The Influential History of Paper & Where It's Going Next

Papermaking originated in China nearly 2,000 years ago, but the technology spread slowly across the world, changing the way information is shared. Paper even had an integral role in the founding of America, spreading early democratic principles. Eventually, the versatility of paper would make it an ideal material for currency, packaging, plates and napkins, and even toilet paper. Today, papermaking is going through another revolution, in some ways returning to its roots of sustainable materials. Read on to learn how Vastly is shaping the future of paper.

Rolls of paper in a paper factory

The Chinese Origins of Papermaking

The legend of modern paper (the name is derived from its Egyptian predecessor, papyrus) is typically attributed to Ts’ai Lun, a political advisor to the Emperor during the Han Dynasty (105 CE). However, early paper production probably started 200 years earlier in the Gansu province of China. [SOURCE] The first paper makers used natural materials like hemp, seaweed, rice straw, tree bark, and bamboo to make the pulp, later adding silk rags and even fish nets to the process.

In 751 CE, the tightly-held Chinese monopoly on papermaking technology ended as the Turkish fighters from the Ottoman Empire defeated the T’ang army. After papermaking technology spread throughout the Middle East and Northern Africa, Spanish invaders eventually learned the process and, as a result of the Crusades, brought the technology back to Europe. [SOURCE]

Patriotic Paper

America’s Fate Depended on Citizen Participation in Papermaking

The first paper mill in America (Rittenhouse Mill) was built on the Monoshone Creek outside of Philadelphia in 1690. Initially, these early mills used worn rags to make the pulp for paper. It was a common problem that paper mills had to constantly seek out rags to use as their raw material. Advertisements from the time suggested it was even a patriotic duty to participate in the paper-making process by selling your own used clothing and rags to paper mills. The entire paper industry and the spread of information in early America depended on public participation and provision of raw materials - a true crowd-sourcing effort to spread ideas.

Access to paper played a critical role in the early history of America’s founding. Several decades after William Rittenhouse’s death, Benjamin Franklin would use fresh paper from the Rittenhouse Mill in his print shop, manufacturing early editions of the Farmer’s Almanac, religious texts, and, importantly, early American political pamphlets. Eventually, the Colonial Assembly would even choose Benjamin Franklin to print the first American currency, made from locally-manufactured paper. [SOURCE]

How Was Paper in Early America Made?

Rags and used clothing, bought in bulk, would be beaten with hammers to break down the fibers, then boiled to make stock, which would be spread on molded screens to make the paper. Recycled rags made paper coloring unpredictable. White cloth was often separated to make finer quality paper, but generally paper made in this era was a murky brown color. Bleaching technology would not yet be possible for more than 100 years. [SOURCE]

Early in the history of paper manufacturing, production was challenging and expensive, and paper was certainly not considered disposable. Paper was made by hand, one sheet at a time, requiring plenty of fresh water to produce. The average American family now discards as much paper in one day as the Rittenhouse Mill manufactured in the same amount of time. [SOURCE]

The introduction of sawdust (made from wood) into the papermaking process in the mid-1800s made production easier and less expensive than it had been for over 100 years. The Fourdrinier papermaking machine, a new invention of the same period, converted the papermaking process from a handmade process to a faster, continuous band operation that replaced the need for small batch, single sheets (according to Franklin, this was the “Chinese Manner, making paper in one smooth surface”). [SOURCE]

Vastly paper plates and napkins made from wheat straw pulp

Experimenting with Non-Tree Materials in American Papermaking

Because cloth was an increasingly challenging material to source, innovators began experimenting with other raw materials to make paper. In 1827, a Pennsylvania farmer discovered that straw, which he was using to make potash, actually could be useful for papermaking when combined with rags made of cotton or linen. Combining cloth with straw made a stronger, more durable paper product. Paper manufacturers began to experiment with other plant fibers, finding that wheat, rye, and straw made the best papers (often still combined with rags). [SOURCE]

The economic Panic of 1837 led to a crisis in papermaking in the U.S. due to a shortage of rags and a high demand for quality paper. In response, two Connecticut paper entrepreneurs scavenged waste materials from the New England fleet of ships. They used discarded manila rope, hemp sails, and canvas sheets to produce a new type of smooth, “manila” paper, which temporarily replaced rag papers as a common paper in the mid-1800s.

When Did Paper Begin to Be Made from Trees?

During the Civil War, demand for paper was especially high. Theodore Steinway, the famous piano manufacturer, observed the quality of specialty wood pulp paper that was used in Germany to make sheet music. Steinway imported a German wood grinder to a wood pulp mill he started in Massachusetts in 1867 to attempt to replicate the wood pulp technology for American paper.

However, the wood pulp paper was not well-received in the U.S. because it contained lignin, a natural component of wood fiber that made the paper brittle, yellowed, and crumbly when folded. [SOURCE] In the 1930s, the introduction of the Kraft process revolutionized papermaking. The Kraft process softened the wood into pulp using chemicals, which it then reused to create a virtually closed loop manufacturing process. In addition to efficiently converting wood into usable pulp, this process saved money and reduced the environmental impact of inorganic chemicals used.

