The history of paper stretches back millennia, right back to when we first started wanting to record things for posterity. When cave walls proved frustratingly unportable, the search was on for something else to write upon. The ancient Egyptians cut up plant stems to form papyrus, and the Chinese moved on from tablets of bamboo and pieces of silk to paper made from textile and plant fibers. By 875 AD they had even introduced toilet paper.
From the Far East the secrets of paper production made their way to the Islamic Middle East, and from there on to 12th century Europe where the medium of choice was the prohibitively expensive parchment. When a single copy of the bible required a quantity of parchment made from the skin of around 300 sheep, it's not hard to see where the money was going. Early European paper, by contrast, was made from old cotton and linen rags, bringing the price down significantly.
It's no coincidence that this is the time period in which we start to see awareness of literacy, if not literacy itself, begin to make its way down the social order. Out go depictions on church walls of the devil collecting sacks of sounds from inattentive and gossiping parishioners, and in come the images of demons noting down the names of sinners on scrolls. This appreciation of its importance led to increased demand for the written word and, by the mid fifteenth century, the printing press had also made the journey from the Far East to Western Europe.
Now the race was on to bring the cost of paper down still further. Production became increasingly mechanised, and the Fourdrinier brothers succeeded in perfecting a machine to produce paper in rolls, as opposed to sheets, in the early nineteenth century. In the 1840s the technique of making paper from wood pulp was perfected, coinciding with the invention of the steam powered rotary printing press. At the same time a method was found for the mass production of pencils, and stamp duty on newspapers in the UK was lifted in 1855, encouraging the growth of the popular press.
Fountain pens went into mass production in the 1880s, while the 1870 Education Act was constantly improved upon, making school attendance compulsory for all children aged between 5 and 13 in 1880. With an ever growing number of the population able to read and write, the demand for paper continued unabated. Today, according to The World Counts, 42% of all wood harvested is used for paper production. Just to put out one Sunday edition of the New York Times requires 75,000 trees to be pulped.
Paper recycling has been going on for centuries, with a method for removing ink from paper (deinking) to help the process developed in 1774. Initially this was about the cost of paper production, today such procedures are more about the environmental cost. Europe is now the world leader when it comes to paper recycling, and around 70% of consumed paper is sent off to be recycled. This desire to rely less on tree felling has also seen a reemergence of alternative paper sources.
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