Paper as we know it today first appeared in China nearly two thousand years ago.

Although our word 'paper' is derived from the papyrus used over 5000 years ago in Egypt, the two are only loosely connected. A piece of papyrus is actually a woven ‘mat’ made of many criss-crossed layers of thin strips of papyrus reed pounded together to form a thin sheet and then dried for use. It is not a form of paper.

True paper is made by soaking and softening (macerating) vegetable fibres until they become individual filaments then removing the water to leave a single sheet of ‘naturally’ intertwined fibres.

Although archaeological evidence suggests that a form of fused silk and paper substance was in use in China around 100 BC, the first record of true papermaking is the report to the Emperor Ho Ti of the work of a Chinese court official named T’sai Lun in 105 AD. His work to produce paper with hemp, mulberry bark, fishing nets and rags, earned him the title of patron of papermaking throughout China.

Paper moves westward

It wasn’t until the 3rd century that the secret art of papermaking began to creep out of China, first to Vietnam and then Tibet. It was introduced into Korea in the 4th century and spread to Japan by the 6th century where, during the 8th century, the Empress Shotoku undertook a massive project to print a million prayers on individual sheets of paper, each mounted in its own pagoda.

Thereafter, the art of papermaking spread slowly westward throughout Asia to Nepal and then to India.

In 751 the technology of papermaking began its long journey into Europe via the Islamic world when Arab warriors, at war with the Tang Dynasty, captured a Chinese caravan that included several papermakers. With their expertise, Samarkand soon became a great centre for paper production. Gradually papermakers made their way further west through the Moslem world – to Baghdad, Damascus and Cairo. Finally, when the Moors from North Africa invaded Spain and Portugal they brought the technology with them and so it was that papermaking entered Europe in the 11th century.

The first record of a paper mill in Europe is found in 1056 when the Moors established a mill at Xativa in Spain.

After the Christian armies finally dispelled the Moors from Spain in 1224, the art of papermaking began to spread slowly throughout Christian Europe, first to Italy (1250) then northward to France (1348), Germany (1390), Flanders (1405), Switzerland (1411), Holland (1428), England (1488), Poland (1491), Sweden (1532), Russia (1576), and under Spanish influence to the new world, in Mexico (1580). It was not to be until over a hundred years later, in 1690, that the first North American paper mill was established in Philadelphia.

Paper moves north

In Europe the use of papyrus had begun to decline in the 9th century, partly replaced by imports of paper from Arab trading centres such as Damascus, but largely replaced by the use of parchment – smoothed and scraped animal skins. Although a fine material, it was very expensive and available only in limited quantities (it has been estimated that a single bible hand-written on parchment required the skins of 300 sheep).

Even when paper began to be made across Europe, its widespread use was hampered by ‘political’ problems. Partly due to its perceived Moslem origin and partly because of the influence of the wealth landowners with financial interests in sheep and cattle, a Papal Decree of 1221 declared that all official documents produced on paper were invalid. Not until the 15th century would paper begin to be widely used for all documents.

When Johann Gutenburg perfected movable type and printed his famous bible in 1456, he not only spread the word of Christianity, but also sparked the first revolution in mass communication. The birth of the modern paper and printing industry is commonly marked from this date although it was to be another 250 years before western ingenuity turned the promise into a reality.