The History of Paper

Everything you need to know about paper.


From publications to marketing materials, packaging, and beyond, the power of printing cannot be understated. At PSI Digital Imaging Solutions, we are a world leader in wide-format printers, ink, toners, and media. Although we are printing experts, one thing we know for sure is the products we produce are as only as good as the paper used to print them on. In the article below, we honor paper by taking a deep dive into its history. How did this revolutionary invention come to be? We hope you enjoy this article as much as we enjoyed writing it. Feel free to browse our extensive media shop for all of your paper needs. 

How Paper Shaped Civilization

Throughout humanity, writing moved across dozens of materials from clay and stone tablets, parchment, papyrus to paper. Perhaps the fate of humanity is tied with paper more than any other invention aside from fire. The spread of ideas, information, political thought, art and culture, and freedom of speech are directly tied to print and distribution. From its invention in the 2nd century to mass production dating back to 1100 BCE, paper has been the world’s number one communication vehicle. Digitalization has changed some of paper’s use in modern society, but it’s still king in spreading ideas and information. 

What Came Before Paper?

There is much debate about when paper first came into existence, but all historians agree that paper was not the first material used for writing. Before paper, there was papyrus and parchment. Papyrus comes from the papyrus plant and is made by flattening and layering the plant together. Unlike papyrus, parchment is made from animal skin and is stretched and dried to make a writing material. Papyrus and parchment date back to approximately 2500 - 3000 BCE throughout various ancient civilizations. 

Origins in China

Sometime between the 2nd and 3rd centuries BCE, paper made its first appearance in ancient China. It has been speculated that the invention of paper may have been due to Chinese people's need to dry their clothes indoors during winter months when they could not hang them outdoors on a line.

The first papermaking process was invented by Cai Lun, an official of the Eastern Han dynasty (25-220 AD). Initially, the paper recipe used by Cai Lun included plant fibers, rags, and fishing nets. As the Chinese paper production process evolved, paper was made from hemp, mulberry, and other plant fibers around the 2nd century BC. This was the first indication of organized paper production. Around this time, the Chinese also produced the first written dictionary on paper, about 10 thousand characters. 

Paper Leaves China But Hasn’t Yet Reached Europe

Historians vary when paper first left China, but it is commonly agreed that paper made its way along the silk road to the Muslim world by the 7th and 8th centuries AD.  Early records show paper replaced parchment in Baghdad for administrative purposes. Paper also seemed to have made its way to the Indian Subcontinent around this time, as mentioned in Chinese Buddhist pilgrim memoirs. There is also evidence of paper being used in Samarkand. An unknown author wrote a Persian geography book in the 10th century, Hodud al-Alam, the oldest known manuscript mentioning the papermaking industry. 

Paper Reaches Europe

It’s incredible to think that paper was around for a thousand years before it made its way to Europe. The oldest known document on paper in Europe was the Missal of Silos, a manuscript printed on quarto dating back to 1,080 AD.  However, it didn’t take long after its first introduction in Europe for paper to be mass-produced. By the 12th and 13th centuries, paper mills were already established in Italy and Spain, and by the 15th-century, paper mills were found in Northern Europe and Russia. 

Paper Makes Its Way To The Americas 

By the time the Americas were discovered, paper was already mass-produced and commonly used in Europe. However, there is evidence that paper was widely used by the Maya in the 5th century and even traveled along mesoamerican routes for centuries before the Spanish arrived. The product they produced was called amate, a type of bark paper. 

The earliest paper mill in the Western Hemisphere was established in Philadelphia by William Rittenhouse in 1690. It didn’t take long for Americans to become the world’s leading paper producer. By the 1880s, the United States had become the largest producer of paper goods globally. 

A Brief History of Recycling Paper

Paper is one of the most recycled materials in the world. A common misconception is that recycling paper is a relatively new phenomenon; however, the history dates back to the early 19th century when an Englishman, Mattias Koops, began deinking and using wood materials to produce paper. Unfortunately, it wasn’t until 1993 that recycled paper exceeded landfill paper, as reported by Forest Fact Collection.  As of 2018, 46 million tons of paper were recycled for a rate of 68.2 percent, which was the highest compared to other materials in MSW.  Paper production is rising, which means environmental policy and conservation education are paramount. 

What’s Next For Paper?

The paper industry is going through a revolutionary modernization. The 21st century is the age of digital platforms, resulting in less demand for traditional paper use such as newspapers and magazines, also known as graphic-paper. However, this doesn’t mean that paper is not just as important as ever. According to McKinsey and Company, the global paper industry continues to grow despite a decline in the graphic-paper segment. This begs the question, why?


Consumer habits have drastically changed over the past several decades, resulting in a fundamental shift in the packaging industry. In fact, the packaging industry in the United States is expected to grow at a CAGR of 3.5% over the forecast period 2021 to 2026, according to Mordor Intelligence. The shift in consumer behavior has also changed the printing landscape, as labeling providers have honed in on increased demand. 

Tissue Paper

Improved living standards, tourism, and an increased middle class have resulted in a global increase in tissue paper. According to RISI, tissue production globally should exceed 44 million tonnes in 2021, an increase of more than 14 million tonnes over 2010, as reported by Business Wire. Tissue paper is made from mixing hardwood and softwood trees, synthetic compounds, and water. North America still holds the largest market share in tissue paper production, but with evolving economies rising worldwide, tissue production is expected to evolve over the next several decades dramatically. 

Pulp vs. Paper

Pulp is the result of a process called mechanical pulping. It is made up of wood fibers broken down into thin sheets. This process can be done in different ways, but it usually involves soaking the wood chips in water and then running them through a machine with sharp blades to chop them up. Pulp can be used to make different types of paper, including newsprint, wrapping paper, cardboard boxes, and toilet paper. 

Paper is traditionally made from plant fibers such as wood chips, hemp, linen, or cotton, which are beaten together to create a sheet that's strong enough to write on. It's often mixed with other materials like chalk and glue to make it more durable and flexible. Pulp is the main ingredient in paper. Paper is made by pressing the pulp into sheets, which are then dried and cut into individual sheets of paper.


We are so used to feeling paper in our hands it seems almost unnatural without it. This complex invention seems so simple that perhaps we take it for granted. After all, paper revolutionized the world by changing how communication and information are spread. Since its beginning in 1985, PSI Digital Imaging Solutions, Inc. has been a leading provider of wide-format printers, ink, toner, media, and service to thousands of customers worldwide. We understand our products are only as good as the paper used to print them on. We hope this article was informative and fun to read. 

Shop our immense product line for all of your HP printing needs! We have an extensive media product line including the following:

Aqueous Media - water-based media such as backlit and blockout, canvas and fabric, gloss photo paper, polypro, satin photo paper, and self-adhesive. 

CAD/GIS - coated paper, film, uncoated paper.

Laminates - hot and cold

Latex Media - backlit and window perf, banner, canvas and fabric, photo paper, self-adhesive, and wallpaper.
Engineering Copier - We know that every business has different needs when it comes to their copying requirements. That's why we offer a variety of engineering copier paper options in helpful sizes for all types and brands! Whether you're looking value priced 20 lbs., high quality transparency or Mylar/double matte film, let us help find what will work best with your machinery - guaranteed fast delivery too




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