A Very Brief History of Paper

Updated: Apr 30, 2019

Most of a notebook is paper, so it's important to appreciate this material.


This is a little exploration of paper and notebooks. There are some features of paper that are often of interest, including the archival life, environmental impact, and performance. My job is to make decisions about which features to prioritise, and to find balances between others.



The Needs of Paper

Books really came about as a way to organise and protect pieces of paper. They are paper objects at heart, and it's important to have that part right. A classic caveat to buying outwardly appealing notebooks is finding the paper sub-par or not described by the seller.


What actually makes paper good though? Some papers are definitely brilliant, but a lot of it just comes down to preference and the particular requirements. Sometimes the colour or visuals are the most important; often it's the archival life. For a lot of people, however, the environmental impact is paramount. Usually, a decent combination or middle-ground between these sorts of features is fairly easy to reach. It is fair to say that notebooks have a special requirement, in that they need to take and retain writing and sketching well, before anything else.


Archival Life and New Paper Sources

Some of the most important objects in a literate society are books. This was true for religious texts in medieval Europe, from where sprung much of our current book-craft techniques. Such texts were usually rare, and could also constitute important inter-generational pieces of art. Longevity was key. The same applies to plenty of modern works, from academic theses, to records of law and medicine, to valued works of art. The best papers for archival life are made from naturally archival materials. Linen, cotton, and hemp are excellent traditional materials, being slow to discolour and become brittle. There are a huge number of other quality fibres though.

Good paper has always been a valuable material. However, by the nineteenth century, demand for paper and books had exploded, and the old staples weren't keeping up. This led to a search for new sources of paper, and the inevitable discovery of wood-pulped paper. The first types of wood paper were made by mechanically pulping the wood. A suite corrosive compounds remained in the paper causing it to yellow and become brittle in only a few years. Whole shelves of library books began to fall apart (although this was also caused by the cheaper book construction processes).


Several decades later, paper makers had figured out how to chemically pulp the paper, and in doing so remove damaging compounds. The early wood-pulped papers were an issue, and paper makers were evidently eager to shirk that reputation. Perhaps the most common term used for long-lived paper is ‘acid free’, which can refer to wood-pulped paper which has been processed very carefully to remove acidic compounds. The acidity of materials used in bookbinding is indeed the most important benchmark for the archival life-span, so this is a good feature to look for. However, it isn't a good idea to fixate on any single feature. As discussed below, the environmental strain of making paper is one of the issues that can result in a counterpoint of preferences.


Recycling and The Environmental Challenge

It takes a lot of material to make as much paper as we do. Harvesting directly from the environment will yield an array of fibres, some of which can make excellent paper. Another way to obtain fibre is to recycle what's already around. This doesn't act as a source of fibre - it just uses material more thoroughly.


Recycling isn't perfect. The source material is variable, and consequently difficult to process precisely. Recycled paper won't achieve the same archival properties as pure cotton papers, for instance. The colour, texture, and opacity are also altered. For example, recycled cream toned paper is difficult to produce, but recycled bright white paper are actually fairly common. Some recycled papers have certifications such as the ISO archival to over 100 years. This is actually quite good, considering how poorly some other papers age.


New fibre is where all this begins though, and non-recycled paper is indeed best for some uses. Ultimately, the sustainability of new fibre is crucial. There are a bunch of indicators for sustainable paper, generally dealing with either how the fibre is grown (e.g. sustainably managed forests), or how the paper is made (e.g. carbon neutral, chlorine free). These are good indicators, but labels like this will proliferate when an issue is ripe for marketing. Ultimately you need to be sure of the process behind gaining certifications. I take sustainable forestry practice labels with a grain of salt, because I have seen cases where the labels are an addendum to more fundamentally unsustainable practices.


Large industrial-scale consumption is struggling with it's habit of eating everything up without regard to the environment. As the next step, localised production that embraces complexity and thoughtful material use is probably worth exploring. Our habits are the most important part of this picture. Embracing irregular and rough materials where appropriate can help place less stress on resources, as can being intentional with the paper we use. A well-kept notebook is intentional and meaningful; the rampant publication of new textbook editions is not.



Paper for Notebooks Creating a book from paper will make a few properties very important. Here, we are most interested in what a notebook needs. Texture and tone are two properties I would like to close this discussion with.


Notebooks have a pragmatic requirement of texture. All notebooks should have paper that captures and retains detail rather than smudging and blurring. Not only is this virtuous for the immediate experience, but is also often more important than archival and acid free certifications for the longevity of the creation; occasionally, I have barely been able to make out something written only a year before, because it was written on either too textured or too smooth a paper. This is not surprising when you think about how much movement a travel journal is subject to. These objects are not yet library books - they are more akin to pieces of adventure equipment.


The tone of paper can make it a truly appealing material. The term 'tone' here refers to colour, but not in the sense of white or yellow. Rather, it might be off-white grey with sub-tones of peach to rose. Personally, I believe it is important that paper is not too bright in notebooks. This is fine for high-impact graphic design, but for prolonged writing and drawing the contrast between bright white and dark lines can be a strain for the eyes. There is also something to be said for a complex tone and texture. Handmade papers can be a very beautiful cacophony of colours and textures. Unfortunately, they are sometimes too rough for everyday use.


Despite all this talk about the exact kind of paper one needs, it is wise to take a step back and just go with what feels right. This is still true if you have a penchant for rough papers, or cheap papers, or anything else. There is a beautiful interaction when you accept odd, rough, irregular, or just imperfect materials as being what they are, and resolve to enjoy their idiosyncrasies. While the wealthiest institutions may have had books stamped in gold, there were songs, and stories, and craft belonging to everyone else, who did not have the luxury of recording culture like this. Who knows what value they found in other methods of recording. It is easy to rag on the humble paper-back as a terrible piece of bookbinding, yet all of us have been enlightened by these ubiquitous vehicles of literature and information. It has a beautiful cultural context despite it's apparent faults.


On this note, I will leave you with a quick story:

Christopher Tolkien (a scholar and the son of J.R.R. Tolkien) ran into an issue with smudged pencil when transcribing some of his father's work. This work had been manifested on all sorts of papers, from the backs of old assignments and high-school exercise books to well-bound journals. These snippets constituted some of the greatest stories written. The message here is not that J.R.R. Tolkien should have used more retentive stationery - it is that he cared more about creating than worrying about paper. While I work a lot on book-craft, I am at my happiest when I can do the same.


Kindest, Chris


~ If you are after information on Paper, I recommend the books of Silvie Turner.

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