Newspaper, writing paper, printing paper, type writing paper, blotting paper, carbon paper, tissue paper-who can deny that paper is one of the most useful articles in man’s daily life. Yet man did not invent paper. The real inventors are the wasps, who file away tiny wood shavings from fence-posts and tree-trunks and chew them to a fine pulp, from which they make the grey paper walls of their nests.
Who were the first paper-makers amongst men? Thousands of years ago the people of years ago the people of Egypt made a kind of paper from the pith of the Papyrus plant, which grew in marshes beside the river Nile. Papyrus paper was made in long rolls, and books written upon it were rolled up, not cut into pages. One ancient book, which is to be seen in the British Museum in London, is a hundred and twenty feet long.
Inhabitants of lands in which the papyrus plant did not grow had to use materials of other kinds for writing purpose. Some used clay tablets, others the skins of animals, others silk, while others wrote upon smoothed wood. In Britain, men used beech-boards. Their name for ‘beech’ was buch, from which, it is said, we get our word ‘book’ from the name Papyrus we obtain our ward ‘paper’.
Papyrus, however, was not really paper, amongst men, the credit for inventing paper must be given to the Chinese, who discovered that linen and other materials could be beaten to a fine pulp and then dried in thin layers. For centuries, the Chinese succeeded in keeping their secret from reaching the West. Finally, however, the Arabs learned it from some Chinese prisoners. Very slowly, it was handed on to the countries of Western Europe, to Spain first, and to Britain almost last. At the time of discovery of America by Columbus, paper-making was still a very new industry in England.
The paper of ancient Chinese was made from linen rags, though we read that they occasionally used other substances, such as old slippers, hemp ropes, and fishing nets! In our own day the finest paper is still made from rags of cotton or linen, but many other materials are also used. Esparto-grass and wood-pulp are the most common of these, but paper is manufactured also from straw, jute, and bamboo.
Esparto-grass grows in great quantities in Spain and in the north of Africa, where it is collected by the Arabs over a wide area. The grass, which is gathered by plucking, not by cutting, is tied up tightly in large bales, which are sent overseas to the paper-mills.
Wood-pulp is made in Canada and in the countries of Scandinavia from the timber of cone-bearing trees. The logs are either cut into short sections and ground down on a grindstone, or broken into chips and treated with chemicals. The soft pulp is pressed out into rough sheets, pink or white in color, and sent across the seas to our paper-mills, looking very much like rough cardboard and very little like the stately forest trees from which it has been made.
All plant materials used in the marketing of paper contain very fine hair-like fibers. It is the work of paper-maker to separate the fibers from the unwanted materials, and to press them together in a thin, matted web, which we know as a sheet of paper.
Formerly papermaking was done entirely by hand, except for a few simple tools. Rags were soaked and then pounded to a fine pulp with heavy hammers. A thin layer of watery pulp was picked up on a very fine sieve, and when a sheet was formed, it was pressed firmly, allowed to dry, and finally polished by rubbing.
Although paper for special purpose is still made by hand, most of the paper of our newspapers, books, and magazines is now made by machinery. Many of the machines are very complicated, still we shall find it interesting to pay a short visit to a paper-mill and watch a paper-maker of today at work.
The mills lay not a city but a quiet valley through which flows a rippling stream. Upon this stream, the mill depends for its working, for paper-making requires a plentiful supply of good water. In days gone by, too, the stream was used supply power for driving the mills, but today tall chimneys, humming electrical machinery, and shunting trains show that waterpower is no longer needed as a driving force.
Near the entrance to the mill is a large loft stacked with dry, dusty bales of esparto-grass, which at first sight looks like hay. The bales are torn pieces and cleaned of dust, roots, and other impurities by the knives of a great machine bearing the peaceful name of a “willow.” The grass then passes to tremendous ‘digesters,’ or boilers, where, by the action of stream and chemicals, it is changed to a wet, stringy pulp.
The pulp has to suffer still more severe treatment before it is ready for papermaking. It is beaten and washed in an immense trough called a ‘Hollander’, which, as its name shows, is a Dutch invention. In another trough, sheets of wood-pulp may be added to the mixture, according to the purpose for which the paper is required.
Gradually, as the pulp passes from machine to machine, it becomes finer and finer. When it is bleached white or colored by dye to whatever tint is required, it has lost all likeness to the dusty bales of brown grass of the sheets of wood-pulp that lay in the storage loft at the entrance to the mill.
At last, after almost endless preparation, the pulp is mixed with water to make it flow easily and evenly; then it is fed through a row of fine slits, on to the wide, moving wire-woven belt of the papermaking machine.
Swiftly the layer of the mixture is carried along the machine by the belt; the water drains off as it goes, and leaves a thin film of paper. The paper passes beneath a roller bearing, the stylish name of ‘dandy’, which leaves upon it the pattern, or ‘watermark.’ When the paper was formed into a fairly strong web, it passes over and under twenty or more huge drying cylinders. Finally, it pressed between heavy rollers, and wound off in a great roll of finished paper, ready for the printer.
We should have to watch for many days, and indeed, we should have to visit many mills, if we wished to see different kinds of papers being made. We might see paper being coated with ‘china clay’ to give ‘art paper,’ such as is used for many colored pictures; or we might see it being pressed between very heavy rollers to give especially smooth surface. We might see, too, how a very little difference in preparing the pulp gives us blotting paper or, perhaps, brown paper.
Such is the process of paper- making. We leave the mill thinking that a ‘scrap of paper’ is not to be despised, for it may have seen more of the world than most of us. Finally, even in the hum of machinery, we cannot help sparing some admiration for the industrious wasps, the oldest paper-makers in the world.