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Paper is so common we rarely think about it. We use it to scribble out grocery lists and print office memos, or we read books of bound paper pages. But how did it come into common usage?

Before paper, parchment and papyrus served the same purpose in Egypt and the Mediterranean. While parchment was crafted from animal skins, papyrus was made from the inner core–or pith—of the papyrus plant’s stem. The strips of pith were cut into thin strips, then layered, compressed, and dried. Similarly, in ancient China, strips of bamboo were sewn together into scrolls. In the Americas, amate was made of boiled bark fibers laid out and beaten together.

But none of these quite fit the definition of paper. According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, paper is defined as “a felted sheet of usually vegetable fibers laid down on a fine screen from a water suspension”.

The first known use of paper made via this method is a fragment found at Fangmatan in China and dates back to 179-141 BCE. In 105 CE, Chinese official Cai Lun is documented to have made paper from mulberry bark as well as other fiber waste like old nets and rags. The fibers were soaked in water to form a pulp, which was then drained and dried. One legend claims Cai Lun was inspired by watching wasps make their nests.

Throughout the next several centuries, paper spread throughout the Middle East and into Europe. Literacy increased as paper became more widely used. This early paper was often made from old rags, such as cotton or hemp.

By the 1440s, Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press. This machine could produce 3,600 pages a day. By the end of the 15th century, the printed book became widespread throughout Europe.

During the industrial revolution in the 19th century, the steam-powered paper mill was introduced, using pulped wood fibers. The fibers were also bleached to make the paper a brighter white.

In 1843, a rotary printing press powered by steam was invented by Richard M. Hoe. This increased a single machine’s output to millions of pages in a single day.

Paper sizes started to become standard in the early 20th century, when Dr. Walter Porstmann created what’s known as the DIN standard sizes in Germany. Paper sizes have since evolved and vary based on region. The ISO system is used worldwide for paper sizes such as A4. North American sizing is used most commonly in the United States, Canada, and the Philippines.

In the modern era, further advancements increased the durability of paper. Standard wood-based paper is somewhat acidic, leading to eventual yellowing and deterioration. Today, most commercially produced paper has been put through a process that reduces the acid content. Such paper may be labeled “acid-free” and is more stable than untreated paper over long periods of time. However, low-cost “mass paperback” books still use the cheaper, less stable paper. That’s why those old pulp paperback novels seem to yellow and age more quickly.

In modern printing, the paper options seem nearly unlimited, from color options to texture, in various weights and thicknesses. If you’re not sure what paper will best suit your project, give us a call or send us an email today. We’d love to discuss the possibilities with you!

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