Leafing Through History: The Plants That Make Paper

After one year back in operation, the Stephen and Peter Sachs Museum presents its first fully interdisciplinary exhibit: Leafing Through History: The Plants that Make Paper. “I know how intimidating a science museum can be to a non-science audience,” says Nezka Pfeifer, curator of the Stephen and Peter Sachs Museum at the Missouri Botanical Garden. “A history museum is often not at all interesting to an art or science person, and art museums can be totally intimidating. Trying to present a subject that spans a variety of disciplines is going to be much more interesting”—and it’s much truer to life, too: almost any subject you can think of has elements of artistry, science, and history.

 The show considers paper and papermaking through the lens of history and tradition, artwork and creation, and science and sustainability. It’s an appropriately timed subject in celebration of the Museum’s one-year anniversary, the year number that is traditionally celebrated with gifts made of paper.

Paper’s Beginnings

True papermaking is just over 2000 years old, but beaten paper has been around for much longer. The first true paper is attributed to China as early as 65 BCE. Cai Lun is traditionally considered the inventor of paper. He was a eunuch in the court of Empress Deng Sui who began making paper out of linen. It is likely that papermaking was actually occurring all over the world already at this time, and Cai Lun got credit simply because his position in the court of the empress meant that his work would have been recorded.

The credit for origami is similarly complex. The word “origami” didn’t come into use until the late 19th century, and it is often associated with Japan. The art of paperfolding, however, was present in a number of cultures before it got the “origami” designation.

The Aztecs, for example, were making amate paper long before the Spanish arrived in Mexico. Their Codex Borbonicus (a book of Aztec culture) was written on a fan-folded book as opposed to bound pages or a scroll. According to Robert J. Lang, writer for The Fold, mate paper was used for a wide variety of things in Aztec culture, including decorations, jewelry, books, headdresses, and clothing. As part of Spanish efforts to snuff out the Aztec culture, the making of amate paper was banned, and many existing amate objects were destroyed. Luckily, the Spanish chose to preserve the Codex Borbonicus, and some Aztec people continued the practice in secret. Today, amate papermaking still exists as a craft and is primarily used to create artworks that are sold to tourists.

The invention of origami is often attributed to Akira Yoshizawa, which contributes to its association with Japan. Yoshizawa is a widely known and highly regarded figure, but, as is the case with most cultural phenomena, origami wasn’t exactly created by one person in one place at one time.

Yoshizawa’s origami renaissance took hold during the first half of the 20th century, but there are signs of paperfolding in Japan as early as the 1680s. Interestingly enough, Japanese paperfolding arts were deeply influenced by German educationalist Fredrich Froebel, as Andrew Hudson notes in an article for The Fold. Fredrich famously developed the Kindergarten education method in the early to mid 1800s. His method was the first to use what we modernly think of as origami: paper that is square-shaped, folded but never cut, and white on one side but colored on the other. Of course, Froebel never called this practice origami—that word was not in use until the late 1800s.

When Japan began opening its borders in the 1860s, some parts of the Kindergarten teaching method were adopted, and the paperfolding stuck around. It wasn’t until the mid and late 1900s that Yoshizawa popularized origami as an art and developed a number of novel techniques, such as folding the paper while it is slightly damp, that still are used today.

Making Paper

Paper can be split into two basic categories: beaten paper and true paper. Both processes start the same way. First, the plant is soaked so that it begins to break down, separating the cellulosic fibers from all the other materials in the plant. Then, you begin to layer the fibers together, with the reeds running in a different direction on each layer. “And then,” says Pfiefer, “you pound the heck out of it.” That pounding fuses the fibers together to become paper. On beaten paper, the fibers are visible on the finished product.

True paper also begins by soaking the source plant. Then it is usually cooked with lye or soda ash to make it more pliable so that it can be beaten and cut repeatedly. As this beaten pulp floats in water, it is sandwiched between a screened mold and a deckle. Just the right amount of pulp is collected, and the water is allowed to drain as much as possible; this creates the basic piece of paper. The next step is called “pulling paper.” In this step, you layer your papers with some kind of absorbent material, such as felt, in between each piece. Then the stack is placed in a press, and all the remaining water and excess material is squeezed out of it. This helps the paper to stay the same basic size, and no additional adhesive is necessary to get the fibers to stay together. At this point, you’ve got your paper. The last step, if the paper is to be sold for general use, is to add sizing—a treatment that allows you to write on it by making the paper less absorbent. Sizing isn’t necessary for paper that is made for origami, for example, since you don’t need to write on it.

If you visit the exhibit, you can interact firsthand with papers made from a variety of plant sources. Local artist Megan Singleton put together a book of handmade papers, each of which was made from a different plant in the Missouri Botanical Garden. The book showcases the unique colors and textures that each of these plants has to offer. Paper can be made from a number of different plants, but today it is most commonly created using wood pulp.

Sustainability in Papermaking

In the early 1700s, French etymologist René Réaumur realized while observing wasps that the insects were chewing up and processing wood materials to make their paper nests. At that time, paper was most commonly made from old cotton or linen rags, and it wasn’t until 100 years later that factories were developed to handle wood pulp.

Since then, wood pulp has been the most common resource, and vast amounts of forest have been lost to the production of paper. Today, most of the wood pulp produced in the United States is taken more sustainably from stewarded forests that are planted, tended, harvested, and replanted specifically for the purpose of paper (much like a Christmas tree farm). Old growth-forests are no longer being logged for paper—at least not in the United States—but that doesn’t mean it’s not happening elsewhere, so it’s always best to use recycled paper when possible.

Recycling isn’t the infinite loop that many people think it is, however. “The thing with recycling is that some materials really don’t like being recycled,” Pfiefer says. “Every time they are recycled, they get more brittle and less easy to recycle the next time.” Paper is one such material. “Think of recycling like baking flour. Imagine that you’ve rolled some dough out and cut out your first round of cookies,” Pfiefer explains. “Now the stuff that’s left behind, you have to make that into cookies, too, right? You don’t want to waste it. So you roll again, but the quality of that second roll is never as good as the first. When you get to roll number three or four, it’s almost like cardboard. That’s what it’s like when you recycle–You just lose some of the physical qualities that make the material so good in the first place.”

That’s why it’s so important to buy already-recycled paper whenever possible–and to reduce paper waste altogether. Virgin pulp (wood pulp that comes straight from the tree and has never been processed or recycled) is not necessary for all kinds of paper—but its use is needlessly widespread nonetheless. Pfeifer points to toilet paper as an example: “There’s no reason for virgin wood pulp to be turned into a single-use toilet paper,” she says, and yet it often is. The cookie dough analogy explains why this is so wasteful: designing virgin pulp toilet paper to fall apart in our sewage systems—something that several-times-recycled paper would do naturally—is a pointless loss of energy and material.

This same concept can be applied to other materials as well. For example, aluminum is one of the few materials that has a nearly-infinite ability to be recycled and maintain its quality. Glass, on the other hand, can only be recycled a handful of times. Armed with knowledge like this, consumers can make an educated decision to choose canned beverages over bottled, or recycled toilet paper over regular.

You can read more about sustainable paper consumption, see a number of works by modern origami artists, and learn much more about the history of papermaking and the plants behind it at Leafing Through History: The Plants That Make Paper. The exhibit is on view from 9:30-4:00 p.m. every day through October 27. Admission to the Sachs Museum is free with Garden admission.

Kristina Schall DeYong
Digital Media Specialist

Leave a Reply