Transition to Paper

History Of Books

Early Forms of Books

Transition to Paper

Printing Press Effects


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The word "paper" is etymologically derived from papyros, Ancient Greek for the Cyperus papyrus plant. We'll start our transition to paper there.

Papyrus is a thick, paper-like material produced from the pith of the papyrus plant, Cyperus papyrus. This plant was once abundant in the Southern Sudan and the Nile Delta (Egypt). Ancient Egyptians used papyrus as a writing material (among other practical uses). Additionally, the Kingdom of Kush in the Mediterranean also used papyrus.

After the plant was cut, marrow would be extracted from the stems. Then it would be humidified, pressed, dried, glued and cut to produce writing media. The stem of a reed sharpened to a point, or bird feeathers were commonly used for writing utensils.

ancient papyrus

Papyrus books took the form of a scroll of several sheets pasted together up to 10 meters long or more. These 'books' rolled out horizontally. One side held the writing and was divided into columns. A lable attached to the cylinder that contained the book provided the title of the particular book.

The surviving examples of papyrus scrolls demonstrate the development of today's book. The book's material composition and external appearance depended on content dictated by political and religious values. Therefore almost all subject matter documented related to these purposes -- the histories of the pharaohs, afterlife narratives, etc.)


Parchment was used alongside papyrus for many centuries, but eventually became the medium of choice, just before paper made an appearance.  Initially produced around the 3rd Century BC, it is crafted from animal skins and was more widely available than papyrus.  It was also more solid than papyrus, allowed for erasing of text, and proved easier to conserve. However, advantages aside, it was an expensive option because of the time required to produce one document.

Production involved drying an animal skin under tension.  Once dry, it was flayed and soaked for at least a day to remove blood and other grime and prepare it for dehairing.  The skins would stay in the dehairing solution for up to 8 days under normal conditions--in winter they could require twice as much time.  Once they were free of hair, they were then stretched on a frame and scraped to the desired thickness. The skins, which were made almost entirely of collagen, would form a natural glue while drying and once taken off the frame they would keep their form.  As you can see the process was not quick and easy.

Parchment was in prime favor during the medieval period, but by the end of the 15th century had begun a decline. It was expensive, and is also extremely affected by its enviroment, changing in humidity, which can cause the medium to buckle. To alleviate this buckling, books with parchment pages were bound between strong wooden boards and metal clasps with leather straps clamped them tightly shut. The pages remained pressed flat despite humidity fluxiations.

bound parchment book

Paper, which was cheaper and easier to produce--particularly after the printing press was invented--replaced parchment.  However, some institutions still use the antique process for formal ceremonies.  The University of Notre Dame still uses parchment for their graduation scrolls.  Also, traditional religious Jews still use parchment exclusively for Torah scrolls or tefilin and mezuzahs, and is produced by large companies in Israel.


Papermaking has been traced to 1st Century China.  The traditional means of crafting books involved bones or bamboo tablets which were extremely unweildy and heavy.  Silk was normally too expensive, although occasionally it was used.  Thus, they found another medium--that of pounding plant matter into paper.

Excavated uses of paper range back to the 2nd Century BC and commonly involved wrapping items to protect them. It was also used for safety purposes such as padding poisonous 'medicine' to protect the handler. Although paper became widely used for writing purposes, wrapping continued along with other uses we see today. In fact, by the 6th Century, China was even using toilet paper.

The wide-spread use of paper began to diffuse to other European countries, reaching the Middle East in the 8th Century AD. Egypt would follow in 900 AD. It would be in these regions that the earliest forms of book production and binding were seen. Paper reached Europe as early as 1085, and France had a paper mill by 1190. It would continue to spread through Germany, Holland, Russia, Britain, and the far northern countries of Denmark and Sweden in rapid succession.

In the earliest stages, the most common source for paper-making was recycled fibers from used textiles crafted from hemp, linen, and cotton. While this medium was less expensive than parchment, it was still very expensive until manufacturing began in mass quantities with the invention of the steam engine. This production method would continue, making paper dependant on recycled materials, until the introduction of wood pulp in 1843.

Matthias Koops (London) was the first to explore the idea of binding wood shavings with adhesive and using the finished product for paper. His work was expanded upon by Charles Fenerty and Fridrich Gottlob Kellar, who began using the pulping technique with rags, with wood pulp. They invented a machine that could extract wood fibers and their ideas successfully worked. Fenerty also bleached the pulp, making the first white paper. By the end of the 19th century, almost all printers in the western world used wood as opposed to rags.

In the same period, the fountain pen and mass-produced pencil were invented. Adding to these new convienences was the advent of the steam-driven rotary printing press. Combine all the advances, and wood-based paper caused a major transformation of the 19th Century economy and society in industrialized countries. Further, the introduction of cheaper paper allowed for increasing availability of school books, fiction books, non-fiction books, and newspapers.

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