Paper (material)

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This article is about the material. For other uses of the term Paper, please see Paper (disambiguation).

Paper is a type of material made of flat sheets of dried, fibrous substances, but most commonly refers to those made from wood pulp.[1] Since its invention, variants have been made from plant fibers and synthetic fibers of all kinds. Depending on its original source and manufacturing processes, each type of paper can have very different texture, color and function from another.

With its long history, paper is one of the most commonly used man-made materials today.


As early as 3000 BC, paper was already produced in Egypt, although not in the form we recognize today. Ancient paper of those days was called papyrus, and was formed from beaten strips of papyrus plants. The establishment of the Library of Alexandria put a drain on the supply of papyrus. As a result, according to the Roman historian Pliny (Natural History records, xiii.21), parchment was invented under the patronage of Eumenes of Pergamum to build his rival library at Pergamum. Outside of Egypt, parchment or vellum, made of processed sheepskin or calfskin, replaced papyrus as the papyrus plant requires subtropical conditions to grow.

True paper, made from wood pulp, was invented in China. Paper is considered to be one of the Four Great Inventions of Ancient China. Prior to its invention, documents were ordinarily written on bone or bamboo, making them very heavy and awkward to transport. Silk was sometimes used, but was normally too expensive to consider. While the Chinese court official Cai Lun is widely regarded to have first described the modern method of papermaking (inspired from wasps and bees) from wood pulp in AD 105, the 2006 discovery of specimens bearing written Chinese characters in northwest China's Gansu province suggest that paper was in use by the ancient Chinese military more than 100 years before Cai Lun in 8 BCE [1]. Archaeologically however, paper without writing has been excavated in China dating from the 2nd-century BCE.

Paper spread slowly outside of China; other East Asian cultures, even after seeing paper, could not figure out how to make it themselves. Instruction in the manufacturing process was required, and the Chinese were reluctant to share their secrets. The paper was thin and translucent, not like modern western paper, and thus only written on one side. Books were invented in India, of Palm leaves (where we derive the name leaf for a sheet of a book). The technology was first transferred to Korea in 604 and then imported to Japan by a Buddhist priests, around 610, where fibres (called bast) from the mulberry tree were used.

After further commercial trading and the defeat of the Chinese in the Battle of Talas, the invention spread to the Middle East, Production was started in Baghdad, where the Arabs invented a method to make a thicker sheet of paper. The manufacture had spread to Damascus by the time of the first crusade. However, the wars interrupted production, and it split into two centers. Cairo continued with the thicker paper. Iran became the center of the thinner papers, where it was adopted in India. The first paper mill in Europe was in Spain, at Xavia (modern Valencia) in 1120. More mills appeared in Fabriano Italy in about the 13th century, as an import from Islamic Spain. They used hemp and linen rags as a source of fiber. The oldest known paper document in the West is the Mozarab Missal of Silos from the 11th century, probably written in the Islamic part of Spain. Paper is recorded as being manufactured in both Italy and Germany by 1400, just about the time when the woodcut printmaking technique was transferred from fabric to paper in the old master print and popular prints. Paper was affordable by the European urban working class and many peasants even in the 1400s, but books remained expensive until the 19th century. However, even poor families could often afford a few by the 1700s in England, if they so chose.

Across the world in America, archaeological evidence indicates that paper was also invented by the Mayans no later than the 5th century AD.[2] Known as amatl, it was in widespread use among Mesoamerican cultures until the Spanish conquest. Traditional Maya papermaking techniques are still practiced in small quantities today.

Paper remained relatively expensive, at least in book-sized quantities, through the centuries, until the advent of steam-driven paper making machines in the 19th century, which could make paper with fibers from wood pulp. Although older machines predated it, the Fourdrinier paper making machine became the basis for most modern papermaking. Together with the invention of the practical fountain pen and the mass produced pencil of the same period, and in conjunction with the advent of the steam driven rotary printing press, wood based paper caused a major transformation of the 19th century economy and society in industrialized countries. With the introduction of cheaper paper, schoolbooks, fiction, non-fiction, and newspapers became gradually available to all the members of an industrial society by 1900. Cheap wood based paper also meant that keeping personal diaries or writing letters became universal. The clerk, or writer, ceased to be a high-status job, and by 1850 had nearly become an office worker or white-collar worker. This transformation can be considered as a part of the industrial revolution.

Some historians speculate that paper was a key element in global cultural advancement. According to this theory, Chinese culture was less developed than the West in ancient times prior to the Han Dynasty because bamboo, while abundant, was a clumsier writing material than papyrus; Chinese culture advanced during the Han Dynasty and preceding centuries due to the invention of paper; and Europe advanced during the Renaissance due to the introduction of paper and the printing press.

Original wood-based paper was more acidic and was unfortunately more prone to disintegrate over time, through processes known as slow fires. Documents written on more expensive rag paper were more stable. The majority of modern book publishers now use acid-free paper.


  1. Etymology The word 'paper' originates from Latin papyrus, which in turn comes from Greek word πάπυρος (papyros), meaning 'any plant of the paper plant genus'. Since modern paper has deviated away from its historical material, the English word papyrus has the exact meaning of the same word in Latin: 'the papyrus plant, paper produced from it'.
  2. The Construction of the Codex In Classic- and Postclassic-Period Maya Civilization Maya Codex and Paper Making