Paper History

Paper, to be briefly technical, is an aqueous deposit of any vegetable fiber in sheet form. The name, as most people know, comes from the Latin papyrus, which in the hands of the early Egyptians (its first known users) comprised the pith of a grass-like plant which was sliced into layers and beaten or pressed into sheets. Specimens bearing written characters have been found in Egyptian tombs of 3500 BC and its place in history is underlined by the fact that most of the works of the Greek and Roman scholars were written upon it.
Flattened stalks of papyrus reeds were used by the Egyptians as a writing surface.
But paper, as we know it today, had its origins in China. Traditional Chinese records give the credit for its development, to one T'sai Lun (about 105 AD), who was even deified as the god of papermakers. Samples in the British Museum indicate that the early Chinese paper was of a very high quality and comparable even with that of handmade rag paper today. This picture shows early papermaking in China using plait fibers.
Eastern civilization developed more or less simultaneously with the civilizations of the Middle East and of Europe, but as if in a separate world. This is why paper, which was in general use in China nearly 2,000 years ago, was unknown further west until the capture of Chinese prisoners by Arabs at Samarkand in the eighth century. In 793 AD, a factory was working at Baghdad where Haroun-el-Raschid introduced Chinese workmen. The next centre was Damascus; the main source of supply for Europe for several centuries. From Damascus, the craft travelled westwards, by way of Egypt, to Morocco (in about 1110 AD) ; the Moors introduced the craft to Europe.
Further progress of the craft will be appreciated from the following table, showing the dates (doubtful in some cases) of the earliest mills in various countries:
The earliest reference to England's first mill was in a book printed by Carton in about 1490 and, in fact, its products were used for an edition of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. This mill belonged to John Tate and is supposed to have been near Stevenage in Hertfordshire. Confirmation that a certain Tate had a paper mill in 1498 is provided by an entry in the household book of Henry VII. In 1588 Sir John Spielman had a paper mill at Dartford and was granted special privileges by Queen Elizabeth for the collection of rags and other fibrous raw materials. Recent researches have shown that in the reign of James VI of Scotland, afterwards James I of England, small mills were established near Edinburgh. Evidence also exits of a mill at Cannock Chase in Staffordshire at this time and by the middle of the 17th century, several mills apparently existed in Buckinghamshire, Oxfordshire and Surrey. This picture shows early paper making during this time.
These early mills do not appear to have been very successful: one reason was the current belief that the discarded rags used by papermakers helped to spread the plague. However, the influx of Huguenots from France brought fresh blood into the industry. The first effects of the Industrial Revolution in the second half of the 18th century were felt particularly in the cotton, wool and iron trades and, indirectly, in the paper industry. There was a great increase in population and at first, because of the new textile developments, an increase in the supplies of raw materials such as rags.
This latter was, however, a temporary phase, as by the end of the 18th century the shortage of raw materials was as great as ever, because the growth of industry increased the demand for papers of all kinds, both at home and for the growing export trade. There was more correspondence, the educated classes bought more books (the 18th century being a literary age) and more account books were required.
The daily press, which really came into being at the beginning of the 18th century, was increasing and although there was no national free education in England and Wales until 1870, paper was increasingly required for schoolbooks and writing materials. Education provided by religious and charitable bodies on a voluntary basis was, at the same time, spreading throughout the poorer classes. The consequent demand for rags for the manufacture of paper could not be satisfied. The Napoleonic Wars of 1793-1815 increased the difficulty of importing foreign raw materials. In 1800, 24 million pounds of rags were being used annually and a good proportion of these were imported, mainly from the Continent. The increase in population and the spread of industry, commerce and education still further augmented the demand for paper, with a consequent increase in the number of mills. Thus, at about the end of the 18th century there were 416 mills in England and Wales, 49 in Scotland and 60 in Ireland, but nearly all of these were very small.
Quite a number also manufactured articles other than paper. All the paper was made by hand so that, although the quality was usually high, output was low and it is not surprising that attempts were made to replace the old methods by machinery. The most important of these was that made in 1799 by Louis Robert, a clerk at the mill of Didot Freres at Essonnes in France. A model of his machine can be seen in the Science Museum in London. The effort was not a success but the idea was passed on, through an Englishman, John Gamble, to a London firm of stationers owned by the brothers Henry and Sealy Fourdrinier, who engaged the engineer Bryan Donkin of the firm of Donkin and Hall of Dartford. After many trials and much expense, a machine was erected at Frogmore, Hertfordshire, in 1803. Although it was based on the ideas of Robert, many changes had been made in the design and it is probable that much credit for this success is due to Donkin. Unfortunately, expenses were so high, that, so it is said, the Fourdrinier brothers lost a fortune, but their name is, and will be, familiar to many generations of papermakers for their share in the development of a machine, the essential principles of which are still in use today.
So although the basic processes of papermaking have remained unchanged for nearly two thousand years paper, once made by hand in individual sheets, is now made on enormous papermaking machines, four times the length of a cricket pitch. In one week a single machine can produce enough paper to stretch from London to New York.
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