Paper History

The word "paper" derives from which Ancient Greek word?

And the answer: papyrus.

Photo credit: North Wind Picture Archives

The papyrus is a tall aquatic plant, native to the Nile River valley in Egypt. In ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome, tissue from the papyrus plant was cut into thin strips, pressed together, and dried to form a smooth thin writing surface.

The introduction of papyrus into the world was revolutionary. For centuries, scribes and other writers across the globe practiced on parchment or vellum, a writing material made out of specially prepared untanned animal skins. This ancient practice was proven and effective, but expensive and often available in limited supply. The Chinese practiced on silk or bamboo, but ran into similar problems, as silk was costly and bamboo too heavy. Upon its invention as a writing material, word of papyrus quickly spread around Europe and down the Silk Road. It soon became the preferred method.

Papyrus' light but durable structure made it ideal for long-distance communication and long-term storage. The Egyptians soon took to mastering the method of production, with special care to waste none. It became the surface upon which hymns, official documents, love poems, medical records, spiritual admonitions and most other documents were transcribed.

Photo credit: Gardening Know How

Did you know?

The papyrus plant had many other uses in Ancient Egypt. Before paper, ancient Egyptians used it to make many other essential items such as baskets, sandals, rope, blankets, mattresses, medicine, perfume, food, and even clothes. It's no wonder papyrus was known as a "gift of the Nile"!

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