Paper through the ages


End of the neolithic period: incision

The definitive exit from prehistoric times is marked by the creation of a system to communicate by means of a combination of symbols, which meant there was also a need for a support on which to reproduce them.

Stone could certainly be used forritual purposes but was of little use for administrative requirements, which needed more flexible materials. After attempts with copper, lead, ivory and wood that, however, were found to be too costly, waxed tablets were used that could be written on and then smoothed over for reuse. But these tablets were a precarious solution that did not leave a trace. So then clay tablets were used, certainly somewhat more resistant media although not easy to reproduce. Certain examples of these tablets have survived to this day as numerous fires in those times cooked the clay and made it durable.

The cave of Lascaux ­ Dordogne, France: early examples of Upper Palaeolithic art (15,000 BC–20,000 BC) The temple of Amùn, Luxor- Egypt An archaic Urùk tablet, 4th millennium BC: the signs in columns indicate that it was used as an accounting register.  



Around 2000 BC in Egypt experiments began with a new material: papyrus leaves cut longitudinally in very thin strips then used to form a kind of horizontal and vertical weave stretched firmly over a flat surface. This weave was then soaked in the Nile and later, pressed – the sun and dry climate then did the rest.

Once it had been written on each end of the strip papyrus was attached to a rod, rolled tightly and enclosed in a sheath of skin or fabric. This marked the birth of the Volumen
It was Alexander the Great who brought papyrus to Greece and from there it spread to Sicily and Italy. But the damper climate in these areas meant that sheets deteriorated rapidly. 
The name "papyrus", which in Egypt is derived from "p-pr-O" and means "that of the king", who had the monopoly of this material, has left traces in many languages, for instance, "paper" (English), "papier" (French), "Papier" (German), "papel" (Spanish).

A sculpture of a scribe, a privileged and powerful position. The Turin Canon is a hieratic manuscript of the 19th dynasty of Egypt, listing the kings of Egypt from earliest times to the reign of Ramses II (1279–1212 BC) and is conserved in the Egyptian Museum in Turin, Italy.    



Use of animal skins already began in 1000 BC and legend has it that Homer wrote the Iliad and Odyssey on the intestinal membrane of a dragon. But it was only in the IIIrd century BC that parchment as we know it today was developed. The method for preparing it is attributed to Eumene, King of Pergamum.

Preparation involved dehydrating and then desiccating a skin stretched over a frame. After washing, the skin was soaked for 24 hours in clean water and then left to swell up in a bath with slaked lime at about 18-20°C for 15 days. Next hairs were removed and the skin was put back into fresh lime, washed and stretched over the frame. Cleansing gave the skin a smooth surface. Lastly, it was ground with pumice stone, given a final drying and then cut up into sheets.

Sheets were folded one or more times and then after the writing stage, stitched together to form a Codex, which was often richly decorated. Parchment was by far the most used writing material throughout the Middle Ages and as opposed to papyrus it could be scraped clean and reutilised: a palimpsest. (from the Greek palim/sestos "scraped again"), a practice, however, that has led to the loss of many works by Greek and Latin authors.

A parchmenter A copyist at work. A stylus in his right hand and ruler to keep the lines of the text straight in his left Once the lines were drawn the parchment was folded and the pages trimmed  


The legend

The invention of paper is attributed to Ts'ai Lung and dates from 105 AD; according to the legend, every day he went to meditate at a pond where women gathered to wash clothes. One day he noticed that after much bashing and rubbing the small fibres detached from worn-out clothes gathered at an inlet in the bank and almost formed a fabric. Ts'ai Lung then had an insight. He took this thin mat of fibres and left it to dry: the result was the birth of paper.

Ts'ai Lung      


The solution from Cathay: paper

Paper was already in use in China in the IInd century BC as proven by a 5.6 cm fragment of a map that has survived to this day.
Before paper the Chinese used silk as the support for writing, however this very precious material was reserved for sacred texts and the annals of the Empire. Instead it was immediately noted that paper was a very flexible and economic material. Initially the raw materials used were bamboo chippings, but also mulberry tree bark, hemp and rushes. Processing of the vegetable material concerned took place in four stages: preparation of pulp, forming the sheets, drying and sizing.

The procedure, which has always remained almost unchanged, was as follows. The vegetable material was put in water to ret, after which it was pounded until it formed a pulp; the pulp was first put in a lime bath and then placed on a frame over which was stretched a very fine net to strain off the water; when sheets were dry they were sized.

The oldest known piece of paper (II century BC) The Emperor Qin Shihuang, who, it is said, dealt with 60kg of documents and reports every day The production phases of paper  

From China to Arabia

Paper spreads from China to the Arab world

For centuries paper remained a monopoly of China. Sold at a high price in Syria and Near Eastern markets, it contributed significantly to the Celestial Empire's finances. Legend has it that the Grand Khan of Turkey, Khosrau II, disgusted by the odour of parchment ordered that all documents intended for him be prepared on saffron-coloured Chinese paper perfumed with rose water. In China use of paper spread to include garments, fans, paper money (the first dates from the VIII century). Emperor Taizong's library contained 200,000 volumes (the Pope's library at that time had just a few hundred volumes).

