January 2017 brought exciting news to document restoration companies. A volunteer working with an archaeology team at Knole, a historic home in Kent, England, discovered two letters from the years 1603 and 1633 in the South Barracks attic. The letters, written on quality rag paper, offer a glimpse into 17th Century life as one contains a beautifully penned shopping list with items such as greenfish, pewter spoons, a fireshovel and frying pan. Paper has a rich history that spans continents, offering insight to human ingenuity and imagination. By understanding why some types of paper survived the test of time better than others, you can take steps to better preserve your own documents and reduce the need for archive restoration services.
History of Paper
Many primary schools teach that the ancient Egyptians were responsible for making paper out of papyrus. The mats created with reeds, however, are not technically paper, even though people wrote on them. Similarly, Mayans in the second century AD, ancient Mediterranean cultures, and early inhabitants of the Pacific Islands used bark to create books and bases on which to write that do not qualify as true paper.
The first papermaking processes date back to China’s Eastern Han period between 25 and 220 AD. While exploring tombs from the era, archaeologists found Lao Tzu’s texts printed on silk cloth, along with paper made of a variety of plant fibers. Papermakers macerated the fibers in a vat with water. They then used a screen to catch the fibers. When the fibers dried, they contracted and intertwined, forming sheets of paper.
In the third century AD, the people of Vietnam and Tibet were introduced to papermaking, followed by those in Korea and Japan. The skill slowly made its way west thanks to printing projects, explorers, and even wars. Papermaking entered the Islamic word during the Battle of Talas in 751. The resultant imprisonment of two Chinese papermakers led to the founding of the first paper mill in the Middle East. Over the centuries, individuals in the Islamic world built machines that refined papermaking processes, transforming the skill into a major industry.
In the ninth century, people in the Middle East made advancements in bookmaking techniques using paper that was lighter in weight and less reactive to humidity. Around the same time, European cultures began preferring parchment made of animal skins over papyrus. Paper did not become an everyday item until Johannes Gutenberg perfected movable type, giving birth to the modern printing and paper industry.
Why Some Paper Deteriorates Faster than Others
It is not unusual for a newspaper printed 50 years ago to be more brittle and discolored than paper made centuries ago, like the shopping list found at Knole. There are several reasons for this, including:
- The quality of fibers and the length of the cellulose chains in the paper: Before the 1850s, paper in the Western world was made of durable linen and cotton cloth rags
- External factors: Light, oxygen, moisture, heat, acids and pollutants in the environment
- Pulping techniques: Mechanical pulping does not remove acid lignin from cellulose and produces short fiber lengths; chemical pulping removes lignin and preserves long cellulose chains
- Compounds added to wood pulp during production: Some chemicals added to paper to reduce absorbency generate acid when exposed to moisture
Specialists with document drying services attest that quality paper stored in areas with cool temperatures, low relative humidity levels, and away from light and acidic compounds, can last hundreds of years.
Preserving your documents and archives long-term is as simple as using the technologies that document restoration companies offer. Polygon complements your document preservation efforts with custom climate control solutions that allow you to create an environment with the ideal temperature, humidity level and ventilation rate.