(In Under Five Minutes)
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.
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.
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.
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.