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“how about paper?”

—Slaughtering whole herds of farm animals to make paper
—Your tattered underwear might end up at the paper mill

Financial necessity forced the Chinese to invent paper in the first century. They had been writing on silk, but a labor force of worms can only produce so much silk, and the scarcity of the fabric forced the Chinese to look for another writing material.    Once they had discovered the secret of making paper, the Chinese considered their recipe so precious that they closely guarded it, but despite their best efforts the Arabs got the secret as one of the spoils of war.

stealing trade secrets

Legend has it that when the Arabs won a battle against the Chinese, two Chinese soldiers who happened to be paper-makers, revealed the secret of paper making to the Arabs.  They wasted no time in establishing paper mills throughout the Arab world and into Spain, an Arab territory.  But most of Europe remained oblivious to paper making techniques, using parchment and vellum upon which to write.

Parchment  and vellum were made from the hides of sheep and calves respectively, and lots and lots of animals were need to fulfill the demand.  So Europeans continued to slaughter whole herds to make this valued writing material.  The Christians eventually drove the Moors out of Spain and took over the paper-making mills, and paper making began to slowly spread to the rest of Europe.  By the end of the 12th century, Italy had established paper mills and France and German soon followed.

With the invention of Guttenberg’s press, paper-making took off.  There were simple not enough farm animals to slaughter to keep up with the demand for parchment and vellum.

the summer of bleaching in the sun

Sorting rags into piles of varying quality and strength. From Diderot Encyclopédie published in Paris between 1751 and 1765

But while papermaking took off, the process took forever.  In Europe, paper was made out of linen and flax rags, and sometimes old ropes, sails, or canvas.  Rag pickers went through towns looking for rags, old clothing (your tattered underwear often ended up at the paper mill) and other discarded materials that could be made into paper.  Recycling was alive and well in the 16th century.

Sorting rags into piles of varying quality and strength.From Diderot Encyclopédie published in Paris between 1751 and 1765.The fabric had to be sorted according to weight and quality, and debris such as buttons removed.  Because white paper was desired and the linens were often dark, the fabric had to be bleached, a laborious process that took the whole summer to complete. (Bleach hadn’t been invented yet.)  Steep the cloth in an alkaline lye solution in boiling hot water;  put the linens in vats of buttermilk mixed with cow dung; then scatter in fields of grass or hang on clothes lines in the bright sunlight and fresh air.  This process was repeated several times during the summer until a bleached affect was achieved.  After the season in the summer sun the rags were left in a large vet to ferment, or rot, a process that further helped the breakdown of the fabric

Next, the cloth had to be beaten in a pulp…a paper pulp.  During the early days of paper-making, peasants would climb into the tub and stump on the water and rag mixture, sometimes using hammers to beat it to a pulp.

Eventually stampers, mechanically driven hammers or mallets fitted with metal teeth, replaced the foot-loose peasants—a far more effective means to reduce the rag and water mixture to a pulp.

Horses, wind-mills and water-wheels–powerful and effective energy movers–powered the stampers.  Paper-making turned out to be a very wasteful process, as a ton of water was needed.

Finally, workers formed the sheets from this glutinous mess. The paper-maker took a rectangular wooden frame with mesh, such a woven brass-wire, and dipped it into the vat of pulp.  He shook the frame back and forth as the water ran back into the vat.  The mold was then turned upside down and the piece of new paper placed on wooden felt to dry.  Large wooden presses squished out any remaining water.   After the pressing, the sheets were hung in large lofts to dry.

Drying the paper sheets in a loft.From Diderot Encyclopédie published in Paris between 1751 and 1765.One final job remained.  The paper had to be sized, so the ink would not run but instead adhere to the surface. (See what happens when you paint or write on paper towels, which aren’t sized.)   Paper-makers went to tanners and butchers to get bits of animal carcasses:  Pieces of hides, ears, and hooves.  These pieces were added to boiling water, the paper dipped into the resulting gelatin solution and then hung in the loft again to dry.   At last, you had a real sheet of paper.

and then came wood

Drying the paper sheets in a loft. From Diderot Encyclopédie published in Paris between 1751 and 1765.

Paper-making radically changed in the 19th century.  Europe was running out of linen and flax rags.  The French started making paper out of wood pulp—a practice that soon spread to the rest of the continent and America.

But this 19th century change did not bode well for the quality of paper.  Wood pulp fibers, the new source of material used to make paper, are shorter than linen fibers which means the paper is acidic and fragile.   And other chemical compounds and processes used in modern paper-making cause paper to discolor, weaken, and become more brittle over time.  We have more paper, then in previous centuries, but the quality became  inferior.

do we still need  books made out paper?  (yes we do)

Well, yes we need paper books if we don’t want our brains to starve to death.  Paper feeds out brains and they will go hungry if they totally rely on the digital world.  Numerous studies are beginning to show that reading from paper is better for brain health.  A Tufts University schools found deep readers of books showed evidence of more connection in the brain while digital readers had fewer connections.  Researchers speaking at the American Educational Research Association said students’ reading comprehension was higher when they read real books.  A researcher from American University (Washington DC) found from her research that students said “it was easier to focus” when reading a book, and “felt like the content sticks in my head more easily.”  Aesthetically, they spoke of the  “charm of actually turning the pages,” and the “scent of a new book.”  Because reading from paper involves more of the senses, leading to a deeper experience.

And who among us doesn’t want a deeper sensual experience?