This information is reprinted from the Cranberry Corner column of Hand Papermaking Newsletter #50 (April, 2000).

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Papermaking History

THE INVENTION OF PAPER. The invention of paper and the recording of this discovery have been attributed to Ts’ai Lun, a courtier in the court of Ho Ti, emperor of China in 105 A.D., although there is recent evidence that papermaking actually preceded this date. The process of making handmade paper was kept a secret and it was only in the year 751 that the Arabs learned about it from Chinese prisoners taken in Samarkand. Papermaking reached Baghdad in 793, Morocco in about 1100, Spain in 1150, France in 1189, Germany in about 1320, England in 1494, and Pennsylvania in the year 1690.¹

PAPER RAW MATERIALS AND PREPARATION. There are a number of variations of the papermaking fibre pulping process which evolved in different countries. However, essentially the pulp fibres from which paper is made are obtained primarily from the stems and inner bark (or the flower in the case of cotton) of certain plants which are made from cellulosic fibres. (Cellulose is a naturally occurring long chain polymer). The bonding material that holds these fibres together in the plant is called lignin, which is a complex natural organic polymer.

In order to separate the cellulose fibres from the lignin, the early papermakers retted (fermented) the plant stalks, a process which could be accelerated by the addition of milk. Depending on the plant, this process could take several weeks or even months.²

Much later the use of chemicals such as soda ash and caustic soda were used to cook the plant stalks thus dissolving out the lignin which was washed away. These early processes evolved into modern day pulping processes which process wood chips. Today, however, the cooking chemicals used are recycled and the fibrous and liquid wastes are treated, recovered, and recycled and/or burned for fuel.

Around 1838, Charles Fenerty, a Nova Scotian, is credited with producing the world’s first useable paper from woodpulp made by a grinding process. Independently in Germany in 1844, F. G. Keller produced enough groundwood pulp to make paper when combined with 40% of the much stronger rag pulp.³ Thus began the use of mechanical pulps to make much cheaper, but much less permanent papers.

OTHER FIBRE SOURCES. Other sources of fibres for the early papermakers were cotton and silk (also cellulose) rags which were gathered from households by the “rag men” and sold to the papermills. Even hemp rope, old fishing nets, and old sails were used. This was an early example of recycling!

BEATING THE FIBRES. In order to make strong paper with uniform “formation,” the cellulose fibres and rags, etc., had to be beaten or macerated. Originally this was done by hand using a large mortar and pestle-like apparatus. Later this was replaced by water wheel-driven mechanized stamping machines. (And much later by motor-driven beaters and refiners.) This process disintegrated the textile rags and broke open the cellulose fibres thus exposing many “fibrils” or very fine fibre particles which intertwine and hold together during the wet forming of paper.

References: ¹Paper in the Making, G. Caruthers, The Garden City Press, Toronto, 1947. ²Japanese Papermaking, T. Barrett, Weatherhill, New York, 1984. ³Making Paper, B. Rudin, Rudins, Vallingby, Sweden, 1990..