top of page

What is paper?

What is paper?

Early (proto-) papers

Papyrus 3100 BCE

Amatl / Amate 1000 BCE

Tapa cloth

Invention of “true” paper – Cai Lun, 105 CE

Knowledge of Paper spreads around the world

Buddhism transports to Korea, Japan & SE Asia-- + types of fibers, 400-600 CE

Islam brings paper to central Asia & N Africa + types of fibers, 751-1000 CE

Christianity brings paper to Europe, 1100-1400 CE

Colonialism destroys indigenous paper of the Americas, introduces European paper (1521, 1690)

Industrialization introduces wood pulp (1780-1880)


What is Paper?

Paper is a mat of cellulose fibers that have been beaten in the presence of water to the point that each filament of fiber can be mixed and dispersed in water, and then is collected again on a screen, and dried. The resulting thin sheet is paper. Cellulose is present in varying quantities and qualities in virtually all plants and in materials made from plants, such as textiles, old rags, ropes, and nets. While the Chinese character for paper suggests that plant and textile waste fiber were initially used to make paper, the Chinese soon came to make it from bast fibers (the vascular tissue of a plant), particularly the inner bark of bamboo, paper mulberry, rattan, and ramie, which grown abundantly in the warm and moist climate of south-east China. (J. Bloom)


Early (Proto-) Papers

Before “true” paper was invented, many portable surfaces for writing and drawing existed, such as wood, metal, stone, clay, leaves, bark, cloth, papyrus, and parchment. While papyrus was cheap, it could only be made in Egypt where the plant grew; parchment, made from the skins of animals, could be made virtually anywhere, but it was expensive because it entailed killing an animal.

Papyrus, invented in Egypt and in use since 3100 BCE, resembles a thick paper and is made from the plant Cyperus papyrus, however, the plant's fibers are never macerated and then dispersed in water. Rather, the stalk of the plant is cut from end to end with a knife, and the delicate strips of it are laid over each other perpendicularly, pounded with a mallet to adhere one layer to another, and then allowed to dry. Similarly “Rice Paper”, a notable smooth white material for Chinese paintings and decorative applications, is not made from rice, and it is not a true paper. The material is cut spirally from the pith of the Tetrapanax papyrifer plant, widely cultivated in East Asia. Likewise, bark cloths such as Tapas of the South Pacific islands and Amatl of Central America consist of the inner bark of specific trees whose fiber is pounded, but never fully broken apart nor dispersed in water and collected on a screen. Finally, while they may have the feel of paper, genuine parchment and vellum are made from the skins of animals.


Invention of “True” Paper

The invention of paper and the papermaking process is attributed to the eunuch Cai Lun of the Han Dynasty, who presented the materials and methods of papermaking to the court of the Emperor He in the year105 CE. His papermaking process involved the use of paper mulberry and other barks, hemp, cloth rags, and fishing nets. While his particular recipe of fibers is unknown, the methods of Cai Lun are still in use today, almost 2000 years later.

Examples of earlier paper made from hemp and ramie, dating from 200 - 50 BCE have been found in excavations in central and western China. While this paper was likely used as a textile material for wrapping, by the beginning of the first millennium CE, these early papers began to replace the heavy bamboo tablets and costly silk cloth that the Chinese had used previously for writing and drawing. (J. Bloom)

Even with the existence of these earlier “true” papers, Cai Lun's contribution to papermaking cannot be underestimated as he surely improved the art of making paper and popularized its use throughout China, and eventually around the world.


Knowledge of Paper Spreads Around the World

As papermaking knowledge was taken to other regions of the world with other climates, differences in raw materials made technical adjustments necessary. In the extreme and arid climate of Central Asia, for example, where plants such as bamboo and rattan did not grow, papermakers used such materials as rags and old ropes to supplement bast fibers derived from flax and hemp.



Paper and papermaking techniques were carried by Buddhist monks, missionaries, and merchants from south-eastern China, the region where it was invented, throughout East Asia. Paper was a useful medium on which to collect and transmit Buddhist scripture, as it was lightweight, flexible, and relatively inexpensive. By the year 610 CE, Buddhists had brought paper and papermaking to Korea and Japan in the east, Vietnam in the south, and Central Asia in the west, where travelers stopped on their way around the Himalayas to India, the homeland of Buddhism. While many Chinese Buddhists traveled to India, there is no evidence that they introduced papermaking to India at this time. (Papermaking spread to India relatively late, in 1420, from Samarkand.) In East and South-East Asia, the inner bark of plants such as the paper mulberry, daphne, gampi, and mitsumata were primarily used to make paper along with hemp.



After the death of the Prophet Muhammad in 632 CE, Muslim armies began to make forays into western Central Asia. The Islamic world spread from western Central Asia, throughout the Middle East, into North Africa, and into the Iberian Peninsula (current day Spain). By the year 650 CE, Chinese paper was being imported and used in Samarkand, but it was not until after the Battle of Talas in 751, when the Muslims captured Chinese prisoners of war who shared the secret of papermaking, that paper was made in current day Iran and Iraq. By 800, rag paper was being manufactured in Baghdad and Damascus; by 900, its establishment in Cairo, Egypt caused the papyrus industry to collapse.