In 751, following the battle of Samarkand between China and the Arab Caliph, a few Chinese prisoners specialised in the art of papermaking gave away the secret to the Arabs. Thirty years later Caliph Harun made the use of paper mandatory. In fact documents written on parchment were easy to counterfeit, whereas those written on paper were not because this support clearly revealed any attempt to cancel the ink.

The first Arabian paper mill was founded in Samarkand and a little later another was set up in Baghdad. Pulping was not done manually but by means of a grindstone turned by animals, similar to the principle used in olive oil production and flour milling.

From that time on the story of paper followed in the footsteps of that of the Arab world, where it was used widely for the dissemination of the Koran (an extremely valuable blue paper was used for this purpose) and scientific texts. The production technique was improved: hand-operated grindstones were used to grind fibres instead of pestles used in China and presses were used to squeeze the pulp. Production secrets were then also exported to Europe, starting with Spain where Europe's first paper mill was founded near Valencia in 1039. When William the Conqueror freed Catalonia, not only did he avoid driving papermakers away from nearby Xativa, he issued an edict to protect them in order to make use of their skills.

A representation of the library in Basra Paper in China: a diffusion of production and uses    

Paper in Italy

Use of paper in Italy

Parchment became a rather costly material in Italy and then on the wave of Arab domination in Sicily paper appeared. The first paper mills were set up in Amalfi in 1220 and Fabriano in 1276.
Vegetable sources were not used as the raw material in Italy but rags: initially wool and then linen and cotton, and this led to better results thanks to the quality of fibre.

Sheets obtained using this procedure were inexpensive, ideal for commercial documents. However, due to the fragile nature of initial production output, paper was not suitable for official documents, to the point that in 1145 Roger II prohibited its use for institutional purposes. But new technical improvements soon overcame the initial shortcomings of this material and this marked the start of paper's ascent.


Late Middle Ages

The Late Middle Ages: production is boosted

Developments in society provided the boost for paper to become a more refined product and in fact demand rose continuously.The founding of universities led to a need for books. Flax cultivation became widespread and the first crank mechanism applied to a dynamic wheel, to pass from a continuous to an alternating motion, was produced in Biella. In 1300 Fabriano was already exporting to countries throughout Europe. It had the best quality paper because a multiple hammer mill was used to prepare pulp; brass wire was used to produce a tightly woven net on which pulp was loaded; furthermore, animal size replaced starch and other vegetable sizes which gave paper a greater bulk and improved water resistance. In addition, the Fabriano paper mill invented the watermark, which soon became the way of identifying the production mill, its owner, and the product's size and quality.

While the printing press had not yet been invented, production was already quite high: xylography increased the spread of books, in particular the Bibbia pauperum, but much of the production was also used to make playing cards.

For 200 years Italian production dominated the market, replacing Spain and Damascus as the supplier of paper to Europe (some centuries later Goethe claimed that he had bought the best paper for writing and etching in Italy).

Italian production techniques spread throughout Europe: the first French paper mill dates from 1326, followed by Germany in 1390, Switzerland in 1460, Austria in 1498, England in 1494 and the Netherlands in 1586. And soon paper was ready cross the Atlantic: the first paper mill in the United States was founded in Philadelphia in 1690.

The ancient Trevi paper mill watermark      

Modern age

Beginning of the modern age: inventions

The invention of movable lead type and mechanisation of printing processes by Gutenberg in 1470 created a new stimulus and throughout the 1500s production processes improved and techniques saw further significant developments in various European countries.

At the end of the 1600s came the "Dutch machine" fitted with metal blades that ground up rags and so replaced retting of rags and use of pestles. Then in 1740 the rag cutter was invented and in that same period new solutions were developed for cooking (with alkalis), bleaching pulp and sizing (using resin). The quantity of rags needed was such that ragmen of the time really made a fortune.

But soon the search began for new raw materials and further mechanisation of the production process, also in order to meet the increased demand for paper.

On the raw materials front, one development was the first recycling technique - towards the mid - 1800s newspapers were made of straw or recycled paper. During this same period a system invented by Keller was introduced for defibration of wood using grindstones. In 1866 an Englishman, Watt, and American, Burgess, proposed the soda process for producing cellulose and then a few years later Germany's Mitserlich formulated the bisulphite process.

In terms of mechanical progress, already in the early 1800s Nicolas Louis Robert, a technician who worked in the Didot printing works made the first "sans fin" papermaking machine, however, someone "stole" his patent. The new machine had a production capacity equal to that of 100 men and was able to combine production stages within a single cycle to produce a sheet of paper 15 metres long without any human intervention. Every future technical development was then based on this first invention, therefore consistent with the name "sans fin", which really seemed to describe not only the functioning but also the destiny of this machine.

