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History of Paper


Paper in all its forms has played an important role in history and continues to today. Paper and its pre-cursors have been used to record thoughts, ideas, stories, rituals, traditions and religious documents for thousands of years. Thanks to paper, much of our world history has been recorded and stored and passed through the generations.

Paper is used in almost all facets of our lives. It’s the primarily material used to make newspapers, books and literature, maps, money, documents of all sorts and used to create wonderful works of art. Paper is used to make all sorts of products and to make the cartons that those products are transported in. Paper is used to print tickets, bills, photographs, greeting and business cards, brochures, posters and so much more. You would be hard pressed to think of a day when you haven’t utilized paper. Even with the advent of the computer, the notion of a paper-less society that many predicted still seems far off since we consume and print more paper today than ever before. Even a smartphone is packaged in a paper carton.

The history of paper is a fascinating story full of process and material experimentation and innovation across many cultures, spanning multiple continents and thousands of years…


Prior to the invention of paper, many different materials were used in different regions of the world as media for recording the written word. Stone, clay, wood, tree bark, leaves, various animal skins, cloth and papyrus were the most prominent materials used. Usage choice was dependent on local availability.

Clay Tablet Paintings on stone


Six thousand years ago in what is present day Iraq, the Sumerians used the abundant clay
available in the Euphrates and Tigris river basins to record their pictographs on clay tablets.


Throughout India and the countries of Southeast Asia including Thailand, leaves from a palm like leaf called a bai-lan leaf were used for centuries to record Sanskrit writings and Buddhist scriptures with natural pigments.


The use of flattened tree bark for recording pictographs was widespread among the indigenous peoples of the Americas as well as the Himalayas. In some instances, smaller pieces of bark were joined together using natural gums and adhesives to create single, large sheets of paper-like media.


Papyrus – Five thousand years ago, Egyptians harvested a grass called cyperous papyrus found in abundance in the marshlands of the Nile River basin. The papyrus blades were first moistened using water and were then arranged in two layers with the top layer placed at a 90 degree angle to the bottom layer. The papyrus was then pounded together until the two layers were a single cohesive sheet and then left to dry in the sun. Papyrus from Egypt was lightweight and easy to transport and became the preferred media for writing texts and creating works of art for the next several centuries not only for Egyptians and throughout the Middle East but for Romans and Greeks as well.

While it should be noted that similar processes were being used by other groups (namely, the Mayans in present day Mexico) to make paper-like materials by the second century AD, it is papyrus that most people think of when they think of the origins of paper. In fact, the word ‘paper’ in English is derived from the word ‘papyrus’. However, the origins of paper as we know it today stems not from Egypt where papyrus was formed through pounding and pressing but rather from China in the first century AD.

Perpendicular papyrus reeds

Egyptians were making papyrus 5000 years ago


The Invention of Paper

The origins of paper as we know it today dates back two-thousand years (105 AD) to China when the invention of paper was presented to the Emperor by Ts’ai Lun, a member of the Imperial Court. It is commonly held that Ts’ai Lun used a combination of fibers from bamboo, mulberry, hemp, silk and other indigenous grasses to craft his papers. Archaeological digs in Gansu Province in Northwest China suggest that paper may have actually been invented two centuries earlier, however, in China and around the world, Ts’ai Lun is generally regarded as the great inventor of paper given that the basic processes he pioneered have, in principle, not changed much to this day.

Ts’ai Lun pioneered the art of modern day papermaking by accomplishing two main breakthroughs:

  1. by refining the mixing process whereby individual plant fibers were actually separated from each other allowing for a thinner, lighter, highly bonded sheet.

  2. by developing an efficient straining and molding process using a sieve-like screen mounted to a four-sided bamboo frame that facilitated quick and easy straining of the pulp mixture, the intertwining of the individual fibers and the subsequent sun-drying of the paper sheet directly in the screen mold. These improvements resulted in a flexible, smooth and fine sheet of paper that was strong – a new standard for writing material and a vast improvement over all previous media forms previously utilized.