By the year 1000 CE, paper was known and used across all of Muslim North Africa from Egypt to Morocco, and into Spain, enabling its diffusion northwards into Christian Europe. After the year 1000, as Christians came to control larger areas of the Iberian Peninsula, paper and papermaking techniques were exported to other regions of western and southern Europe. (J Bloom) The primary materials of papermaking in this region were recycled rags, flax, and hemp.



Papermaking in the Iberian Peninsula became a major business, not only for the Muslims but also among the Christians of the newly conquered provinces of Valencia and Aragon, where the great need for legal documents spurred an unusually high demand for paper. Iberian papermakers were soon exporting their product to France, Italy, and elsewhere in Europe, and in the 13th century, Italians began making paper, first in Genoa, then in Fabriano in 1276. By 1282, the Italians began incorporating simple wire watermarks into their papers – a faint design imparted to the sheet of paper during the manufacturing process, visible when held up to the light. The Fabriano paper mill refines the process of watermarking and eventually creates chiaro-oscura (light and shade) watermarking. Hand paper mills are established in France by 1348; in Germany by 1390; in Flanders (current day Belgium/Netherlands) by 1405; and the spread eastward into Poland by 1491. The primary materials of papermaking in Europe were recycled rags.


Colonialism in the Americas

As the countries of Europe sought to spread their influence through the establishment of colonies on other continents, they deeply impacted indigenous populations and the spread or decline of papermaking. In Central America, amatl papermaking and paper products were sacred to the Aztecs. Amatl was used for tribute, ceremonies, and documentation. With over 40 centers throughout the Aztec empire producing about one million sheets of amatl for tribute alone, paper figured extensively in ceremonies. Specially trained artist-scribes created manuscripts of accordion-folded amatl to document Aztec history, learning, and daily life. However, after the Spanish conquest of 1521, most of these codices were burned and destroyed by Spanish missionaries, and the art of indigenous papermaking approached extinction. By 1580, the Spanish established a European style paper mill in Mexico, near current day Mexico City. Among the Otomi ethnic group, indigenous papermaking has survived, and the town of San Pablito, Mexico, is the source of most amatl today. (Americas 43)

In North America, the British began colonizing the east coast of the continent in 1607. Unlike Central America, there was no indigenous papermaking practiced among the native populations. Therefore, it was not until 1690, that the first hand papermaking mill was established in what would become the United States. William Rittenhouse (born Wilhelm Rittinghausen in Germany) learned the craft of papermaking from his uncle and was active in the trade in the Netherlands. After a decade in Amsterdam, Rittenhouse emigrated with his family to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and established his mill in connection with a notable printer. The manufacture of paper by hand thrived for some time due to the cessation of imports from Great Britain, but by the 1820s and 1830s, new machinery revolutionized American papermaking, requiring bigger and more powerful mills, as well as large amounts of capital and raw materials. The art of hand papermaking came to a halt in the United States after less than 150 years. (J. Green. The Rittenhouse Mill and the Beginnings of Papermaking in America)



As innovations in printing technology progressed, particularly in Europe, much greater demand was placed on paper and its raw materials of linen- and cotton-rag, which were growing shorter in supply as countries used from 800 to 10,000 tons of rag each year for paper. With the advent of the Industrial Revolution in the late 1700s, great leaps were made in the manufacture of paper. Inventions such as the hydraulic press (1788) and the paper machine (1798-1802) allowed paper to be produced at an accelerated rate and lower cost, but these advances did not address the shortage of raw material. The paper machine, or Fourdrinier as it became commonly known, could produce paper “in single sheets without seams or joining … from one to 45 feet and upwards in length.” By 1800, Matthias Koops of London began experimenting with wood, straw, and other agricultural waste for use as pulp, as well as the de-inking of paper, conceiving of the need to recycle as well as replace the rag content of paper. Bleached wood-pulp paper appears in English book production in 1802, and by the 1840s the preparation of wood by grinding and chemical pulping is being explored and refined. The paper machine is in use in Europe by 1812, in the United States by 1817, and in Japan by 1872, and by the 1850s, mills that make paper by hand are greatly diminished in the United States, Great Britain, and elsewhere. With the introduction of wood pulp and harsh chemicals, papermaking demonstrates a negative environmental impact on renewable resources and water quality in the 19th century. Additionally, with advances in machinery and engines, the art of hand papermaking wanes with its decline in economy.


1680- Invention of the Hollander beater, used in the maceration of cellulose fibers to make paper pulp, invented in the Netherlands.

1729- Invention of papier-mâché by Claude Genoux, a French printer

1772- First use of paper in Europe for building coaches, sedan chairs, cabinets, bookcases, screens, etc

1774- Mrs. Mary Delaney of England begins making “Paper Mosaic[k]s”, highly detailed renderings and botanical drawings through detailed collage of small bits of paper.

1788- The hydraulic press is invented in England by Joseph Bramah, but not used in English paper mills until about 1800.

1792- Invention of the “dandy roll” - a rolling pin used to impart watermarks onto a freshly formed sheet of paper.

42 views0 comments


Los comentarios se han desactivado.
bottom of page