This information is reprinted from the For Beginners column of Hand Papermaking Newsletter #28 (October, 1994).

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The History of Papermaking

Much of the early years of papermaking were documented by 20th-century papermaker, explorer, and historian Dard Hunter. His work, Papermaking, The History and Technique of an Ancient Craft, covers much of the past of papermaking, as it was known in the middle of this century. Paper historians since then have expanded on his research, although no single work of equal magnitude has been published to rival Hunter's research.

Hunter identifies a courtier named Ts'ai-Lun, from Lei-yang in China, as the inventor of paper and gives a date of 105 A.D. Because earlier paper-like remnants have been found in China since Hunter did his work, the date of paper's invention has been moved a least two centuries earlier by some historians. At what point the first paper was made will probably never be known, but Ts'ai-Lun most likely deserves recognition at least as one who refined and/or popularized paper as a material for writing.

Based on examples and records, papermaking is known to have stayed within China for several hundred years before reaching Korea and then Japan, countries where the craft would be carried to very refined levels, in about 600 A.D. Because of its unique properties and value, the manufacture of this material was kept a closely guarded secret. Its spread westward, along the silk and trade routes, reached Samarkand in about 750, where it is believed that Chinese papermakers were taken in battle and obliged to share their craft with their captors. From this point, knowledge of the craft spread throughout the Arab regions, to Baghdad in 793, Damascus and Egypt in the 10th-century, and Morocco by 1100.

It was only at this point that papermaking reached what we now consider Europe, through the Arab presence on the Iberian peninsula. The town of Xativa, Spain, was probably the site of the first European paper mill, by 1151, and from there, papermaking spread to Italy, where the Fabriano and Magnani paper mills were established in the 13th century. France, Germany, and countries to the East and North followed in the establishment of mills and markets for paper. England's first mill dates from about 1488.

On its move westward, the techniques for making paper evolved based on available materials and needs. What we now consider European or Western papermaking differs from various Eastern methods in the type of mould, fibers, formation style, and drying. These changes were dictated mostly by the materials at hand, especially the plants which were being turned into paper.

The manufacture of paper, which was in competition largely with parchment or vellum as a surface for writing and printing, boomed with the rise in literacy and the invention of movable type in the 15th century. The volume of material required for the books and manuscripts being produced could not be met by the limited resources available for parchment, made from sheep and goat hides, and paper eventually won out.

Papermaking did not reach what is now the United States until 1690, although it had been introduced to Mexico by Spain more than a hundred years earlier. William Rittenhouse, a German papermaker who worked in the Netherlands for many years, is known to be the first papermaker in the states. His mill was established in Philadelphia and the site and some of the buildings (although not the mill) have been preserved.

Copyright 1994 Hand Papermaking, Inc.