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(In Under Five Minutes)

We’re going to attempt to tell you everything you need to know about something that’s been around for nearly two millennia - The History of Stationery - in under five minutes. It would be an understatement to say this history lesson will be slightly truncated.

Beginning with paper

Nobody knows paper’s exact birthday. There was no birth announcement or press release. PR campaigns weren’t a thing around the year 121 when a man named Cai Lun (Traditional Chinese: 蔡倫) is said to have invented paper.

We do know that paper was born in China and is one of the greatest gifts bestowed on humanity. For the first time in history, knowledge could be both stored and transported efficiently.

Paper’s spread throughout the world can be seen as a multiplier of progress. The combination of writing, farming, and paper kickstarted the 2,000 years of progress leading to you reading this today.

Chinese writing on paper

Paper changed everything

Proto-paper had been around in various forms for at least 200 years before Cai Lun perfected the recipe. This story may have been retconned, and maybe he just took the credit after the fact, but records do indicate that a man with that name existed around that time and that he was an inventor and politician who served in the court of Eastern Han Emperor He (漢和帝) and then of Empress Deng Sui (鄧綏). Either way, he is said to be responsible for adding essential new materials into the composition of pulp and for standardising how paper was made.

Why was paper such a big deal?

In ancient times (at least in China) records were kept either on bamboo - which was heavy - or on silk - which was expensive. Cai Lun’s paper changed that.

A modern analogy would be the iPhone. Mobile phones, PDAs, and music players all existed and worked but the iPhone combined all of them into one tight package that took advantage of increasing mobile data speeds. Like smartphones today, a few years after Cai Lun’s paper was introduced, it became de rigueur for storing written information.

Eventually, around the year 600, woodblock printing was invented and 150 years after that the first printed newspaper appeared in China. The first newspaper in Europe was published 900 years later, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

Yangtze river in China

Paper spreads

We can trace paper’s path out of China in two ways. Going east, paper made its way first to Korea - where production began around the 3rd to 6th centuries - and from Korea, it traveled to Japan.

Meanwhile, the Han and later dynasties expanded westward and paper came along for the ride. Ancient paper found at various sites in the region has been dated to the 2nd century. Eventually after about 600 years it reached Tibet and India.

Making paper was an important technology in the ancient world. It was as guarded a recipe then as Coca-Cola’s secret formula is today. Spoiler alert: word got out. How? We may never know. Legend has it that Chinese prisoners captured after the Battle of Talas were responsible for the technology spreading to the Middle East. Historians debate the accuracy of the claim but around that time paper-making first appeared in Bagdad and spread throughout the region.

Seeing the value in this technology Arabs in the Middle East attempted to keep it under wraps. That lasted until the 12th century when European Crusaders invaded the region, and in-turn appropriated the technology for themselves.

a stack of paper books

Europe and the invention of “stationery”

Paper first arrived in Spain and spread inexorably North. Around 1,400 years after paper was invented in China, the term “stationery” came into being in Europe.

It was a special term used between the 13th and 15th centuries and comes from the Medieval Latin word stationarius - which means unmoved or permanent. It originally described a type of tradesperson who acted as an intermediary between universities and book publishers/binders.

The term was used because these “stationers” had their businesses at a single location, usually near a university, that was more or less permanent, i.e., - stationary. The campus copy shop of their day.

Paper and paper-making grew and developed in Europe over the centuries. Governments and organizations chartered by governments started to set standards for paper.

By the 18th century, commercially available stationery - like notepaper and letter paper - started to be mass-produced along with envelopes, pens, pencils and all the standard items you would expect to see in a typical stationery store.   

And that, briefly, is the history of stationery.

An innovation in paper

Paper has come a long way in the 2,000 years or so since it was first invented. Traditionally, it's always been made from wood pulp. However, this method is quite dirty, and it would be better if trees were left in the ground where they can happily sequester CO2, pump out oxygen and support ecosystems.

Enter the new kid on the block: stone paper. A more sustainable kind of paper made from, you guessed, it stone. You can read more about stone paper vs traditional wood pulp paper here