Paper is one of those things we use every day of our lives without devoting so much as a moment to think about it — where did it come from? What remarkable facts attach to it?
Well you needn’t worry because here, courtesy of Office Kitten, are five of the most remarkable things you might like to know about paper, but probably didn’t:
1. Paper is an ancient Chinese invention.
No surprises here. Like gunpowder and porcelain and a dozen other things, it was invented impossibly long ago by some inventive, unnamed Chinese genius. The oldest piece of paper known to modern archeology is a map discovered at Fangmatan in Gansu province, dating from 179-41 BC.
A second-century A.D. Han court official named Cai Lun is thought to be the man who first devised the pulp papermaking process that has been used, with refinements, ever since. Cai Lin’s paper used mulberry wood along with fishnets, old rags, and hemp waste.
Before paper, the material in common use for documents and artwork in China was silk. Paper, a far more economical substitute, quickly gained widespread use and this allowed more silk to be put to better uses or exported.
During the Chinese Song Dynasty (960–1279 AD) the government produced the world’s first known paper, printed money, or banknotes. Paper money, bestowed as gifts to visiting dignitaries, was wrapped in paper envelopes.
2. Paper reached Europe by way of the Islamic world.
Paper spread from China westward via Samarkand and Baghdad. There is a legend — possibly true — that the secret of papermaking was extracted from two Chinese prisoners after the Battle of Talas of 751 A.D., between the fast-expanding Arab world and the Chinese Tang Dynasty. This new knowledge led to the establishment of a paper mill in Samarkand.
Specialised machinery for manufacturing paper in bulk was developed in Baghdad, where they learned to make thicker and more durable sheets and transformed paper making from an art into an industry.
By the ninth century Arabs everywhere were using paper on an everyday basis. They sewed sheets together at one edge and wrapped them in leather, thereby inventing bookbinding. By the twelfth century there was a street in Marrakesh named “Kutubiyyin” — book sellers — which contained more than one hundred bookshops. The earliest recorded use of paper for packaging dates from 1035, when a Persian traveler visiting markets in Cairo noted that vegetables and spices were wrapped in paper when they were sold. Paper was introduced to India in the thirteenth century by Arab merchants, where it quickly replaced all other writing materials.
The making and use of paper in Europe started in today’s Portugal, Spain and Sicily in the 10th century by the Muslims living there at the time, and slowly spread to Italy and France, reaching Germany by about 1400. European paper manufacture, including the use of water power for paper mills, really took off with the invention of movable type and the revolutionary developments of the printing press and mass literacy in the fifteenth century.
3. Properly folded, paper promotes world peace.
Origami — the art of folding paper — is an old and honoured tradition in Japan. It includes the story of Sadako Sasaki.
This is a sad, even tragic story. Fair warning.
Sadako Sasaki, born in Hiroshima about a mile from Ground Zero, was irradiated as an infant by the atomic bombing of 1945. She was diagnosed at the age of eleven with terminal leukemia and hospitalised. She was given less than a year to live, a prediction that proved to be accurate.
There is a popular tradition in Japanese culture that anyone who folds one thousand paper cranes will be rewarded with the realisation of one wish. Sadako, wishing for life, set to work folding cranes.
Her biggest obstacle was finding paper. She toured the hospital asking for medical packaging, spare envelopes, discarded wrapping paper and the like, for folding into her cranes. She became a familiar figure in the rooms and corridors but as she did so she met other children, also dying from the effects of radiation, and she began to feel ashamed because of the selfish nature of her wish. She decided after a time that her wish was not for her own life but rather for world peace and an end to the suffering she saw about her everywhere.
Sadako Sasaki died at the age of twelve on October 25, 1955, having folded 644 cranes. Other patients from the hospital — many of them children doomed by the same illness — were moved to continue folding cranes in her behalf. She was buried with one thousand paper cranes.
Today the memorial park in Hiroshima includes a statue of a giant paper crane, dedicated to the memory of Sadako Sasaki. The paper crane is considered a symbol of peace in Japan today.
Well, we warned you that this was going to be serious,didn’t we?
4. Paper has a vast range of applications.
Paper is manufactured is such a wide variety of types, it is just about impossible to list all the uses we put it to. That said, here is a partial listing. We use it:
To represent value, as paper money, bank notes, cheques, security papers, vouchers and tickets.
To store information, as books, notebooks, magazines, newspapers.
To inspire us artistically, in the form of artwork, sketches, drawings, wallpaper and letters.
To communicate, both between individuals and with or between groups of people.
To package and protect, as corrugated boxes, paper bags, envelopes and wrapping tissue.
To clean, as paper towels, facial tissues, toilet paper, handkerchiefs and cat litter.
To construct other objects, as papier-mâché, origami, quilling, paper honeycomb and construction paper.
For temporary personal use, as scratch paper, reminder notes and diaries.
For many other uses: labels, sandpaper, blotting paper, litmus paper, universal indicator paper, paper chromatography, electrical insulation paper, filter paper and for starting fires.
And if you think about it for a minute, you will probably think of something we haven’t.
5. Paper affects the environment.
Here’s a sobering statistic: According to Greenpeace, the worldwide consumption of paper has risen by 400% in the past 40 years.
Here’s another: Paper waste accounts for up to 40% of the total waste produced in the United States each year, which adds up to 71.6 million tonnes of paper waste per year in the United States alone.
About 35% of the trees harvested worldwide are used to manufacture paper. The logging of established, old-growth forests — a well-publicised and controversial issue — actually accounts for less than 10% of the wood pulp that goes into paper production.
Conventional paper manufacturers, producing the stark white sheets we all expect to find in our printers, bleach wood pulp using elemental chlorine. This process produces, and then releases into the environment large amounts of chlorinated organic compounds, including chlorinated dioxins.
Dioxins are persistent and highly toxic. Health effects on humans include reproductive, developmental, immune and hormonal problems. They are known to be carcinogenic.
These troublesome facts notwithstanding, our cultural addiction to paper seems destined to keep growing — as it has for two thousand years to this point.