Paper Town

Photo by cjverb (1996)-400px
On the Road to Green Bay, Photo by cjverb (1996)

Fasten your seatbelts because today on Museum Bites we’re taking a road trip to Green Bay, Wisconsin, a city that thrives on paper, cheese, and football. In this first of a three-part series, we’re touring the Neville Public Museum to learn about paper and papermaking. Paper carries our news, preserves our stories, wraps our gifts, decorates our walls, is a lightweight source of currency, and plays an important role (roll!) in our personal hygiene. Join me for a brief look at the story of paper. Our paper trail begins in ancient China…

Paper is at the center of so many of the elements of the development of civilization. It’s about communication and writing and thinking, and art and science and architecture and mathematics and political movements. And that’s why it’s such a great story.
~ Mark Kurlansky, author of Paper: Paging Through History (2016)

Cuneiform Table Recording Delivery of Reeds (c2028 BCE), Detroit Institute of Art, Photo by cjverb (2018)-300px
Cuneiform Table Recording Delivery of Reeds (c2028 BCE), Detroit Institute of Art, Photo by cjverb (2018)

Paper Trail:  Before the invention of paper we inked and etched our art, letters, stories, and even receipts onto rocks, plants, and animal skins. The oldest known paper dates back to the 2nd century BCE. Discovered in central Asia, these ancient sheets were used to wrap medicine and other parcels. The invention of writing paper is credited to chief eunuch, Ts’ai Lun (aka Cai Lun) of the Han Dynasty’s (206 BCE-220 CE) imperial court. In 105 CE, he presented emperor Hedi, sheets of paper he crafted from a mixture of mulberry bark, rags, fishing nets, and hemp. The emperor and his court quickly saw the advantages of this new-fangled invention. Lun’s paper was much cheaper and less time consuming to produce than silk, the court’s current writing material of choice. Orders for Lun’s paper surged and as trade gradually opened up in China, paper and papermaking spread throughout Asia, the Middle East and eventually Europe. Demand for paper skyrocketed with the introduction of Gutenberg’s printing press in the 1400s. Click on Museum Bites: Geeking Out on Gutenberg link to learn more.

Fun Financial Fact: The Chinese were the first to use paper money, approximately 1,000 years ago during the Tang Dynasty (618-907 CE).

Ancient Chinese papermaking as outlined by Cai Lun in 105 AD, Wikimedia Commons-300px
Ancient Chinese papermaking as outlined by Cai Lun in 105 AD, Wikimedia Commons

Hookery Cookery:  Over the centuries, Ts’ai Lun’s original paper recipe was modified and improved upon, but for the most part the process of papermaking has remained the same. Materials containing cellulose (e.g., tree bark, wood chips, cloth rags, hemp, recycled paper) are plunged into water and beat to a pulp causing the tightly woven fibers to separate. Once this is achieved, the pulp slurry is then filtered through a sieve or woven screen to get rid of the excess water. Pressure and sometimes heat is applied and the cellulose fibers reform creating a flexible, lightweight and relatively durable sheet. Modern paper manufacturers include a final phase where depending on the type of paper desired, sheets are coated and/or infused with finishing materials (e.g., glossy photo paper; wax coated takeout boxes, metallic wrapping paper).

Pulp made from rags, Photo by M. Cornelison, Wikimedia Commons-300px
Pulp made from rags, Photo by M. Cornelison, Wikimedia Commons

The Software: Pulp is a key component of paper and for hundreds of years, cotton and linen rags were a popular source of this fibrous material. As demand for paper grew, so too did the rag business. Rag pickers collected scraps and prior to pulping, the cloth was snipped free of buttons, snaps, and seams. Next, it was laundered, torn into strips, and sent on to pulping. Rag shortages were common and rag pickers had to endure long hours of backbreaking work for little pay. In the 1800s, wood pulp transformed the papermaking world. Forest-rich Germany created the first mechanical wood pulp by debarking tree logs and grinding the wood down into fine chips. Chemical wood pulp, a process where lumber is reduced to pulp by treating it with chemicals such as sulfite or soda, was first developed in England in 1852. Both processes are still used today. Mechanical pulp is coarser, prone to yellowing, but good for printing. It is typically used for newspapers and book pages. Chemical pulp is used to create strong, bright, high-quality paper such as printer or photo paper, to name a few.

Fun Prickly Fact: In 1877, the Lick Paper Mill in San Jose, California began experimenting with cactus pulp. Mill marketers advertised cacti’s superior papermaking quality, as well as the unlimited supply available from the nearby Mojave Desert. Unfortunately, the prickly plant did not live up to all the hype.

