Paper, a mainstay of everyday life from books to store receipts, traces its origins to China and Egypt. Most paper today is made from trees using a wood processing technique called pulping.
True paper requires a chemical interaction between its fibers. By that standard, insects such as paper wasps, which make tidy umbrella-like nests, and baldfaced hornets, which make football-sized ones, take the honors as earth’s first papermakers. These insects chew wood and plant fibers into a pulp. Proteins in their saliva become the glue that links the cellulose strands together, fashioning a highly moldable matrix that is light, stiff yet resilient when it dries. While the dates of their origin are in question, we do know that waspish insects found trapped in amber date back at least 110 million years.
The ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans first mimicked such techniques around 3,000 B.C. They stripped off the outer bark of papyrus—from which we derive the word “paper”—and beat the marsh plant’s soft pith to break up the fibers. Squeezing and drying took several more days. The result was a tough, durable writing surface, as expensive to buy as it was labor-intensive to make. But this process did not create the chemical bonds that the wasp had achieved.
The creation of actual paper is fixed some three millennia later, around A.D. 105. The historical record describes a courtier named Ts’ai-Lun who practiced papermaking techniques in the Hunan province of China. His recipes remained closely guarded secrets for at least a few hundred years, but the ingredients likely included cotton rags as well as mulberry and hemp. That innovation qualifies Ts’ai-Lun’s material as the first modern paper.
The secret reached Korea, then Japan in A.D. 610, and followed silk and trade routes west. The Arabs likely acquired the technique in the Samarkand region of Uzbekistan around A.D. 750—as the story goes, they captured Chinese papermakers in battle and extracted a demonstration. The first paper seen in Europe was of Arabian manufacturer. Before then, Europeans used parchment and vellum made from the skins of sheep and other animals.
Visit the National Historic Chemical Landmarks to learn more about the history of paper.
Excerpted with permission, National Historic Chemical Landmarks Program