There are some materials which have the ability to fascinate and captivate the people who work with them. Paper is one of them. It awakens the creative mind, is used for writing on, for drawing and painting on and for making three-dimensional objects from – or simply just collected. Anyone who would like to know what people in other parts of the world wrote on before they had paper as we know it should take a look at the showcase in the paper section which has writing fodder made from other base materials. In Central America, New Guinea and on the Tonga Islands tapa is still made from the bast fibres of the bark of certain fig and breadfruit trees. Tapa is also used to make curtains and clothes. In Mexico this material is called amatl.
Papyrus: an Ancient Writing Material
Papyrus, from which we get our word “paper”, was a common writing material in ancient times. The pith of the papyrus plant, a reed which grows in the Mediterranean, was cut into long strips. These were placed in rows on a firm base, with the edges slightly overlapping, and covered with a second layer of strips laid at right angles to the first layer. The layers were then beaten with a wooden hammer until they formed a bonded surface.
Paper from the Far East
The paper we now use all over the world has its origins in the China of the second century B.C. Originally made from hemp fibres, silk and the bark of the mulberry tree, paper and the important technique of how to make it first spread throughout Eastern Asia. Paper made its way to Europe via the silk road and the countries of the Arab world. Spain and Italy were the first European countries to start making their own paper in the 12th century. Documents tell us that the first paper mill in Germany was Ulman Stromer’s Gleismühl in Nuremberg which started manufacture in 1390. In Europe paper was made from linen rags. The watery paper pulp was made in large vats.
Rags as the raw material in paper were not readily available in unlimited quantities; in the 18th century they were in such demand that some places forbade the export of rags, causing people to feverishly seek alternatives. By the mid-19th century man had found a way of cutting wood into pieces small enough to make paper from wood pulp. The method of manufacturing paper was also improved. In 1799 Nicolas Louis Robert produced a paper-making machine which used an endless sieve (the museum has a model of the improved machine from 1802).
The watermark, the trademark of the manufacturing mill impressed on the paper, is peculiar to Europe and has been in use since the 13th century.