The History of Paper

June 1, 2016 by Erin Behan

In a world full of smartphones, cloud storage, and digital everything, paper remains a force. Toilet paper, cardboard boxes, notebooks, storage boxes, coffee filters, photo printing books, and even furniture are all possible thanks to paper. A firm has even designed a house made out of cardboard.

The History of Paper
Where Did Paper Come From?
The idea for paper originated in ancient Egypt with papyrus, which is made when thin layers of the plant’s fibers are intertwined, but papyrus doesn’t technically qualify as paper. Nor does parchment, which was made from animal skins (often calf, called vellum, sheep or goat) and used in ancient Greece and widely in Europe through the medieval period, among other places. The practice of writing on animal skin, or leather, goes back at least to Egypt’s Rameses II, and humans have been inscribing in stone and other materials well before that.

The Origin of Paper
Paper, in the form we’re familiar with today, is thought to have originated in China, around AD 105, when the Han court Eunuch Ts'ai Lun discovered the pulp papermaking process using treebark, the remnants of hemp, cloth rags, and fishing nets. Some think it was invented a few hundred years before in China's northwest Gansu, but whatever its exact date and origin, the Chinese were the first to perfect the process.

The Process of Making Paper
Making paper hasn’t changed much since its humble beginnings. To make it in its simplest form, pound a bunch of plant material, mix that with water to get a pulp, spread the mixture over something like wire mesh, squeeze the water out, dry, and you’ve got paper. (For more info on the process, check out Explain That Stuff’s helpful guide on paper and paper-making.)

The Mechanics of Making Paper
The knowledge of how to make paper moved across the world, from China to the Middle East to Europe (it reached Spain and Italy in the 12th century). Paper was given a big push by Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press around 1450. With the ability to print books quickly came an increased demand for paper. In 1799, Louis-Nicolas Robert of France invented a continuous papermaking machine, a process that brothers Henry and Sealy Fourdrinier improved upon around 1803. Innovations continued, and today it’s possible for a Fourdrinier machine to produce many hundreds or thousands of tons of paper per day.

For an exhaustive look at the history of paper, check out the book On Paper: The Everything of Its Two-Thousand-Year History by Nicholas A. Basbanes.

Check out the paper selection at Distinct Papers!

Erin Behan

Written by Erin Behan

Erin Behan is an L.A.-based writer and editor who considers fine paper one of life's little pleasures.


Visit Distinct Papers to buy high-quality paper or card stock for your next project or to find the right copy paper, correspondence stationery and envelopes.


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