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Works on Paper - A little History

Looking at the history of paper, we have to begin with the Egyptians. After all, the very word "paper" is derived from "papyrus" - the material used in their scrolls.

The Egyptians were the most prolific paper producers and used the stems and long straight leaves of a grass like plant called papyrus to produce their scrolls. They actually farmed this plant in marshy fields (shown below) specifically to produce papyrus for their scrolls.

Papyrus Plantation

In this respect they were lucky because the pithy centre of the Papyrus contains long interwoven fibres and a binding agent to stick them together. All they had to do was strip off the hard outer stem's bark and lay the pithy strips in rows next to each other, on a wet table. The process was repeated with another layer of rows laid at right angles as shown here:

making papyrus scrolls

The result when dried formed a paper-like material that could be written on with inks. The Egyptians exported this material all around their known world. Their largest export customers were by far the Romans. Papyrus was cheaper than Vellum or Parchment which was made from thin shaved leather. Unlike vellum papyrus was not prone to bacterial rotting and if it did decay, it didn't fill your halls with the odour of rotting meat wafting up from the vaults below.

If kept dry, papyrus scrolls lasted for at least hundreds of years. The original documents used to write the first books of the bible, referred to as the Codex, were written on papyrus and are still readable today.

Scroll from the Codex - Part of the Gospel of Luke approx 125 C.E.
A papyrus scroll from the Codex containing part of
the Gospel of Luke written around 125 C.E.

But the Egyptians weren't the only ones with a form of paper. Many cultures, especially in the tropical regions, made a form of Tapa paper. This was made with fibres derived from bamboo and the inner bark of some trees (eg Mulberry) which were pounded to break up the wood into fibres. The resulting soupy mush was then poured into trays with finely woven bamboo or reed screens and allowed to dry. Tapa paper is the oldest form of paper manufacture. We see this method in various cultures from the Polynesian races of the tropical Pacific to the Himalayan races. Tapa cloth, as it is referred to today, is used for clothing and floor mats in many Polynesian cultures.

A Tongan lady wearing a tapa dress at a Kava ceremony
A Tongan lady wears a traditional Tapa dress at a
formal kava ceremony.

While these are early forms of paper, true paper is the result of small fibres washed of impurities and felted into a layer. This technique appeared first in China in records dated 105 C.E. but archaeologists have found evidence of paper made with bamboo, cloth and mulberry fibres in excavations dated at least 200 years earlier.

In 105 A.D.E we see a mention of shortages of paper supplied for government use (it seems Governments haven't changed!) and Ts'ai Lun describes a way using rag fibres for paper manufacture. This is much faster than the old technique of boiling bamboo in lye to separate the wood into fibres.


Paper making in anccient China
A paper factory in ancient China. The rags are cut up and pounded
in a foot operated mill to reduce it to fibres, which are sieved in a tray
from the pulp bath, then stacked and pressed between boards under a weight
to squeeze out excess water before drying.

By 1200 AD papermaking had reached as far as Spain and Italy. Many Greek works translated to Arabic were written on the new, cheap paper and kept in the famous library in Seville. It was introduced to the west by early traders. Italian papermakers improved the manufacturing process by connecting the fibre making pounding batteries to a waterwheel. The development of wire meant that trays were larger and lasted longer. They invented various "sizes" or surface coatings for paper that gave it new properties.

In the old engraving below, you can see the mallets that were powered usually by a water wheel, and used to pound the rags into a sludge of fibres, called pulp. Working in a paper mill was a noisy job.

Paper Making History

The fibres were poured into a vat and the paper maker sieved them out of the pulp with a screen of fine woven mesh. As the water drained away, the fibres were "felted" or matted together into a layer, which when dried, became paper. The same process is still used today but the surface of the paper is treated to improve the smoothness for printing purposes or to give it other different properties.

Making paper in the 1700s
Stromer’s mill - illustrated in the world chronicle of
Hartmann Schedel in 1493 (shown above) - was
initially designed with two waterwheels, 18 stamping
hammers (i.e. six holes) and 12 workers using one
or two vats.

By the 16th Century work at the vat normally involved four people: the vatman, who made the sheet using a mould; the couch squirt, who worked in time with the vatman and placed the sheet on felt; the layman, who drew off the still moist sheets from the felt after pressing; and the apprentice, who had to feed material to the vat and provide for vat heating. The press was operated jointly by the team. Depending on format and basis weight, up to nine reams (4,500 sheets) of paper could be made in the course of a working day of around 13 hours. Today we talk about a beginner as being a "layman" this term comes from the paper industry . The apprentice's first step up in the trade was to the position of layman - this meant he was on his way to becoming a tradesman.

With the industrial age and developments in machinery, wood could easily and cheaply be reduced to fibres at a cheaper rate than rags. This modern, cheaper paper is called pulp paper.

Paper pulp vat
Pictured here is a pulp vat where a mixture of recycled paper pulp
and wood pulp is washed before being made into paper on the three storied
paper press shown below.

Paper mill
Paper is felted, pressed and dried in this huge paper
machine, so fast it travels through the massive
rollers at speed of over 50 kph. A finished roll weighing
many tonnes can be seen in the distance.

With all this technology, though we make vastly more paper now than before the industrial revolution, our paper is usually not as good. Wood fibres deteriorate much faster than rag fibres, especially in strong light and an acidic environment. Today you still see highest quality art paper r advertised as 100% rag, meaning it is produced entirely from rag fibres.

Over time the fibres decay and the paper becomes brittle and cracks. This happens much faster in wood pulp based papers. The presence of an acidic environment accelerates this process (eg. smoke from cigarettes, open fireplace or air pollution) and favours fungal growth, which is seen as small brown blotches, referred to as "foxing". Humidity rapidly accelerates this deterioration process.

Whilst the deterioration process can be slowed by placing the paper on a slightly alkaline backing, it cannot be stopped or reversed. Attempts to cover marks with paints only accelerate the ageing process. There is no method to fully restore works on paper and undo the ravages of time. This is common with water colour paintings, engravings and photographs.

Ornate Bar


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