Evolution of Paper

« Back to Articles

The Evolution of Paper and Cheaper Printing

In  thinking about printing, it is interesting to take a look at the history of some of raw materials we now use at ZoePrint.com.  First up is the paper we now use for everything from printed brochures to posters and business cards.  As detailed in a previous blog post, the first written documents arose in ancient Mesopotamia (now Iraq) and were imprinted on clay, which was then baked for preservation and durability.  While this approach had its upsides, clay is extremely cumbersome, fragile, and difficult to move from place to place in significant quantities. 

Fortunately, a more convenient medium for recording information was developed in Egypt during roughly the same time period.  This was the now famous material papyrus, a material made from plant stems remarkably similar to modern paper.  It was light, easily written on, and didn't require the baking process that clay tablets did.  However, papyrus had its problems as well: it's a rather brittle material, and in humid climates, it quickly rotted.  By the first century BCE, papyrus faced serious competition across the Mediterranean world from another writing material: parchment. Parchment could be prepared from a variety of different animal skins, though sheepskin was most common.  Primary advantages included durability and portability, but parchment was not waterproof and had to be kept at a relatively stable temperature to keep writing clear. 

Little did our European and North African forebears know that at around the same time, another material was being developed in a far-off place that would eventually come to replace both papyrus and parchment. That material of course, was paper, and the far-off land was China, ruled at the time by the Han Dynasty.  The modern method of paper making usually is attributed to a Chinese official named Cai Lun, who lived around the year 100 CE.  He used rags, tree bark, leftover hemp, and other miscellaneous materials to make a pulp that could then be pressed together and dried into sheets of paper.  The first sheets of paper were actually used not for writing but as packaging to protect glass and other fragile materials. 

Gradually, though, more and more uses were found for the new material, including writing and even as toilet tissue by the 6th century CE.  The art of papermaking slowly spread beyond the Chinese empire as well, with other East Asian cultures learning the technique first, followed by the Islamic world―some stories say that papermaking spread to this part of the world only after two Chinese prisoners taken in battle shared the secret―and finally to Europe around the year 1000.  As rulers and scholars discovered the many advantages of this new material, it gradually came to replace parchment, and paper mills were set up across the world so that paper could be produced in large quantities.

However, despite these paper mills, paper remained a very expensive material throughout the Middle Ages and Early Modern period, and not until the 19th century did paper become the readily available, less costly material we know it as today.  This happened due to a series of Industrial Revolution era technological advances, beginning with the steam driven papermaking machine, which was invented at least as early as 1799.   Other advances included a shift from rag-based pulp to wood-based pulp, as well as the bleaching of pulp that gave paper the white color to which we are now accustomed.  Around the mid 19th century, paper truly began to resemble the modern material we now use so often, and its convenience and widespread availability led to an explosion in newspapers and books and thus the spread of new ideas.

In a very real sense, the evolution of paper has aided the evolution of human communication.  As paper became more widespread and easier and less expensive to produce, the cost of communicating on paper also came down.  We at ZoePrint.com are proud to be a part of the latest chapter in the book (pun somewhat intended) of writing, printing, and paper-based communication.  We not only offer paper, but we also provide a variety of paper options, including lots of paper with recycled content.  At ZoePrint.com, we offer cheap printing, from business cards to newsletters and brochures, all produced in vibrant color or black and white.   Stop compromising…your printing will look great and save you time and money!