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A Simplified History of Paper for Children

Team StoryWeavers|February 13, 2023, 16:11 IST|

We use paper almost every single day. We use it to write, draw or do crafts like origami. Have you ever wondered about the history of paper? Where did it come from, and how has it changed over time?

Let’s explore the history of paper today!

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What is paper?

Paper is a thin, flat material made up of fibres. The thin threads that make up natural materials like cotton are called fibres. Usually, these paper-making fibres come from wood pulp and plants. To make paper, fibres are loosened in hot water and then pressed together to form a solid structure. This basic recipe hasn’t changed much since the paper was first made. 

Where does the word ‘paper’ come from?

The word paper comes from the word ‘papyrus’.  Papyrus is a plant that grows along the river Nile in Egypt. Papyrus sheets are made by putting two layers of papyrus on top of each other at right angles. After that, the papyrus sheet is soaked in water and then pressed. As the sheet dries, the sticky liquid from the papyrus plant helps hold the pieces together like glue. The papyrus rolls are then made by joining multiple sheets. These rolls can be as long as 100 feet (30.48 metres) or even longer than that. 

The ancient library of Alexandra contains many works of ancient authors written on papyrus rolls. The dry climate of Egypt helped save thousands of pieces of papyrus. The study of old papyrus, called papyrology, is based on these pieces. From what was written on these pieces of papyrus, scholars have learned a lot about Ancient Egypt. Gradually, papyrus was replaced by parchment, and then by paper.

About 2,000 years ago, it was an excellent business to make papyrus. Today, papyrus is made on a limited scale and by a few specialists. 

Papyrus paper artisan in Syracuse cutting the stem of a papyrus plant to obtain thin strips

Why did parchment replace papyrus?

Papyrus had limitations that allowed it to be used only in very dry places. It did not react well to humidity. The condition known as humidity tends to happen when the air is both moist and warm. It caused the papyrus to fall apart quickly. Moreover, papyrus could only be made in places where the papyrus plant grows. Because papyrus was used so much, there wasn’t enough of it. 

Parchment helped solve some of the problems that papyrus had. However, the making of parchment was rather messy. There was a lot of washing, cleaning and scraping that had to be done. Earlier, parchment used to be quite thick. Later, it was made as thin as tissue paper. Good parchment is thin, soft and easy to fold. And when the parchment is stored properly, it can last for thousands of years. 

Paper as we know it

At the start of the 2nd century, the famous Chinese inventor Cai Lun came up with the first modern recipe for making paper. Ever since, people from all over the world have tried to improve that process. 

The paper was expensive, hard to find and didn’t do well in moist places when it arrived in Europe via Arab traders. People knew that it was better than parchment and had a lot of potential.

The paper machine was made possible by scientific progress that happened in Europe. The Fourdrinier Machine was the first machine to make paper. Its approach to making paper is still used in modern papermaking.

A paper-making machine

Things to know about paper

  • Paper can be sorted according to its main ingredient such as wood pulp paper, cotton paper, wood-free paper, tree-free paper and acid-free paper. 
  • Paper sizes can vary from country to country. Broadly, paper sizes can be divided into A Series, B Series and C Series. The most popular size of paper is A4 (210 by 297 mm).
  • Thirteenth-century Italy was the first place to use watermarks on paper. Some kinds of paper have a symbol or design called a ‘watermark’ that can be seen when the paper is held up to the light.
  • One could save 17 trees by recycling one tonne of paper!
  • The United States and Canada are the two countries that produce the most paper worldwide. Finland, Japan and Sweden are the next in line.

Another critical thing that everyone must know is that paper production pollutes the air and water, destroys forests and so on, so we must find ways to use less paper and recycle as much as possible.

Disclaimer: This post on the history of paper has been overly simplified to make it easy for children to read and understand. Kindly read the referenced material carefully for more information. 

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About the Author

“Me-kha-la!” That happens at least once when she introduces herself to new people. She wholeheartedly believes in the quote by Arthur Rubinstein that says – “if you love life, life will love you back”. She is an organizational psychologist and psychometrician. She was a class teacher of 36 adorable girls for two years, grades 2 & 3, as a part of the Teach For India Fellowship. These little girls have a special place in her heart, and when she writes for children, she writes for them!

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