Just for the record – the journey to paper

From clay tablets in Mesopotamia dating back to 3500 BC, to Egyptian Papyrus scrolls, the first bamboo books in 1500BC China, and the revolution of wood pulp paper making in the 19th century, how civilization records their history and knowledge has come a long way!

Current thought estimates that all spoken languages developed somewhere between 100 and 200 thousand years ago, and that all modern languages, much like their human speakers, share a common African ancestor. So while spoken language has certainly existed for much longer, our first samples of written language come from the ancient Sumerians, who invented the famous cuneiform style of writing around 3000 – 3500BC.

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Their method of writing used clay tablets, on which they used a blunt reed or stylus to create the familiar wedge-shaped marks of the script. But while clay tablets do last long (thankfully for historians), they are not exactly portable in vast quantities, or convenient for sending messages!

The invention of papyrus scrolls and black inks in Egypt around 3000BC revolutionizes communication and learning in the ancient world; and essentially expands the use of writing from a mostly religious role to include the world’s first ‘admin’ and accounting! Papyrus is mass produced in Egypt and sold in vast quantities to civilizations such as the ancient Greeks for their record keeping as well.  Their innovations in the making of inks varied hugely, some of which could be washed off so that papyrus could be re-used, and some with such depth of colour and durability that they are still clearly readable today, thousands of years later. One of these, the famous Book of the Dead, a funerary scroll containing spells and incantations is 52 feet long!

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Papyrus also allowed for expansion in mathematical and conceptual thinking.

In China, bamboo was used in place of Papyrus from about 1500BC, and using a vertical system of writing made long thins trips of bamboo ideal for purpose.  To make longer texts, these strips could be sewn together:

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Western scholars also used renewable wax tablets or notebooks for thousands of years in classical Greece and across Europe up until the late fifteenth century BC. Known as a diptych or waxed tablet, a piece of wood with a recessed centre was filled with a waxy filling, which could be written on with a stylus or any sharp metallic object; and then warmed and smoothed over to be re-used over and over. These were used especially in correspondence and for teaching purposes, or mathematical workings.

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While papyrus reigned as the writing material of choice for centuries, a new and much more expensive material began to rise in the Mediterranean areas during the 2nd century BC. Whereas ordinary leather had been used for writings since 2500BC, by treating and rubbing until smooth, a flexible and double-sided form – known as parchment – started to become popular.  Parchment became the writing material of choice for medieval scribes and is the material used in all the famous illuminated manuscripts produced in the monasteries.

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A softer, finer and more expensive form known as vellum is made from the hides of young or even unborn calves, kids and lambs. Because of its strength and flexibility, parchment can be sewn together down one side to create the spine of a book. This represents a massive advancement in the efficiency of written communication; allowing the reader to move freely and quickly through text without having to unroll and roll up dozens of papyrus scrolls. In addition, the inclusion of tables of content, indexes and referenced page numbers, as well as the invention of the ‘bookmark’ revolutionize the way information is retrieved, and remains with us to the present day!

While paper as we would recognize it did not reach Europe through Spain until the 12th century AD, it was in fact invented in China as far back as 105 AD! Fragments of Chinese paper, made from rags and the fibres of various plants from mulberry and laurel to grass, still survive today.

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Attributed to the eunuch of the imperial court, Cai Lun, sheets of paper are made by repeatedly soaking, washing, boiling, straining and bleaching the ingredients, which are then left to drain and dry in a mesh frame, as this illustration shows:

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Thinner and more flexible than either papyrus or parchment, the resulting paper is suitable for mass production. However, it takes another 1000 years before it reaches Europe! In the battle of 751 AD, Arabs capture some Chinese papermakers. The technology begins to spread out from Baghdad throughout the Muslim world, reaching Spain in the 12th century, and eventually becoming widely used in Europe by the 15th century. Up until the 19th century, rags are still used as the main ingredient of paper, and books printed in this era are still white and pleasant to read to this day – but with the demand for paper increasing rapidly because of greater prosperity, education and literacy levels, and of course the invention of the printing press, the supply of rags can no longer be met and a new method of papermaking is sought. Initially esparto grass is tested as a substitute, until it is discovered in Maine and Massachusetts in the 1860’s, that wood can be pulped for paper; and in 1863, the first newspaper to be printed on wood-based paper – the Boston Weekly Journal comes out in January. While this source of paper satisfies the mass market, this new paper turns yellow and brittle much faster, and many books from the 19th century are now unreadable. However the recycling of paper was discovered almost immediately after the use of wood pulp for the first time, and is now widely used in the manufacturing of toilet paper and tissue, as well as in various packaging applications such as cartonboard and boxes, while virgin paper is used for office papers and books. Read more about paper recycling in our earlier blog post.

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Carte Blanche offers one of the only ranges of notebooks made from recycled paper available in South Africa. There is something intimate about putting pen to paper that inspires creativity. The beautiful notebooks are available in A4 and A5, and are all manufactured locally, helping to support the local economy. They also make for a thoughtful gift, for a loved one to use as a diary, for taking notes, or just scribbling down creative ideas. Interestingly, research shows that learner’s long-term comprehension is better when taking notes down by hand! See the entire range here.


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