Stationery History: Papyrus

Thousands of years ago, language and writing were a luxury afforded only to the wealthiest. Writing a letter, let alone a book, was an extremely difficult task. The most commonly used surface for documentation was parchment made of animal skin. As Egyptians made advances in society, and pharaohs wanted to document their triumphs, they developed the first paper from a pithy plant called papyrus that grew rampantly in their dry climate.

Papyrus quickly became the writing surface of choice. It was made by stripping the stem of the plant to the pith and laying the strips together in a single line. Next another layer was placed on top of this layer, cross wise. The strips were moistened and hammered together to make a solid sheet. Lastly, the papyrus sheets were dried and ready for use. Papyrus was not only more accessible than parchment made from a dead animal, but it lasted much longer. Papyrus was more resistant to mold and rot and could be produced in bulk. It was for these reasons that its use spread.

Papyrus was used around Europe until the twelfth century. Egypt’s dry, hot weather allowed the papyrus to hold up much better than in humid climates. Documents from Egypt still exist on papyrus dating back to the third millennium BC. However, its shelf life was much shorter in European countries, with documents lasting only one to two hundred years. In addition, it was mostly imported, which made it expensive. A need for a better surface still plagued most of the world.

In China, they had been using the pulp from reeds to press together in the first paper since the second century AD. It slowly made its way through Asia and eventually appeared in Europe a thousand years later. Using the pulp from reeds, trees, and even grasses made it cheaper than importing papyrus and also resulted in a more climate resistant material. In the nineteenth century, advances in pulping (to separate the fibers) made for stronger and thicker papers. As a result, letter writing and bulk printing (newspapers and magazines) made information available to the masses.

Today, paper is available in many thicknesses, shapes, sizes, and colors. It is a comfort that we take for granted sometimes, as access to it is limitless in our culture. It all started with a plant in the desert and a pharaoh’s desire to record his reign for posterity.

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