On Paper | Nicholas A. Basbanes

Summary of: On Paper: The Everything of Its Two-Thousand-Year History
By: Nicholas A. Basbanes


Dive into the fascinating history of paper and its impact on society with ‘On Paper: The Everything of Its Two-Thousand-Year History’ by Nicholas A. Basbanes. This book takes you on a journey, starting from the early invention of paper in China to its gradual spread into different regions, shaping the world in the process. Learn about the materials, processes, and evolution of paper, as well as its myriad uses – from currency and personal hygiene products to architecture and art forms like origami. This book summary provides a captivating understanding of how paper has transformed the way we live and how it will continue to be part of our future.

Making of Paper

Paper, considered to be invented in China by Cai Lun in AD 105, was actually present a lot before that. However, it evolved over time. Paper is made from a mixture of water and cellulose fiber from different materials like tree bark, cloth, hemp, etc. The process of making paper involves hydrogen bonding, which is the attachment of cellulose fibers through molecular cohesion. Papyrus, made from the stalk of a marsh reed, is different from paper, but the word “paper” comes from it. Paper was a convenient alternative to silk and stone, which were too expensive or cumbersome.

Journey of Japanese Paper

Paper, originating from China, found new life in Japan during the seventeenth century. Paper’s use in Japan expanded vastly, from luxury paper for nobility to flexible and inexpensive paper for making items like handkerchiefs, dolls, and armor. Paper was also incorporated into Japanese architecture, and even used in war. During World War II, Japan launched 9,000 paper balloons carrying bombs to the United States, resulting in the death of only six people. The introduction of paper in Japan revolutionized the material’s use in everyday life and beyond.

Evolution of Paper

Paper was first used to record the word of God in the Koran, but it quickly found other uses. The Muslim empires introduced it to various countries, and the Ottoman Empire was the first political entity to use it to manage its bureaucracy. Europeans dominated the global paper production market after the introduction of printing presses in the 1450s, and the Ottomans fell behind. The Muslim world may have been less interested in developing a printing process because it considered writing to be sacred. Nesting behavior in insects led to a physicist and naturalist discovering ground wood pulp as a material for producing paper in larger quantities.

Paper Currencies: A History

As societies began to realize the many uses of paper, they developed paper currencies. Crane and Company, an American firm, produced paper money for the US Treasury Department and stationery for famous brands like Tiffany and Cartier. Zenas Marshall Crane’s techniques of threading silk strands through rag paper gave their currency the edge. Today, American banknotes are made of rag paper, making them the most resilient folding currency globally, with a life expectancy of 41 months and can be bent back and forth 8,000 times before tearing. Meanwhile, the intricate design of British five-pound notes lasts less than twelve months.

The History of Paper-Making

From linen wrappings of mummies to wood pulp, this article delves into the history of paper-making. The European rag-based method was initially preferred by Americans, but a shortage of material led to experimentation with straw and vegetables. Friedrich Gottlob Keller patented the first viable plan for mass production of paper made from ground wood in 1845, and it soon became the main form of paper-making. However, lignin in the wood pulp made paper fragile and yellow, leading chemists to develop processes to remove it. By the end of the 19th century, American papermakers had gained control of the global paper market, fueled by the demand for paper during Revolutionary War and Civil War, and the emergence of hundreds of newspapers. Fun fact: the Vicksburg Daily Citizen was even printed on the blank side of a piece of wallpaper!

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