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How paper came to be

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As children, we all studied those intrepid Egyptians, who made the mummies of our nightmares and that wondrous paper precursor, papyrus.

My teachers never told me how important papyrus was to the Egyptian culture. As of around 2000 BC/BCE, it was used to make everything from mummy shrouds to lightweight boats; parts of it even showed up on the table. . . as food. And, apparently, were eaten, though perhaps with the Egyptian child’s equivalent of, "But Mom, I don’ like papyrus!"

Drawing and cross-section of papyrus plantPapyrus plants, often seen these days in people’s garden ponds, can grow to several feet in height. Note the triangular cross-section of a papyrus stem.

Papyrus is a sedge, a water plant that grows from 10 to 25 feet high, possesses a smooth triangular stem and, unlike bamboo, has no joints. It tapers from bottom to top and ends in a tassel-like flower of the umbel variety, not to be confused with umbrellas. It’s quite attractive; I saw some in a garden shop recently.

Usually, only the bottom two feet were used to make writing papyrus. Workers shaved the skin off the stem and sliced the soft pith into strips. They soaked the strips until they were really, really soft, then laid them parallel to each other. A second layer of strips, perpendicular to the first, was placed atop that one. The whole thing was whacked with a hammer to flatten it, then dried in the sun. Sometimes the layers and strips may have been bound with a wheat paste, but the pith has an inherent adherent quality, so this wasn't critical.

Papyrus had to be scoured and burnished with a shell or other hard, smooth object to polish its surface before it was used. To make longer documents, the ends of plagulae were placed end to end and glued together into a scroll rolled around a wooden rod. These were practical only to about 20 sheets’ length and makers put the best-quality sheets on the outside to protect the lesser quality sheets on the inside—the opposite of what you’d expect.

As cool an invention as this was, papyrus had a lot of drawbacks. If you’d like to see some of them for yourself, you can buy sheets of papyrus from many art-supply stores. It’s heavy, awkward, brittle, grainy and fibrous, not very smooth at best and not overly durable (at least in my climate, which isn't the desiccatory one of Egypt). Maybe that’s why the Egyptians didn’t invent fountain pens.

Papyrus sheet on dark backgroundThis is a modern-day papyrus sheet, placed on a dark background to show the grain and translucency.

Many peoples made paper-like substances from other materials, of course, including the inner bark of trees. In fact, paper has been made from virtually any substance that can be pounded into pulp: tree bark, leaves, grasses, plant parts, fabric, banana, flax, hemp, even straw. They all work pretty well. Rice paper, however, has no relationship to rice. It’s made from an indigenous Formosan tree, which is cut spirally from outside to inside, the way ultrathin wood veneers are made. It’s used primarily for sumi painting and calligraphy. Interestingly, the Latin word liber, from whence comes our library and the Spanish libro (book), means "inner tree bark."

By the 4th Century, if sheep in a field saw a mangle of monks ride up, they undoubtedly took to the hills to preserve their hides—literally! Parchment, made of stretched, untanned animal skin, had by then superseded papyrus. Usually, some unconsulted sheep gave his/her hide for this project. (One presumes that, had the donors been apprised of their rights, parchment would not exist and for entertainment we’d all still be telling bad jokes around a roaring fire.) The thinnest, whitest, most prized parchment came, it’s said, from the stretched uterine wall of a stillborn or newborn female kid. I can't imagine those were big enough to be useful, but what do I know?

The logistics of a book full of parchment pique my curiosity. It took the skins of hundreds of sheep to make one book. How many books would it take to destroy a country’s sheep population? Did the government subsidize sheep production for the good of the order? Did farmers have sheep quotas to keep prices artificially high or low? But I digress.

Parchment-making was messy. But then, everyone had to contend with mess. Toilets hadn’t been invented, nor had waterproof boots or mass production. This state of affairs kept the serfs filthy but left the Rich Guys clean, comparatively speaking. Although nobody had deodorant, which was a serious drawback. The hides were soaked in a lime solution and scraped to remove the hair, then stretched over a frame and dried. After a second scraping, they were cut to the desired size.

Sheep took off when the monks showed up.Sheep took to the hills when the monks showed up at the local tavern.

When a scribe was ready to use one, the skin was sanded with pounce, a powdery substance used to smooth and prepare a vellum or parchment surface to accept ink. It’s still used today.

Then came the myriad steps before the calligrapher could begin the actual writing.

Originally, only the flesh side of the parchment was used for writing. Later, as people began to figure out how to bind these unwieldy sheets into books whose leaves would turn, they used both sides. They were careful about aesthetics—they placed flesh sides together and hide sides together so the visual contrast on the facing pages wouldn’t jar the eye.

Alternatively, the hides could be split. The hide or grain side (less desirable for writing) would be made into skiver, a soft thin leather for use in bookbinding. At least the poor sheep didn’t give his hide for half of it to be wasted.

Bit of vellum from the Book of Kells.
This bit of minuscule lettering on vellum comes from The Book of Kells, one of the most famous Western illuminated manuscripts in the world.

Vellum, another skin product used for writing, is distinguished from parchment by the grain or hair marks on the hide side. Usually, it’s made from calf, goat or lambskin. Otherwise, it’s treated the same way. Today, "vellum" describes hard, often translucent papers that in my opinion have little in common with real vellum.

Parchment and vellum proved to be so durable that they’re still used today for really important documents (if you don’t have any, this may say something about the perceived worth of your life. . . even my university diplomas are on paper, not parchment).

One lone copy of the Gutenberg Bible took the skins of 300 sheep. Even though Gutenberg's press was a huge advance, books weren't often printed by the thousands; a few hundred copies was, in those days, a huge press run. But it’s probably a very good thing that wood-pulp paper was invented, or we might not be eating lambchops these days.

Silkworms provided probably the first fiber used for paper in filament form.A silkworm—not particularly attractive, but important. Most likely, its ancestors provided the first filament fiber used for paper.

By this time (the 300s), the Chinese had already long since invented what we today would easily recognize as paper. In 12 BC/BCE, they were using a paper substance to wrap medicines. But of course, since this was such a spiffy invention, they kept it secret from the Western barbarians, the way they did pasta and tea for quite a long time. They knew, no doubt, or at least suspected that somehow, we’d manage to put all three good and beneficial substances to bad use.

A fellow named Ts’ai Lun is credited with the actual invention of paper in AD 105 (or CE, if you prefer), though evidence suggests that he was only building on previous attempts and, perhaps, just happened to be the one who pulled everything together at the right moment. Sort of like Bill Gates, but without the money.

Chinese calligraphers wrote on silk and, as they finished works, they trimmed off scraps here and there to improve aesthetics. It’s hypothesized that, not wanting to waste the imperial silkworms’ efforts, the scraps were collected and perhaps accidentally wetted and dried; then mixed with water, beaten literally to a pulp, spread into a layer and dried; then somebody thought to beat them until the individual fibers were separated, then spread the mix into layers and dry them. Voila! With that last step—macerating the raw material until it separates into its individual filament components—real, actual, modern-day paper was born.

Scribes loved this newfangled paper stuff. It was smooth, had a nice, hard surface and, with sizing, took ink marvellously well. In the 12th Century, records show paper was made in Spain and in the 13th C. in France; England didn’t catch on until the 15th Century. Thank goodness it was around by Shakespeare's time!

Fabriano, the Italian maker of fine hand-made papers, is the subject of a 13th Century reference to paper milled in Europe. The mill made paper from rags and sized it with animal-hide glue . . . and is still in business. How’s that for longevity?


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