rags in water until a homogeneous mixture was obtained, in which a sieve was then immersed which retained the macerated fibers, allowing the water to filter. The sheets obtained were then pressed and dried, and finally covered with a rice starch film to make them more reactive to the ink. In the same period Egypt and North Africa also began to produce the first sheets of paper, using the same production techniques of the Arab world.
The arrival of the card in Europe
The paper arrived in Europe only from the 11th century, with the Arab invasions in Sicily and Spain. However, it was immediately considered a poor quality material compared to parchment, to the point that in an edict of 1221 Frederick II prohibited its use for public documents. The use of rice starch, in fact, attracted the appetite of insects and made the sheets of paper not very durable.
The history of paper owes a great deal to the Italian paper makers of Fabriano, a small town in the Marche region, who in the 12th century began to manufacture it using linen and hemp. Through the study of new equipment and production techniques, these paper makers introduced important innovations:
- They mechanized the milling of rags through the use of hydraulic hammers, reducing the production times of the dough;
- They introduced the sizing of the sheets with animal gelatine, an unwelcome additive to insects;
- They created different types and sizes of paper;
- They invented the watermarking of sheets.
The introduction of the watermark made it possible to mark the paper with decorations made with metal threads visible in transparency, useful for inserting trademarks, signatures, ecclesiastical coats of arms and symbols of various kinds and meanings.
Starting from the fourteenth century, paper production also began to spread to other European countries, and at the end of the fifteenth century, with the invention of movable type printing, it underwent considerable growth. The discovery of America and the subsequent European colonization brought the production of paper also to the New World. A curious historical anecdote reported in Mark Kurlansky’s essay “Carta. Leafing through history ”tells of when the revolted North American colonies boycotted all British goods, with the exception of the precious material produced in London paper mills.
Paper as a means of mass communication
The industrial production of paper began in the nineteenth century, with the development of large-circulation newspapers and the first best-selling novels, which required large quantities of cellulose at cheap prices. Already in 1797, Louis Nicolas Robert made the first paper machine, capable of producing a sheet of 60 cm length. When the rags used for paper processing began to run out, they tried to replace them with other materials, such as pulp obtained from wood. With the development of new techniques for processing plant fibers obtained from trees, the price of paper dropped drastically, and within a few years this material became a consumer product. In England alone, paper production increased from 96,000 tons in 1861 to 648,000 tons in 1900.
Once again, the history of paper is intertwined with that of man: with the spread of economic paper, books and newspapers become objects within everyone’s reach, favoring the literacy of the middle classes. We will have to wait until the end of the century for it to be used for other uses as well, such as the production of toilet paper, packaging and then toys and furnishing elements.
Environmental impact of paper and ecological choices
The production of paper requires the use of substantial natural resources: to make one ton of this material, you need from 2 to 2.5 tons of wood and 30-40 cubic meters of water. In addition, it is necessary to use electricity and methane gas to power the industrial machinery used in the various production stages and, depending on the type of paper, polluting chemical additives. For this reason it is important to choose, when possible, an ecological or recycled paper that allows to reduce the environmental impact resulting from the production of this material.
The ecological paper is produced with cellulose obtained from wood coming from FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) certified forests, in which strict environmental, social and economic standards are respected. Recycled paper, on the other hand, is made from recycled paper materials, however the chlorine used to whiten it and other chemical additives can make it less ecological than is commonly thought. To be sure of choosing a truly eco-friendly material, it is advisable to opt for a paper with Ecolabel certification, the European ecological quality mark that rewards the most virtuous products from an environmental point of view.
Our article on the history of paper ends here, but we are sure that the technological innovations related to the use of this material still hold many surprises! The history of paper is far from exhausted, and its charm and usefulness will continue to accompany us for years to come.