How Paper Became White

Paper made in the early U.S. was typically shades of brown or grey, depending on the materials used to make it and the iron content of the water used in pulping. “Hard” water, containing lots of minerals, made the paper slightly darker, despite the steam whitening process. [SOURCE]

In the late 1700s, Karl Wilhelm Scheele found that chlorine could be used as a bleaching agent for papermaking. Within 15 years, In 1799, Charles Tennant discovered that calcium hypochlorite could be used as a bleaching powder. Because calcium hypochlorite was powdered, this new innovation made chlorine easy to transport and use for paper manufacturing. Tennant’s calcium hypochlorite technology came to the U.S. in 1804 and was commonly used until the 1930s, when chlorine bleach was introduced. [SOURCE] Today, a technology called “oxygen bleaching” is widely used in paper manufacturing as an alternative to chlorine bleach. Sometimes an application of chlorine dioxide is also used. The oxygen process gained popularity in the 1970s and is the method that Vastly uses for bleaching pulp. 

Vastly toilet paper made from discarded wheat straw

When Was Toilet Paper Invented?

Toilet paper, like paper technology, was also first invented and used for many years in China before gaining popularity in other countries. In the U.S., prior to the invention of indoor plumbing, outhouses and chamber pots were the only way to use the “bathroom”. Because outhouses were flush-free, people could use various materials, often natural materials that grew near the outhouse, for taking care of business. Examples of wiping materials in the pre-indoor plumbing era included leaves, rags, hay, moss, seaweed, corn cobs, or even rocks.

As paper became more readily available in the 1800s, recycled magazines, newspapers, or catalogs were frequently kept in the outhouse for “toilet paper”. Benjamin Franklin, who was instrumental in the rapid growth of paper manufacturing in early America, probably didn’t anticipate that his Farmer’s Almanacs would become an especially popular toilet paper. According to legend, Almanacs were even printed with a small hole in the corner that made it easy to hang the book in an outhouse, much like we install toilet paper roll dispensers in bathrooms today. [SOURCE]

In the late 1800s, as indoor plumbing allowed toilets to move inside the house, modern plumbing required softer, quick-dissolve materials in order to efficiently flush with regular use. Joseph Gayetty was one of the first toilet paper entrepreneurs, introducing packs of 500 aloe-moistened flat sheets of “medicated paper for the water-closet” in 1857. These packs were expensive, especially compared with free, recycled paper, which most people were still using at the time.

Within a decade, the Scott brothers (Edward, Clarence, and Thomas) introduced a cheaper version of Gayetty’s toilet paper. The Scott’s toilet paper wasn’t coated with aloe and it was sold on rolls. This new toilet paper was also rougher than today’s toilet tissue; it sometimes even contained splinters. It actually wasn’t until the 1930s that Northern Tissue introduced “splinter free” toilet tissue, much closer to what we use today. [SOURCE]

What’s Next for Paper Technology?

Up-Cycled Paper

Recycled paper is now a common material used to make new paper and is becoming a popular primary ingredient for making toilet tissue, paper towels, packaging, and other disposables as well. [SOURCE] In fact, recycled paper makes up about 33% of the raw materials used in paper production; the remainder comes from whole trees and wood chips or scraps. [SOURCE] However, while seemingly a positive solution to the problem of deforestation, recycled paper is not without its problems. Even with recycled paper, the dyes, inks, and sizing chemicals used to make it into a new, homogenized product can be harmful to the environment. And pulp made of recycled paper is not entirely efficient - it’s often blended with wood pulp to make new paper products, which still requires the same chemical process as conventional paper and is not completely recycled.

Vastly makes paper from “up-cycled” materials rather than recycled (sometimes called “down-cycled”) materials, meaning the product is more valuable than the materials used to make it. Vastly does this by converting unused wheat straw into a valuable resource that easily composts without harming the environment. Vastly’s paper is “tree-free”, meaning it starts with a sustainable raw material and keeps the final product clean enough to go back to the earth as compost. In fact, some of the byproducts from the manufacturing process are used to make nutrient-rich fertilizer, which directly goes back to the earth to enrich the fields that provide the wheat straw. This system creates a biorenewable loop that is more sustainable than conventional practices.

Sustainable Practices: Repurposed Waste Streams

Vastly, like many paper companies, uses the same technology to make pulp for toilet tissue and dinnerware that is used to make paper intended for printing and writing. However, unlike traditional paper companies, Vastly sources sustainable raw materials, like un-utilized wheat straw, to convert into paper pulp. We know the future of paper manufacturing must include a variety of new materials that can be sustainably converted into paper without polluting our waterways or depleting forests to make paper.

Using the remains of an annual crop for the raw materials is a powerful step in the right direction. There is a low environmental impact to process the cellulose from plants like wheat straw or corn stalks into paper pulp. Not only are there environmental benefits to repurposed waste streams, but there are economic benefits, particularly for farmers who provide the raw materials. Wheat growers are able to harvest a crop that would otherwise be wasted - wheat straw - and make an extra profit from their fields by selling this resource. Vastly is showing how next-generation processes, innovated from old traditions, can vastly improve manufacturing.

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