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Paper is one of the most widely used items in the world, being both cheap to produce and having a relatively small carbon footprint. So where, when and how did it come to be?

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The term itself is derived from the Ancient Greek term ‘papyros’, in reference to the papyrus plant. The plant itself was commonly used in Ancient Egypt as a means of creating objects such as tablets through drying and weaving. Of course, this is quite different from paper, even if the usage and concept are similar. China is frequently referenced as being the birthplace of paper and papermaking, where they had previously been using objects such as bone or bamboo, which is similar to what various other areas were using at the time. They had occasionally used silk as well, but it was a fairly expensive endeavor, which greatly limited its use.

During the Han dynasty, a person by the name of Cai Lun had supposedly gained inspiration for a paper making method by watching wasps make their nest. These methods are often considered the beginning of modern methods, where rags and fibers were used in place of rougher material, such as the bones and bamboo commonly used. Some tree bark was used in the process around this time, paper mulberry being among the more popular and valued.

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Paper was originally used for wrapping objects and as a type of padding for the protection of delicate items. It was occasionally used to handle specific materials and substances, which would have likely harmed the handler in some manner otherwise. Paper’s versatility was vast, and included early usage of paper money, toilet paper, makeshift tea bags, napkins, cups, and envelopes. As one can see, many of the early uses of paper have persisted into more contemporary times, proving the usefulness and reliability of the material.

Fig 2 Rag cutting

Paper supposedly began its spread outward from the Eastern world when Muslims defeated the Chinese at the Battle of Talas in 751, and Chinese prisoners were able to exchange knowledge of the paper making process for freedom. This knowledge slowly crept outward, reaching bits of Europe after roughly 300 years. Early European paper making used hemp and linen rags as the source of fiber, and Italian artisans later perfected the process of hand making their paper.

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European exposure to the Americas around the 16th century brought the process into South America, near Mexico and the Mayans. Roughly 100 years later, North America was able to begin building its paper industry in Pennsylvania.

stack of paper

Around the 1900s, paper production became significantly quicker and cheaper through a newfound wood pulping method, something that replaced the use of rags, fibers, and cellulose of plants. The process was as a result of decades of work by various contributors, namely Friedrich Gottlob Keller and Charles Fenerty.