Pulp facts and fictions

As you’re reading this, you’re probably surrounded by paper. In any case, there’s a very high probability you’re within 10 meters of a piece of paper. Paper is so ubiquitous that we take it for granted. It’s like air, we realize it’s there only when we run out of it.

We’ve had paper in Europe since the 14th century, but the first papermakers were the Chinese. Paper was invented under the Han dynasty (3rd century BC – 3rd century AD), but we owe it to the Europeans for making it the preeminent support for writing. Territorial colonies also meant paper colonies, mountains of administrative and bureaucratic pulp issued by proud, righteous nations.

But there is humility in this as well. Paper is the humblest of all support materials. Humblest by birth. Paper was initially made of rag waste beaten to a pulp – literally – in China as well as in Europe. It wasn’t made of wood until the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century. Cutting trees to make paper is now an environmental hazard, but paper used to be a creative recycling practice. Born in rags, paper is now killing our planet.

For a vital period in its history, Europe was paperless. Processed animal skin was considered much more durable, despite its enormous costs of production. It still is the most resilient soft support available, to the effect that all record copies of public Acts of Parliament in the UK are printed on vellum.

When paper was introduced in Europe, there was hesitation among bookmakers as to which should be used, the older parchment or the newer paper. Economics prevailed, helped by the invention of print. Five hundred years later, we stand at a similar junction: does the future belong to paper or to digital? But that’s a reflection for another day.

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