Issue Date: March 31, 2014
Reading Behind The Lines
Much attention has been paid throughout history to primary sources: books, letters, official proclamations. However, author Nicholas A. Basbanes has made the medium, rather than the content, the focus of his book “On Paper: The Everything of Its Two-Thousand-Year History.” The book explores the emergence of paper, the culture and language that surrounds it, and its extensive relevance throughout history, from its origins in China to forged passports and Japanese balloon bombs in World War II and beyond. Basbanes follows paper’s propagation throughout the world, often visiting the locations himself and conducting interviews with papermakers, business owners, and historians.
“On Paper” begins appropriately at the origin of papermaking, China. Traveling through the country, Basbanes tours the homes and workshops of some of the few remaining hand papermakers, learning about their history and craft. The invention of paper is often attributed to a man named Cai Lun in A.D. 105, though earlier samples of paper have been found in China dating to the 2nd century B.C. The first papers were not made with wood pulp; instead, materials such as old rags, tree bark, fishing nets, and hemp were used. In a way, Basbanes says, paper was one of the first industrial products to significantly use recycled material.
The vast array of materials used in paper makes its exact definition somewhat difficult to get completely right, so Basbanes spends some time going over the chemical properties of what constitutes paper. Basbanes’s definition of paper is “a composite of water and pulverized cellulose fragments screened through a sieve and dried into a flat film.” He goes into how hydrogen bonding among cellulose fibers allows them to merge into a sheetlike material once water is removed from pulp. He stresses that paper’s first users did not know the exact details of the papermaking process, though such knowledge was not necessary to fulfill and improve their craft throughout the centuries. His description of hydrogen bonding is simplified, yet the narrative is not damaged significantly by the book’s imprecision.
And what a narrative it is—Basbanes continues his exploration of paper through Japan, the Middle East, Europe, and the Americas, tracking how paper greatly improved the spread of knowledge and art and made the administration of large societies and empires possible. He covers paper’s role in espionage, war, bureaucracy, health, science, aesthetics, and even computational topology, as well as its continuing importance in the modern era. Basbanes details paper-related discoveries by chemists and papermakers as the book progresses as well. For example, the kraft process invented by German chemist Carl F. Dahl turned wood into almost-pure cellulose fiber that resulted in stronger paper. The book’s breadth is such that Basbanes provides a small warning at the beginning about how many historical settings involving paper he means to cover, though he also states that the book is not merely a listing of the thousands of uses for the material.
Paper usurped other materials for written media for a variety of reasons. It replaced the bulky, restrictive bamboo on which Chinese administrators had to write vertically (hence the top-down nature of traditional documents). Basbanes mentions that the before-paper emperor Qin Shi Huang would often have 120 lb of official documents written on bamboo brought to him every day. Paper also replaced silk in some applications, allowing more trade of the valuable fiber.
Paper also broke Egypt’s somewhat monopoly of writing media by offering an alternative to papyrus, the product of which is the namesake of paper. Such paper has to be made with fresh papyrus, restricting its production to the areas in which the reed grows. Egypt was able to use this monopoly as a bargaining chip—until paper came along.
Parchment, made from animal skin, was another popular medium for written communication. However, paper trumped parchment in the Ottoman Empire, the book says, because it was possible to scrape the ink off parchment and reuse it. In order to impede forgers, the Ottomans used paper, which was not as easy to manipulate once the ink had set.
It cannot be said, however, that forgeries on paper are few and far between. Basbanes also looks into stories of forgeries and how they are detected or avoided. During the American Civil War, the Union attempted to devalue the Confederate currency by circulating counterfeits. However, their production quality was the project’s downfall—the counterfeit dollars were so well made that they were easily distinguishable from the legitimate currency and were quickly found. This was also the case of some German attempts at forging Soviet passports during World War II, where the giveaway was the stainless steel staples—real passports had rust. In more successful tales, Basbanes details how a brilliant feint by Britain during the war, orchestrated by creating a false downed pilot carrying confidential documents for the Axis to find, was not possible without meticulous care to get the papers on the unfortunate fellow just right.
Paper’s disruptive influence is widespread in history. For example, the Stamp Act put a tax on printed documents in the American colonies, making legal paperwork prohibitively expensive. Even worse, newspapers had to be printed on embossed paper imported from England, straining the print industry. The unrest caused by the act was crucial in fomenting the Revolutionary War. And paper used for war became an instigator itself: The Indian Rebellion of 1857 was caused in part by Britain’s forcing the Indian army to use paper cartridges coated with either beef or pork fat, offending both Hindu and Muslim soldiers. The paper cartridges themselves were a significant improvement to firearms and cannons, and the advances they spurred—quick, clean-burning paper—were later used to make cigarettes.
In addition to small-arms munitions, paper has even been used to help carry bombs. During World War II, Japan attempted to bomb the U.S. using paper-coated balloons that would release their munitions once they had crossed the Pacific. Inflated with hydrogen, the balloons used air currents to approach their target, reaching as far as North Dakota and Michigan. But the project did not cause the desired mass disarray, and it was not widely publicized until after the war. However, six people were killed when a landed bomb was accidentally triggered, inflicting the only deaths on the American continent in WWII as a result of enemy action.
Paper’s reach, of course, is not limited to bureaucracy and conflict. Paper contributed greatly to public health through the development of cloth alternatives and disposable products, which improved hygiene and mitigated the spread of disease. The book tells the story of Austrian chemist Ernst Mahler, who developed a material named Cellucotton around the time of World War I as an alternative to cotton bandages. Cellucotton, made with spruce pulp, had remarkable absorbency and was mass-produced for medical dressings and gas masks.
Sales declined dramatically once peace was declared, however, and the company making the material, Kimberly-Clark, had to figure out what to do with the surplus. Luckily, field reports from nurses treating those injured in the war pointed to another use: sanitary napkins. After a few stumbles, the Kotex brand of feminine hygiene products was born, and the most effective marketing campaign for Kotex at the time used depictions of the very nurses who helped the product come to fruition.
The book’s goal of chronicling the history of paper from its beginnings to modern times is ambitious, and such ambition is reflected in the length of the text. Although not a short read, “On Paper” is well worth the time. The narrative is smooth yet modular enough to permit incremental reading, and arduous chapters, especially those with lengthy interviews, are easy to skip without breaking continuity.
Basbanes does not make many claims to paper’s future, though he covers the fall of small papermaking operations and the craft of handmade paper being left to hobbyists and niche shops. The paperless society envisioned as far back as 1978 has not materialized, and although technology has advanced seemingly past the medium, it continues to endure.
Nader Heidari is an associate editor at C&EN.
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