Model of Nicolas-Louis Robert's Paper Machine, Robert C. Williams Paper Museum-300px
Model of Nicolas-Louis Robert’s Paper Machine, Robert C. Williams Paper Museum

The Hardware: For centuries paper was made by hand one sheet at a time. The process was tedious and time consuming and production was limited by the number of molds, drying time, and supply of pulp. Enter Nicolas-Louis Robert of France. In 1798 he built a machine that could produce a long, continuous sheet of paper. Similar to a hand-crank washing machine, pulp slurry was poured onto a screened conveyor belt and then fed through a series of wringers. Lo and behold, the resulting paper was not limited by the size of a mold. Robert’s invention was revolutionary but somewhat cumbersome. A decade later, British brothers, Henry and Sealy Fourdrinier tweaked Robert’s creation and patented the Fourdrinier paper machine. In 1809, another British citizen, John Dickinson, invented the first cylinder paper machine. Dickinson’s invention employed a cylinder that was tricked out with screens and rotated inside a vat filled with water and pulp. A film of slurry attached to the cylinder, the screens drained away excess water and voilà! A continuous wet sheet of paper was formed and sent on to be pressed and dried. Over the years, these ingenious machines have been modified and improved upon and today paper machines are traditionally categorized as either Fourdrinier or cylinder.

Fun French Fact: In 1783, Nicolas-Louis Robert and his brother, Jacques-Charles were the first to pilot a hydrogen balloon over Paris. Their maiden flight took off from the Jardin des Tuileries and 2 hours and 5 minutes later they landed in Nesles-la-Vallée, approximately 22 miles (36 km) to the north.

The Former Nicolet Paper Company, Photo by cjverb (2018)-400px
Nicolet Paper Company (Expera), Photo by cjverb (2018)

Paper Town:  Papermaking reached the American colonies in the 1600s and was a prosperous venture. Founding father and entrepreneur, Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) owned and invested in several paper mills, as well as a thriving rag business. In Wisconsin, flour mills along the Fox River converted to papermaking when wheat farming became less profitable in the 1800s. Nicolet Paper Company in De Pere, Wisconsin was constructed in 1892 and a few miles upriver the Hoberg Paper Company of Green Bay opened its doors in 1895. By the 1920s, paper manufacturing was firmly established in the Green Bay area. A wide variety of mills continue to produce napkins, tissues, wax paper, toilet paper, corrugated boxes, and the like.

CJ Verb's Feisty Grandmas (1951, center left & right) and Great Aunts (far left & far right)-300px
CJ Verb’s Mighty Papermaking Grandmas (1951, center left & right) and Great Aunts (far left & far right)

Paper has played a big role in my life. My grandmothers worked at Nicolet Paper snipping buttons from rags to prep them for pulp. My parents, uncles, aunts, cousins, and siblings have all labored away at one time or another in our local paper mills. I was thrilled to tour the Neville Public Museum’s exhibit on papermaking and if you’re ever in town, I encourage you to stop in for a visit. If you’d like to whip up a batch of your very own paper, click on this DIY Network link to learn how.

Frightening Fact:  In 1904, while supervising the installation of a new paper machine, John Hoberg, owner of the Hoberg Paper Company in Green Bay, got caught in one of the belts and was tossed 20 feet in the air. The entrepreneur, unfortunately, died of his injuries a week later.  The mill was taken over by his children and in 1928 began manufacturing Charmin tissue of Mr. Whipple-don’t-squeeze-the-Charmin fame. The company was bought by Proctor & Gamble in 1957. If you’d like a blast from the past, click on this Mr. Whipple commercial link.

That wraps up our look at paper. Next week, we’ll continue our tour through Green Bay with a look at this fair city’s number one sport…football! Until then, have a safe and fun holiday weekend 🙂


Ancient History Encyclopedia: Paper in Ancient China


Britannica: Cai Lun

Britannica: Fourdrinier Machine

Britannica: Money

Britannica: Nicolas Louis Robert

Britannica: Paper

Britannica: Papermaking

CBS News: Unfolding the History of Paper


City of De Pere

DIY Network

Georgia Tech: Robert C. Williams Museum of Papermaking

History of Balloons

How It’s Made: Silk (2015)

Kurlansky, Mark (2016), Paper: Paging Through History

Linkedin: John Hoberg

Museum Bites: Geeking Out on Gutenberg

Neville Public Museum

The Gardeners’ Monthly and Horticulturist, Volume 19 (1877)

YouTube: Vintage Fanatic


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