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Papyrus

( Originally Published 1851 )



The first manufactured paper of which we have any record, is the celebrated papyrus, made of a species of reed growing in Egypt on the banks of the Nile. According to a passage in Lucan, which is likewise corroborated by other authorities, this paper was first manufactured at Memphis, but it has been a matter of much controversy to fix the precise period of its invention.

The papyrus formed, without doubt, at a very early period, an important branch of commerce to the Egyptians, and was one of the manufactures carried on by that people at Alexandria. It obtained an increasing importance among the Romans as literature became more valued and diffused; in the Augustan age it grew into most extensive demand. We are told in the reign of Tiberius, of a popular commotion which arose in consequence of a scarcity of this valuable material. The commerce in papyrus continued to flourish during a long period, the supply being always less than the demand. Its value was so great towards the end of the third century, that when Firmus, a rich and ambitious merchant, striving at empire, conquered for a brief period the city of Alexandria, he boasted that he had seized as much paper and size as would support his whole army.

Papyrus was much used in the time of St. Jerome, who wrote at the latter end of the fourth century. An article of so much importance in commerce was made largely to contribute to the revenue of the Roman empire, and fresh imposts were laid on it under successive rulers, until the duty on its importation at length became oppressive. This was abolished by Theodoric, the first king of the Goths in Italy, at the end of the fifth or begin-ling of the sixth century. Cassidorus records the gracious act in the thirty-eighth letter of his eleventh book, in which he takes occasion to congratulate " the whole world on the repeal of an impost upon an article so essentially necessary to the human race," the general use of which, as Pliny has remarked, " polishes and immortalizes man."

The roots of the papyrus are tortuous, the stern triangular, rising to the height of twenty feet, tapering gradually towards the extremity, which is surmounted by a flowing plume.

Paper was prepared from the inner hark of the stem by dividing it with a kind of needle into thin plates or pellicles, each of them as large as the plant would admit. Of these strata the sheets 6f paper were composed. The pellicles in the centre were considered as the best; and each plate diminished in value according as it receded from that part. After being thus separated from the reed, the pieces, trimmed and cut smooth at the sides that they might the better meet together, were ex-tended close to and touching each other on a table; upon these other pieces were placed at right angles. In this state the whole was moistened with the water of the Nile, and while wet was subjected to pressure, being afterwards exposed to the rays of the sun. It was generally supposed that the muddy waters of the Nile possessed a glutinous property, which caused the adhesion to each other of these strips of papyrus. Bruce, the traveller, however, affirms that there was no foundation for this supposition, and that the turbid fluid has in reality no adhesive quality. On the contrary, he found that the water of this river was of all others the most improper for the purpose, until, by the subsidence of the fecula, it was entirely divested of the earthy particles it had gathered in its course. This traveller made several pieces of papyrus paper both in Abyssinia and in Egypt, and fully ascertained that the saccharine juice, with which the plant is replete, causes the adhesion of the parts together, the water being only of use to promote the solution of this juice, and its equal diffusion over the whole.

Sufficient evidence of the abundant use of the papyrus is to be found iii the fact that nearly eighteen hundred manuscripts written on paper of this description have been discovered in the ruins of Herculaneum.

Paper made of cotton entirely superseded the papyrus in the course of time, as being much more durable and better calculated for all the purposes to which paper is ordinarily applied. This new substance was called charta bombycina. It cannot be exactly ascertained when this manufacture was first introduced. Montfaucon fixes the time as being the end of the ninth or beginning of the tenth century, a period when the scarcity of parchment and the failure in the supply of papyrus called forth the powers of invention to supply some adequate substitute. It was about this time that the dearth of writing materials induced the Greeks to pursue the almost sacrilegious practice of erasing the valuable writings of ancient authors, that they might obtain the parchment on which these were inscribed.

Many proofs are afforded that in the beginning of the twelfth century cotton-paper was commonly used in the eastern empire for books and writings; but it was not deemed sufficiently durable for important documents, for which purpose parchment was still employed.

The fabrication of this kind of paper has been a flourishing branch of industry in the Levant for many centuries, and is carried on with great success even to the present time. The paper produced from cotton is very white, strong, and of a fine grain, but not su well adapted for writing upon as the paper made of linen. Much ingenuity must have been exercised, and many previous experiments must have been required, successfully to reduce the cotton to a pulpy substance, and to conduct the subsequent process, so as to render this material suitable to the purposes of writing.

After this first great step, the adaptation to a similar use of linen rags and other fibrous materials, called compartively but for little invention, and it was probably not very long after the general use of cotton for paper, that linen rags were discovered to be a still better material.

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