I bet you didn’t know they had “recycled” paper back in the 12th and 13th centuries…This is an excerpt of an article that appeared in the New York Times magazine.

The origins of what paper cognoscenti call “true paper,” which requires the breaking-down and reconstitution of plant fibers, are often dated to A.D. 105 and linked to Ts’ai Lun, a eunuch in the court of Emperor Han Ho Ti of China. Few technological advances have been as enduring. Wherever it appeared, paper swiftly relegated more primitive writing surfaces like stone, wood blocks, clay tablets, wax and sheets of laminated bark or matted papyrus stalks to oblivion. The miracle of paper — its combination of flexibility and tensile strength in an easily fabricated and, well, paper-thin material — is a chemical gift of cellulose. When cellulose fibers are separated from noncellulosic components of plants, beaten to a pulp, briefly suspended in water and spread onto a screen, the fibers bond together to form a sheet. A piece of paper is a plant re-engineered for specifically human purposes.

Paper production was confined to the Far East until the year 751, when, some historians believe, Muslim conquerors of Central Asia carried the secrets of the trade to Samarkand. It wasn’t until the 12th century, when Muslims ruled Spain, that papermaking began spreading to Europe. Unlike Asian papermakers, who relied on plants like hemp, mulberry, bamboo and daphne for fiber, mills in Italy, France, Germany and the Low Countries turned to worn-out textiles for their raw material. Rag men roamed the towns and countryside, collecting scraps of fabric whose hemp and flax fibers had been degraded by years of washing and drying in the sun. Until the 19th century, European and American books were made largely of recycled clothes and other textiles.

According to Jesse Munn, a paper specialist who worked as a conservator at the Library of Congress for 32 years, the rapid spread of printing took a toll on the quality of paper. “The insatiable demand of the common market lowered standards of some papers,” she says. “The history of paper in most cases is one of steady decline in character and strength.” To cut their costs, some mills began using less-carefully-sorted rags and rushed the process of preparing the pulp. The result was weaker, darker paper, with knots and clumps of fiber in the finished sheets. Quality sank further when, at the beginning of the 19th century, French and English inventors developed a steam-powered “paper machine.” Paper production exploded, quickly exhausting the available supply of rags. Papermakers turned to a plentiful source of low-grade cellulose: trees. An age of abundant, cheap, inferior paper emerged. Newspapers flourished and inexpensive books flooded the market. Paper became an ingredient in everything from shoes to construction materials. The industrialized paper trade crossed the Atlantic in the 19th century, eventually transforming vast swaths of American forests into paper plantations. Some chemicals used in preparing wood pulp resulted in what paper conservators call “self-destructing paper,” which turned brown and brittle with age. As Munn told me, “We’ll lose a lot of the 19th century.”

At the same time, small artisanal movements grew up in fierce resistance to industrialization. In England, William Morris commissioned a mill to supply his press with paper made by hand, using the materials and methods employed in the Italian Renaissance. Dard Hunter, an Ohio-born acolyte of the Arts and Crafts movement, spent much of the first half of the 20th century proselytizing on behalf of meticulously handcrafted papers. Nonetheless, the use of cheap, mass-produced papers grew inexorably. In his 1947 edition of “Papermaking: The History and Technique of an Ancient Craft,” Hunter noted that per capita consumption of paper in the U.S. was 287.5 pounds in 1943; that would rise in recent years to more than 600 pounds. In the interim, handmade paper became all but obsolete.

Well we are pleased to say handmade paper is alive and flourishing at Green Field Paper Company.

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