Chinese Papermaking process 105 AD Bamboo Paper screening and molding process in China

7th Century AD Outward from China Japan and Korea

By the early 7th century (600 AD), papermaking techniques from China started to spread. Koreans and Japanese papermakers initially crafted papers made from rattan, bamboo, seaweed, hemp (maji in Korean), mulberry (kozo in Japanese) and rice straw. With the introduction and spread of Buddhism at that time the availability of paper provided an abundant material for the transcription of Buddhist scriptures. To this day, both Korea and Japan have vibrant and innovative handcrafted paper industries owing to their long and storied history with paper. Spread of Buddhism mirrors access to paper

Nepal, India, Southeast Asia

By the middle of the 7th century AD, papermaking was introduced to Tibet, India and parts of Southeast Asia and, as in Japan and Korea, was also primarily used for scribing Buddhist writings and scriptures.

Thailand 13th Century AD

In Siam (present day Thailand) at this time, the predominant material used as writing materials was the palm leaf known locally as bai-larn. Earliest evidence of this dates back to the first century AD when the palm leaf was used to record Buddhist related writings. Palm leaf was, and still is, abundant and were easy to bind together as pages. By the end of the 13th century, the inner bark of the khoi tree was the predominant material used in Siam to process paper-like material. Khoi bark paper was ant and termite resistant and was used to record much of the ancient history of the Kingdom over the previous 800 years. The process of making paper with khoi bark was similar to the Chinese method of preparing the fibers however more labour intensive due to the tough nature of the khoi bark.
South Asia and Southeast Asia Buddhism also mirrors spread of paper Palm Leaf was used as a writing material in Siam dating back to the first century AD

Thailand 20th Century AD

By the beginning of the 20th century the availability of khoi trees in Siam were severely depleted and papermaking waned until the Second World War when the Japanese introduced their techniques using kozo (mulberry bark). Mulberry trees were abundant in Thailand (Siam changed its named to Thailand in 1939) and grew throughout the northern regions. The Japanese demand for paper triggered a re-birth of Thailand’s papermaking industry which has flourished to this day. Khoi trees were abundant in Siam until the 20th century

Paper Travels Westward 8th Century AD

A major turning point in the proliferation of Chinese papermaking techniques came in the middle of the 8th century AD. The Tang Dynasty was defeated in a battle with the eastward expanding Ottoman Turk Empire in Samarkand in present day Uzbekistan. Numerous imprisoned Chinese soldiers who happened to be skilled papermakers traded their knowledge of papermaking in exchange for their freedom. Samarkand quickly established itself as a major paper production centre. Chinese paper techniques spread westward with defeat of the Tang Dynasty

Paper Travels Westward 8th-12th Century AD

Subsequently, the Chinese methods of papermaking fanned out westward across the Middle East varying only in the fiber materials used which were primarily linens and flax fibers. Paper production was established in the late 8th century AD in Baghdad and Damascus. Even the Egyptians, who invented the use of papyrus as a writing material thousands of years before, embraced the newly introduced techniques. Paper production was established in Cairo by the 10th century and across North Africa to Morocco by the 12th century AD. People across the region now had access to a relatively inexpensive and readily available writing material. By the mid-12th century AD, the Moors from North Africa invaded Spain and Portugal and quickly established the first paper mills in Europe.

Paper spreads from China westward to the world

Paper Arrives in Europe 12th Century AD

For centuries up until this point, Europeans, (mostly wealthy nobles and the privileged class) primarily used parchment (prepared from goat or sheep skin membranes) as their preferred writing material. Parchment was incredibly expensive, slow to prepare and availability of sufficient quantities of animal skin was inconsistent. When the armies of Europe drove the Moors out from Spain in the middle of the 12th century AD, this thousand year-old paper production technique finally spread across the European continent with cotton and linen fibers being the primary fiber material utilized. Most notably, Italy, France, Germany, and later, England all developed significant paper production industries. Europeans used parchment as a writing medium from the skin membranes of sheep and goats

The Printing Press 15th Century AD

The birth of the modern paper industry as we know stems from the invention of the printing press in 1453 by a German named Gutenberg who was inspired by Chinese printing innovations. The printing press revolutionized the speed and cost that books, publications and literature could be reproduced. This triggered an immense increase in the demand for all sorts of reading materials by the masses. Universities, schools, libraries and book stores emerged which in turn further fueled an ever-increasing demand for paper to feed the printing presses. The widespread use of used rag fibers to make pulp for paper took hold in Europe for the next several centuries. 1455 The Gutenberg Press

