The history of Paper

While today it requires no thought to go to the closest office supply store and purchase a package of white printing paper, it was not until the 19th century that paper was even bleached white, or readily available for mass use. Paper’s long history dates back almost 2,000 years, from ancient China up through today, where print shops have a variety of paper stocks ready and available for the largest or smallest of jobs.Han Dynasty official Cai Lun is credited with inventing paper in China in 105 A.D.; however, the first instance of paper was discovered to have been made and used in China even earlier, between 140 and 86 B.C. Despite the presence of paper prior to Cai Lun’s time, he made plenty of advances to the paper-making process, and influenced paper-makers all over Asia and the Middle East.

Cai Lun’s original paper was made from disintegrating waste scraps such as hemp, mulberry bark, bamboo fibers and old rags. The scraps were mixed together with water, pounded with a wood mallet, and placed on a cloth and bamboo mold to dry.

The resulting paper was thick and roughly textured due to the cloth frame, but the paper was lightweight and didn’t require significant effort to make. It was a vast improvement to previous writing surfaces, which included stone or wooden tablets, tortoise shells, bones and bamboo pieces that were adhered together with silk as scrolls.

Over time, a smoother mold frame was developed in China. An additional mat was made of bamboo strips sewn together with silk or hair, which covered the mold. This allowed papermakers to remove one sheet of paper from the mold easily, and immediately use it again to form the next sheet.

By 610 A.D., papermaking practices had spread to Japan and Korea, and in the 8th century the Middle East was beginning to make its own paper as well. However, materials that were used for paper in Asia — hemp and bamboo, for example — were not available in what is now Egypt, Morocco and Iraq, so other materials were used instead. Scraps of flax were regularly used; the Middle East also used a human-operated trip hammer instead of a wooden mallet for combining the fibers. This paved the way for industrialization of the papermaking process. Within the decade, water-powered pulp mills began popping up in Baghdad.

As more people began using and making paper, more advances were made to the process. Cloth molds were replaced with wire mesh molds, and paper presses allowed several sheets of paper to be made simultaneously. Once the sheet of paper was shaped in the mold, it would be removed from the mold to be pressed in a wood screw press, which removed excess water and created a sturdy sheet that could then be hung to dry.

Despite these advances to the papermaking process, it would still be 500 years before paper reached Europe, and even longer before it was widely accepted there, as vellum and animal-skin parchment writing surfaces were already being used.

Paper Mills

Water-powered paper mills began appearing in Germany, France and England throughout the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries, and by the late 18th century the technology had reached the United States. The business expanded quickly and by 1810, there were already almost 200 paper mills in the colonies. This put a strain on the resources required to make the paper, as cotton and linen rags were not in infinite supply, so papermakers began searching for new materials to use. They tried sugarcane waste, straw and corn husks, but it was thanks to the invention of wood grinders that wood pulp was considered as a replacement to rag fiber.

Charles Fenerty of Canada and Friedrich Gottlob Keller of Germany both began working on a way to use this wood pulp to create paper at around the same time, and both succeeded in their efforts. With wood in a much greater, seemingly infinite supply, paper was able to be mass-produced by the late 1800s for books, documents, and the spread of knowledge and communications.

Until wood pulp was used as a primary ingredient in the paper-making mix, paper was made entirely of recycled materials. Because of this, paper often took on a gray-ish or yellow hue, due to the mixing of the original rag materials. In the early 1800s, papermakers began bleaching the raw materials to a coveted finer white.

The combination of wood-based paper and the printing press meant that books, newspapers and other communicative materials could now be produced less expensively than through original papermaking processes.


Balston, John. “The Whatmans and Wove Paper.”  Wove Paper. Web. Accessed 17 July 2012.

Burger, Peter. “Charles Fenerty.” PB Publishing Inc. 2005. Web. Accessed 18 July 2012.

“Friedrich Gottlob Keller.” Paper Industry International Hall of Fame. Web. Accessed 18 July 2012.

Fuller, Neathery Batsell. “A Brief History of Paper.” St. Louis Community College. July 2002. Web. Accessed 16 July 2012.

“Invention of Paper in China.” History of China. 2007. Web. Accessed 17 July 2012.

“The Invention of Paper.” Robert C. Williams Paper Museum, Georgia Tech. 13 June 2006. Web. Accessed 16 July 2012.

“The Invention of Paper.” Total History. 2011. Web. Accessed 16 July 2012.