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The Paper Plant ~ Papermaking History

iron press image

The word "paper" comes from papyrus, which was a hand-woven mat of rushes (big blades of grass) made by Egyptians almost five thousand years ago. Papyrus, like Mexican bark paper and even the original "rice paper" (shaved sheets of Formosan pith named by Dutch sailors), does not qualify as true paper because it is not produced by bringing beaten plant fibers into a felted layer using the action of draining water.

The first true paper was made in China two thousand years ago. An official to the Emperor of China made paper from old fishing net and scraps of the silk which he had been writing on before that to make sacred script for religious ceremonies. His paper, a slurry of pounded fibers thrown and patted on to a bamboo screen.

Paper got invented over and over by cultures around the world. Whenever a people invented writing, making paper was not too far behind. The Mayans in South American invented bark paper around 500 A.D.

Johann Gutenberg used paper to do the first important printing in Europe. Before Gutenberg, all books were written by hand with a quill pen on parchment, which is made of sheepskin. Papermaking reached Europe through two sets of slavery - Turkish fighters captured a Chinese papermaking mill, workers and all, and carried it home. During the Crusades, Moorish papermakers ended up in Spain and the new technology spread north. European papermakers used cotton rags to make their pulp, and used waterwheels and screw presses to mechanize the process and increase its scale.

Paper was first made in American in 1690 at a mill near Philadelphia. England had made papermaking a monopoly that they controlled, so the ability to make paper was an important part of our growing independence. It's hard to remember that every piece of paper made during the Revolutionary War - every newspaper, every letter, and every book - was made by hand one sheet at a time.

A papermaking machine that made an endless roll of paper with a wire cylinder was invented in 1799. This type of machine is still used today to make vast quantities of paper from wood chips, which are chemically "cooked" to separate the fibers.

Libraries have discovered that poor quality machine paper is a threat to their collections (thousands of books are turning to dust). Machine paper for books needs attention to acidity and a little cotton. Well made acid-free paper stores ideas very well.


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