Mass Production of Paper 18th Century AD

The next significant development didn’t occur until the late 18th century when a papermaking machine prototype was devised in France by Nicholas-Louis Robert. This prototype could manufacture a continuous and seamless roll of smooth paper as opposed to just single sheets. This machine was eventually improved upon in England and introduced to market by Henry and Sealy Fourdrinier in 1807. Modern day paper machine production lines are still referred to as Fourdrinier machines since the basic production process by machine remains the same to this day.
In Europe, discarded rags were used as fiber for paper making. Fourdrinier machine could produce endless rolls of paper

Fourdrinier papermaking machine revolutionizes paper making

Wood Pulp and the North American Experience 18th Century AD

The first paper mill in America was established in 1690 in Philadelphia. Over the next 100 years over 200 additional paper mills were established and the availability of rags tightened. American and European paper mills experimented with alternative fiber sources such as hemp, straw, various grasses, marsh mellow, corn stalks, sugar cane waste and trees. As a result of groundbreaking research and experimentation by the Germans, the English, Canadians, Americans, Swedes and others, the processing of wood from trees into pulp fiber was perfected by the 1860’s, using chemicals additives. Trees were of seemingly endless supply in parts of Europe and throughout North America. A consistent and reliable supply of fiber for papermaking had finally arrived. The use of paper became ubiquitous in all facets of life and transformed the modern economy and communications. North American trees - a seemingly endless supply

Deforestation and Recycling A New Awareness 1960's and 1970's

After close to a century and a half of rapid industrialization and of cutting and clearing virgin forests for paper production an emerging concern and consciousness regarding the depletion of natural resources emerged in the 1960’s and 70’s and continues to this day. This awareness, coupled with the desire of paper mills to reduce the costs associated with harvesting virgin timber for paper production, spawned the development of new methods to collect and recycle used paper and reprocess it. Recycling paper saved a large amount of water and energy, was less toxic and was a far cleaner process compared with harvesting and converting virgin trees into paper. Deforestation and recycling New Awareness

Late 20th Century AD

Today, recycled paper accounts for approximately 30% of all papers consumed. Used magazines are recycled into newsprint and old newspapers are typically re-processed to make tissue, toilet paper and corrugated boxes. While indeed recycling efforts over the last generation have helped and there are forests that are replanted with trees specifically grown for harvesting for paper production, the rate of demand growth for paper compels us to continue to increase the amounts we recycle and to continue to innovate and seek out additional, more sustainable methods and materials to produce the paper that we need. Recycle symbol


In some countries, interest in using alternative non-wood fibers for paper pulp has re-emerged with the hopes of reducing the burden that modern day paper production has on our world’s depleted forests.

From Costa Rica to India, Brazil to Namibia and right here in Chiang Mai, Thailand, re experimentation using renewable, indigenous, alternative, non-wood fiber sources to make paper is resurgent.

In an ironic renaissance of sorts, some papermakers have reached back into history and are utilizing some of the very fiber materials once used in centuries past such as corn stalks, straw, hemp, flax, bamboo and mulberry bark. Others, utilize locally available agricultural waste fibers (after the initial main crop has been harvested) in a promising approach that gives a new purpose to fiber materials that would otherwise be discarded. Sugar cane (bagasse), wheat, barley, rye, coffee bean skins, tobacco leaf fibers are prime examples of this.

Alternative fiber pulp sources


At Elephant POOPOOPAPER Park, we’ve leveraged the lessons of 5000 years of papermaking history and combined that with locally available fiber materials and a rich heritage of artisanship to develop our unique and eclectic brand of recycled, alternative, non-wood fiber, tree-free papers. They just happen to be made from dung!

While we acknowledge that POOPOOPAPER products are not the sole solution to address the depletion of forests by the paper industry, it is our hope that POOPOOPAPER products can make a modest difference through the statements our products convey about sustainable use of resources and the need to reuse and recycle in innovative ways.

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