Before we discuss a brief history of paper; what is paper anyway? Well, true paper is categorized as thin sheets of fiber that have been macerated until each filament is a separate unit. The exceptions to this are Papyrus, Parchment, and Rice Paper.
Papyrus is made from a family of grass-like aquatic plants in the Sedge family called Cyperus Papyrus. With Papyrus the triangular woody stems are cut with a knife into board sheets. The boards were then cut are pasted together much like laminated wood.
Rice Paper is made from strips of spirally cut pith from the rice paper tree. The rice paper tree is a small Asiatic tree or shrub called Tetrapanax Papyriform that is widely cultivated in both China and Japan. The pith is cut into a thin ivory textured layer by mean of a sharp knife. So based on the techniques to make Papyrus and Rice Paper neither one is technically a paper by definition. Parchment Paper as is Vellum are also not considered true paper. They are both made with the skins of animals.
Paper as we know it today began in China in 105 AD created by the Chinese Eunuch Ts’ai Luned. At that time it was made thin, feted, formed flat and made in porous molds from macerated vegetable fibers. Before the third century, the first paper was made from cloth bark from trees that were disintegrating and vegetation such as mulberry hemp and Chinese grass. The paper was used in China from 868 AD to 1634 where it reached its height of engraving religious pictures on wooden blocks and printing them. This was made popular by Sung Ying-housing.
The technology of making paper moved from China to Japan and then Korea in 610 AD. It was made commonly from mulberry bark and Gampi at that time. Later it was made from bamboo and or rice straw.
It was Marco Polo who gave a description of Chinese paper making in his writings as he traveled abroad. He also mentioned that the Chinese emperor “jealously guarded” the secrets of paper making. He noted that fine paper was made from vegetable fiber: rice or tea straw, bamboo canes and hemp rag cloth. It is guessed by historians that paper made of fiber bark, fibers of hemp and fibers of rags traveled with Caravans following the Gobi Desert, the Desert of Takla Makan and the Tarim Valley and finally arrived in Samarkand. At that time paper making was still a closely guarded secret and not made there until after 751 AD. It was in 751 AD that the Chinese lost a battle to Turkistan on the banks of the Taraz river. It was noted that among the Chinese prisoners were skilled paper makers. Thus, the paper makers started to make paper in Samarkand.
Historians conjecture that the first paper mill was established in Bagdad. Paper making then spread from there to Damascus, Egypt, and Morocco. By the end of the 10th-century, paper replaced papyrus and parchment in the Arab world. There are a lot of Arab manuscripts dating back to the 9th century, however. These were made with linen. The Persian craftsmen were skilled and used flax, which still grows abundantly in Khorasan which was there as their main material at that time. As the demand grew, they started to use rags of any vegetable fiber and used cotton as well. Cotton was used sparingly. Paper made in what was referred to as the “Orient” at that time in the middle ages can be distinguished as thick in substance and glossy in surface devoid of water marks.
The demand for paper in 1st century Europe was scant. Paper cost more than vellum was considered fragile than parchment and associated with Arabic and Semitic people who the Christians didn’t trust. In fact, the Catholic Church in Western Europe banned paper altogether stating it as part of the Pagan Arts. They conjectured that parchment was the only holy thing to be used to carry the word of God on.
It was the Muslim conquest of Spain that brought paper to Europe. The English word “ream” meaning 500 sheets is derived from Spanish and the French from the Arabic word wiz mah which translates as a bundle. Both Spain and Italy claim to be the first to have paper In Europe. One of the first paper mills was in Xativa which is now-now Jativa or St. Felipe de Javita in the ancient city of Valencia and it can be dated to AD 1151. Some scholars claim it was the Arabs that built Xativa in 1009 AD. Paper making continued until Moorish rule was kicked out in 1244 AD. Paper making slowly made its way to Christian Europe.
In what was referred to as “Christian Europe” the first wire mold for making paper was identified in Spain dating back to 1150. Bamboo molds were uses in China but not readily available in Europe at that time. Because the European wire molds were not as flexible as the Chinese ones; the rigid European wire molds were better suited for the formation of the rag fiber. The Europeans also created the Fence or Deckle which keeps paper within bonds. The earliest European paper was called cloth parchment but often contained wood and straw as well. All these raw materials were beaten to a fine pulp and mixed with water. Sheets of paper were pressed out, dried and hardened.
The medieval paper was made of diluted cotton linen fiber. The fibers were intermixed with water and then with the use of a sieve-like screen the fibers were lifted from the water leaving a sheet of matted fiber on the screen. This was paper. There were several manuscripts found written in European countries written on Oriental paper made in the Oriental fashion at that time. The first mention of rag-paper as such was in the Tract of Peter by the Abbot of Cluny dated 1122 to 1150 AD. The oldest recorded document on paper is a deed of King Rogers in Sicily dating 1102, and there are others of Sicilian Kings in the 12th Century.
In Italy, the first great center of the paper-making industry was Fabriano in the marquisate of Ancona. Mills were established in 1276 and rose to importance with the decline of the manufacture in Spain. Fabriano was the first manufacturing center to harness water power to drive the fibrillation (pulping) process, previously a labor-intensive manual activity. Paper making in Italy is dominated by the historic and powerful feudal family, Fabriano. The Council Statute of 1436 prohibited anyone within a radius of 50 miles from Fabriano buildings from manufacturing paper or teaching paper making secrets to those not residing in that radius.
A later prohibition has even stiffer penalties. Transgressors were considered “rebels” and thereby banned from the city with consequent capital confiscation. The extent of the power of the local tribunal’s protection of the Fabriano papermakers is highlighted in a 1445 document. Council priors concerned that if Maestro Piero di Stefano, the only artisan who practiced the “modular” art in the Marche province died his craft would die with him. The Council demanded the old maestro to teach the craft to his son or any apprentice in his workshop and not to construct or repair screens used outside the district of Fabriano, or he would be penalized with a fine of 100 ducats. G within the Council territory, pending a fine of 50 ducats.
It was through the advent of printing that paper became popularized in Europe in the 15th Century. The first representation of the printing process is the 1568 wood print Der Paper by Jost Amman in the Little Book of trades.
The paper remained inexpensive through the centuries at least up through the 19th Century. It was the 19th century that brought great advances in papermaking. Together with the invention of the practical fountain pen and the mass produced pencil of the same period and in conjunction with the advent of the steam drove rotary printing press, wood based paper caused a major transformation of the 19th-century economy and society in industrialized countries. With the introduction of cheaper paper, schoolbooks, fiction, non-fiction, and newspapers became gradually available by 1900. Cheap wood based paper also meant that keeping personal diaries or writing letters became possible and so, by 1850, the clerk, or writer, ceased to be a high-status job.