The History of Paper
Each morning on my way to work, I enjoy the walk along Floyd Avenue to admire and reflect upon the mighty Gingko trees along Cabell Library's sidewalk. It is appropriate that the ancient Gingko adorn the library's exterior for their legacy adorns the interior as well. Gingkoes are said to be the trees from which papermaking was refined.
The development of paper goes back to the Orient. The date often cited is AD 105 but paper did not just happen then. What is recorded in AD 105 is that Ts'ai Lun, the chief eunuch in the court of the emperor Yuan Hsing during the Han dynasty, reserved the patents for making paper, which already existed at that time. He really is not the inventor of paper but is the first to record that paper existed. Prior to paper, writing had generally been done on bamboo slips or pieces of silk. Bamboo was heavy and awkward to transport and silk was expensive but the impetus to write persisted so paper was developed as a replacement. The first papers were made from tree bark, hemp, and rags.
While papermaking has become a highly mechanized industry over the centuries, the process for making it remains the same. You can make your own paper at home if you don't mind a messy kitchen. Most craft stores also carry kits. Beware! Papermaking can be addicting as your creative genius makes each sheet individual and lovely terms like "couching," "pressing and parting," "mould," and "watermarks" fill your ears.
Papermaking was a closely guarded secret for almost 500 years. The craft spread to Japan from Korea early in the seventh century through Buddhist monks. While paper had its origin in China, the first printing was actually accomplished in Japan, sponsored, if not invented, by a woman. The so-called Million Charms of the Empress Shotoku is the oldest existing printed text on paper and was printed in the year AD 770. It is a single sheet of paper in the form of a small scroll about 1-1/2 inches high. It is believed that millions of these scrolls were printed and each one placed in a wooden pagoda. The pagodas were deposited in four different temples in Japan. Few have survived but the event is extensively documented. They represent a great ecumenical work because it is a Buddhist prayer written in the Japanese language, transliterated from Sanskrit, and printed in Chinese characters, probably from stone.
Papermaking would not be kept a secret from the Western world too much longer. In the capture of Samarkand, a city in Eastern Uzbekistan, in AD 751, the Arabs captured a number of papermakers who were extorted (probably not too gently) to reveal the secrets of their art. Papermaking then spread throughout the Islamic world with important manufacturing centers established in Baghdad, Damascus, and Cairo.
Paper went from North Africa to Europe by way of Spain. The Moors took paper with them in their conquest of the Iberian Peninsula, where the first mill was established around 1100 in the town of Xativa in Spain. From Spain, paper went to Italy, where a mill was established in Fabriano around 1276. Paper then went to France around 1348, to Germany before 1390, and then spread across the rest of Europe.
Papermaking came very late to England and the way it came is quite interesting. You may know that the Edict of Nantes, published in France at the end of the 16th century, permitted toleration of Protestants (Huguenots). In 1685, the Edict was revoked and Protestants, many of them papermakers, left France and went to England and Holland, which were both Protestant countries. In both cases, the influx of craftsmen reinforced the papermaking industry, particularly in Holland where the industry began large-scale production. The Dutch would be masters of the world paper trade by the 1700s. Meanwhile, James II in England, had issued a proclamation in 1687 prohibiting the papermakers to leave England because he wanted to compete with the Dutch. Papermaking came to America with William Rittenhouse in 1690. Rittenhouse was a Dutch immigrant who established the first American papermill on the banks of the Wissahickon Creek in Germantown, Pennsylvania, just north of Philadelphia. William Bradford (not the governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony) became the first printer and published the first newspaper in New York. American needs for paper continued to grow but were supplied by the English and Dutch imports until the Revolution. The blockades led to a swelling of national pride to make their own industry and the industrialization that followed changed it all.
Paper has a rich and colorful history, paralleling that of our cultural diversity. To learn more, tour the Robert C. Williams American Museum of Papermaking in Atlanta, visit with The Friends of Dard Hunter, follow the many Book Arts links to see handmade papers and exhibits celebrating paper, or explore the site maintained by International Paper on the American paper industry.
To see handmade paper for yourself, visit the Book Arts collection in Special Collection and Archives. It includes handmade paper, both Eastern and Western styles.