The Dutch pulping vat A model of the first ‘continuous process’ machine: the first belt was 60 cm wide but just a few years later measured 152 cm Johann Gutenberg, the inventor of printing using mobile characters Keller, the inventor of pulping logs with stone grinders

Daily papers

The daily paper

The acta sheet of paper that was affixed throughout Rome in 59 BC can be considered the first example of a daily. The first form of "journalism", however, was the circulation in Renaissance Europe of handwritten news bulletins among merchants who exchanged news about the economic, political and military situations, customs, habits and trends, and also including "humanistic" and cultural content. But it was only in 1702 that the first true daily newspaper – The Daily Courant – was launched in London. In Italy the Gazzetta di Mantova traces back its origins to a notice issued by the court of Mantova starting in 1664. In 1753 the Gazzetta di Parma was coming out regularly and gave news about all European courts. 1863 saw the launch in France of the Petit Journal, a paper that cost only half as much as other papers. By 1878 the print run had risen to one million copies. In 1898 Zola's J'Accuse, which caused the Dreyfus affair to explode, was published by the author in 300,000 copies: this marked the beginning of public opinion.

Modern newspapers The first daily newspapers    

Production in Italy

Production areas in Italy

Expansion of paper mills was by no means uniform. After Fabriano they spread to large cities (Venice, Genoa, Padova, Bologna) and also abroad. Lake Garda was the preferred area in Italy for setting up production, in what was known as Paper mill Valley. Much of the paper produced was destined for the Venetian Republic and its trading activities.

The invention of printing had important effects: Toscolano developed and perfected various production techniques. However, outbreak of the plague in 1630 brought things to a sudden halt and the paper mill took some years to recover. Fabriano experienced changing fortunes. While in the mid-1500s there were 38 paper mills in Fabriano, at the beginning of the 1700s only two of them remained. This situation led to growth in other areas, such as Milan, Como, Elba and Pontelambro.

But the new paper machines were very costly and there was a shortage of investment funds in Italy; also paper consumption was lower than in other countries.

Paper processing      


The exception was Piedmont

Paper and printing enjoyed the support of the governors of Piedmont. In 1600 the number of mills rose from 34 to 44, while the Beinette paper mill in Caselle produced 12,000 reams of paper annually that were exported to Cadiz.
There were several famous paper mills: Parella, owned by Giacomo Bosso; Regio Parco, specialised in wallpaper, which in the mid-1600s became very fashionable.
And the boom continued with the advent of paper machines in 1827: Bettola was founded in Borgosesia, the Varetto national paper mill was set up in Mathi and the Avondo brothers opened a mill in Serravalle Sesia.

Expansion of the railways led to a greater exchange of correspondence and the country's administration consumed growing quantities of paper, factors that gave the paper industry a real boost. But in Piedmont there was another significant factor, the Albertino Statute that ratified freedom of the press and led to the publication of many new magazines. But also the famous Popular Encyclopaedia (published by the Agrarian Association) and the gazettes, among which the Gazzetta del Popolo that made a name for itself with a supplement containing classified ads.
In 1900 there were 30 paper mills in Piedmont.


The example of Serravalle

This was the most important paper mill in the XIXth century. Founded by the Counts Salomone in the late 1500s as a handmade paper mill it was later purchased by the Avondo brothers who increased the number of vats and introduced the use of Dutch cylinders in production
In 1838 the mill was also equipped with a paper machine and these developments earned it the gold medal at the Turin Exhibition in 1858. The mill was in fact considered the best as it had managed to overcome all shortcomings found in this sector.
It produced many types of paper, among which a bulky white paper, coloured grey paper, but also tissue paper, carbon-copy paper, watermarked paper and silk paper.

In 1850 the Serravalle mill employed 250 workers and processed 4,500,000 kg of rags for a total of 3,200,000 kg of paper 40% of Piedmont's production came from this mill.
These numbers led to a change in the form of company in 1873, which became the equivalent of today's Private Limited Company and went by the name of Cartiera Italiana, with a share capital of 8,000,000 lire.
A new plant was built that extended over an area of 40,000 m² near the River Sesia, the water power of which was exploited to optimise production costs



An increase in exhibitions and the opportunity they gave for comparison proved to be a significant boost for innovation.
The public was amazed: for the first time in 1851 machines were exhibited in motion and the printing process was shown live

After the great London and Paris Exhibitions it was the turn of Turin in 1858. Again in Turin, in 1884 a new machine was presented that had been purchased in Zurich by Don Bosco for the San Francesco di Sales paper mill (ex-Cartiera Nazionale, previously Mathi of Varetto). From pulp to a finished bound book: the entire process became public.

In 1898 the great Turin Exhibition showed the new links between electricity, paper and printing, plus possible developments. Illustrated newspapers appeared before the visitors' very eyes, produced by two large printing machines operated by electricity.

The last exhibition was in 1911 and an entire pavilion was dedicated to paper and printing – Palazzo del Giornale that later became Torino Esposizioni. On show was an Albert gigantic three-tier rotary press that had been purchased to print the Gazzetta del Popolo. But already in 1906 a similar machine had been installed at Verzuolo, a move that marked the beginnings of Burgo

The 1851 Great London Exhibition: visitors at the show watching a printing press in action