Theory Thursday: The history of Paper in Europe

Welcome back to my theory series about paper! Today I will be talking about the history of paper in Europe and about how to make paper from old clothes.

Paper was first made in Asia, and the knowledge of paper was brought from there to the Arabs which developed it further and then eventually brought the knowledge of paper making to Europe. The first paper mill in Europe stood near Valencia and dates back to 1144. Before the use of paper was generally accepted mainly vellum was used for writing. When paper mills and the knowledge of papermaking spread through Europe the cheaper paper quickly replaced vellum, though in some places reluctantly and under reserve.

Already the Arabs used rag and flax fibers to substitute the bark of the mulberry tree. This bark is used in Asia to make paper but is unavailable in the West. So when paper and the knowledge of papermaking came to Europe, it was no longer the thin Mulberry paper from Asia but a soft and thick rag paper.

a machine to cut rags into pieces like it was in use in 1900
a machine to cut rags into pieces like it was in use in 1900

But how do you make pulp out of old clothing? Can you imagine beating your wet pair of jeans so long that it becomes pulp? If you can’t then you are just right – it is rather hard to accomplish. And how to do that will be the main topic today.

The first step in preparing the pulp is to sort the rags according to used fibers and color, cut off the seams and take out the buttons and so on. Then they are cut into smaller pieces. Then they get torn and beaten even more. A process in which dirt and sand are removed. (A nice video showing these process can be found here – the frame story is told in Dutch, but the important parts are mainly pictures and easy to understood even if you don’t understand Dutch.)

For the next step of pulping in older days the rag bits got soaked into water donkinkocherand left there for several days to rot and ferment to further break down the fibers. Later (around 1800) a Donkin cooker was used. Under pressure the rags were cooked in a brine made with soda. (The industrial production of soda also just began at that time.) The cooker could be slowly rotated and through the top and bottom hot steam and the brine were let in and out. In this process most of the dirt, fat and color gets washed out of the rags. With this bleaching process it was finally possible to produce white paper from colored rags, which was not possible before.

Next the rags had to be beaten for about 48 hours (depending also on how much rags you are processing) with sufficient force. This was archived by attaching hammers to a water mill at a fast enough waterway. (In the beginning of this video you can see and hear a paper mill in Basel.)

holländer beater with additional washing drum
holländer beater with additional washing drum
An important invention was made by dutch papermakers around 1670. They had a tub in which the rag pieces would swim in water and being moved around. At one part a grinder with attached knived grinds and cuts the rags to pulp. This method is much faster, rags that needed 48 hours of beating only needed only about 2 hours in a holländer beater. At first this new machine was only used where the water was not fast enough for a water mill because due to the rags being cut rather than ground the fibers in the finished paper were shorter and the paper less strong. The main advantages of the holländer beater: less personal required, more paper can be produced, were convinving. In the middle of the 19th century they had completely replaced the old hammer mills.

The invention of printmaking, and an increased literacy demanded for more and more paper. A demand that was hard to satisfy, and rags became a treasured resource.
In 1774 the fact that chlorine can be used to bleach rags was discovered. Chlorine could then be added directly into the holländer beater. Now it was truely possible to produce white paper from colored rags which helped to keep up the production of paper.
In the beginning of papermaking use the finished sheets would after they are dry be dipped into glue and dried again. From about 1800 on it was possible to add different filler substances to the holländer beater. This also improved the speed of the production. And speed was important!

The further development in papermaking was mainly in how to form the paper sheets. In 1798 Nicolas-Louis Robert got a patent for a still mechanically driven round tub. The breakthrough for the paper industry came with the patent of Donkin, however, a machine which made it possible to produce a theoretically endless strip of paper. (See this video for how a steam engine was introduced in a paper mill. The machine here does not yet produce an endless strip of paper, but that had to be cut off periodically from the heat cylinder at the end, and processed further. In the beginning of the video you see how they ground instead of beat the rags before the introduction of the machine.)

The increased speed of production was needed to satisfy the increased demand of paper, as mentioned above. But the ‘production’ of rags did not increase in a sufficient and the same amount as the speed of production. Already in 1765 Jacob Christian Schäffer made experiments to produce paper from plants rather than rags. Different approaches were tried but essentially the chemical industry had to be further developed before paper of sufficient quality could be produced. With the discovery of how to use wood for paper, and improving this method further and further modern papermaking started. And I close my brief overview at this point.

The following video starts with works on the renovation of an old paper mill and ends with a history of printmaking. But in between they givesa nice overview over different techniques used through the years with beautiful pictures of a holländer beater:

This whole topic of papermaking is truely huge and I often was only able to briefly mention some things. Here are some links for those of you who are interested enough to read on. It is an interesting topic, it is possible to see how inventions and developments in different branches of science and technology all had their impact on papermaking as well as politcal and social developments.

To write this post I mainly used the following sources (all German, sorry)

  • Papier – Artikel auf Wikipedia
  • Kleine Papiergeschichte, von Papyrus zum Papier des 20. Jahrhundert, zusammengestellt von Dieter Freyer
  • und des Brockhaus Artikel aus der Auflag 14 von 1908 – daraus stammen auch einige der Bilder

some sources in English language are:

  • paper – article on wikipedia
  • also in wikipedia a nice strange story that sresses how rare rags became at a time: Mummy Paper (wikipedia)
  • a nice series of videos of how to use a holländer beater can be found here

Next week I am planning to go even further back in time and have a look at how paper developed in Asia.