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European Themeroute | Paper

It all began in China. Comparatively early, the Chinese empire started to build up a large bureaucracy. This was probably why in the 2nd century BC the process of papermaking was invented - a process which basically remained in use up to the present day. Although raw materials have changed and production ... more

Icon: PaperEuropean Theme Route Paper

It all began in China. Comparatively early, the Chinese empire started to build up a large bureaucracy. This was probably why in the 2nd century BC the process of papermaking was invented - a process which basically remained in use up to the present day. Although raw materials have changed and production has been automatated, the three core steps are still the same. Basically, paper is made of a solution of fibres set up in a vat. The Chinese presumably used a mixture of tree bark, hemp and rags, which were beaten into a fibrous pulp and diluted with water. Then, in the first step, a craftsman dipped a screen the size of a sheet of paper into the vat and with it pulled out a portion of pulp. He handed the screen over to a colleague who in an elegant rolling motion dumped the dripping mat of fibres flat onto a mat. After a fair number of sheets had been assembled, a third craftsman gently pressed the remaining water out of the stack. The still damp sheets finally were dried, in older times usually by hanging them up on a clothes line.

The Chinese kept the art of papermaking secret for a long time, but around 750 AD an Arab army captured Chinese soldiers in Samarkand who finally revealed the technique. With minor changes, the Arabs quickly adapted it. They used hemp and flax as raw materials, since they had abundant access to them. Furthermore, they treated the surface of the paper with a glue made of starch, which made writing on it easier. The material spread rapidly through the expanding Arabian empires, providing a basis for scholarship and the arts of poetry and calligraphy, which flourished in the muslim world.

Since the Arabs manufactured paper in their european possessions, too, Europe learnt papermaking through them. It seems that european paper production started in Palermo and Valencia in the 12th century. After the muslim emirates north of the Mediterranean Sea fell into christian hands again, european scholars, magistrates and merchants quickly discovered the advantages of the new writing material over the parchment they had been used to. Papermaking was taken up quickly, based on a pulp made from rags of cotton and linen now, and with various technical advancements. In Fabbiano in Italy around 1250, a papermill started manufacturing pulp on a stamping unit equipped with metal-clad hammers and powered by a waterwheel. For surface sizing italian craftsmen used gelatine made of horns, hooves and animal skins, which efficiently prevented the ink from running. Moreover, since the technique of drawing long, even copper wire had been invented, the screens used to lift pulp out of the vat were manufactured of copper wire now. At the same time the watermark was introduced: when a length of wire, bent into a desired form, was sewn onto the surface of the screen, it left a mark on every sheet of paper.

Diffusion of the new material across the continent progressed slowly. During the 14th century paper found its way into the chancelleries, courts and cloisters of Europe. Apparently, the first european papermill was set up in the french town Troyes by 1338. Nürnberg in southern Germany followed by 1390, Marly in Switzerland by 1411 and Hertfordshire by 1494 – a region which was to boom with papermills during the industrialisation. As the ideas of Renaissance thinking spread, the use of paper increased, because in banks and on markets, in schools and courts of law writing became more important now.

The picture drastically changed when Johannes Gutenberg invented the movable type printing press in 1455. Now that books and pamphlets could be distributed in numbers unheard of before, a virtually insatiable demand for paper arose. In this process, Italy lost its leading position in papermaking to the North of France, but in the 17th century, when protestant papermakers were expelled from there, Holland took over. There, around 1680, originated an important technical innovation, termed "Hollander beater", which replaced the stamping mills: basically it is a trough with a rotating beater wheel, which is fitted with a number of blades to chop the cotton or linen rags into a fibrous pulp. The new device was so efficient that all the small papermills who could not afford quickly it went out of business.

The crucial invention though took place at the beginning of the industrialisation: the first machine which did not produce single sheets, but a continuous web of fibres, was developed by the Frenchman Nicolas Louis Robert in 1798. He constructed a long flexible screen of wire mesh which, powered by a hand crank, rotated continuously, not unlike a conveyor belt. While it rotated, pulp was shovelled onto it automatically by a paddle. The only drawback of the device was that every 12-15 metres the still damp fibrous web had to be cut off by hand to prevent it from sticking together. With slight alterations, the machine went into commercial use in England thanks to financial backing by Henry Fourdrinier, a stationer of London, and is therefore, rather unfairly, known as "Fourdrinier machine". However, it took a couple of years more to bring it to perfection. By 1829 engineers from the sophisticated British mechanical industries had automated the entire process: they added a number of rolls to the system which were heated by steam. When the web of fibres passed through them, it dried so effectively that it could be rolled up immediately. New paper mills, powered by steam engines, now sprang up all over Europe.

With more than sufficient production capacity available, another problem began to be felt: a lack of raw materials. After endlessly experimenting with straw, tree bark and thistles, in 1843 the German inventor Friedrich Gottlob Keller reached a breakthrough. He managed to grind down pieces of wood to extremely fine fibres, termed "groundwood", which could be used to make paper with only a small amount of rags added. Paper containing wood however after a short time begins to yellow and it breaks quite easily. This is due to lignin, a natural ingredient in wood, which can be extracted from the raw material by cooking it. The American chemist Benjamin Chew Tilghman was the first to acquire various patents for cooking wood fibres in a sulphite dissolution in the 1860s. The sulphite process yields almost pure cellulose fibres, a raw material of high quality which makes for very fine white paper, even if it is comparatively expensive to produce.

This invention initiated paper production on a large industrial scale. Factories were moved to areas where wood was abundant, especially the forest regions of Sweden and Finland. But the chemistry of the process created new problems. Although cellulose already provided a high degree of whiteness in the paper, the producers additionally began to bleach it, using chloride, a chemical of extremely hazardous properties. Only since the end of the 20th century has its use in papermaking slowly decreased. Another serious issue has hardly been noticed by the public. Since the middle of the 19th century companies tried to reduce costs by eliminating an external step in the production process: the final surface sizing with starch. Instead they already put the starch in the vat with the pulp, but because the fibres did not absorb it sufficiently, they had to add aluminum sulphate - and this over time transforms itself into sulfuric acid, a highly aggressive compound which slowly destroys the paper from the inside out. Therefore, almost all the books, newspapers and documents printed between 1840 and 1980 are not aging resistant. They need an expensive de-acidification and restoration if they are to be preserved for future generations.


ERIH Anchor Points

A wooden vat and two rollers inside a seamless wire: this is what the world's first paper machine looks like. Visitors to the Laakirchen Museum of Papermaking and Print can see its replica in action. The technical relic is part of an exciting trip exploring the history of paper production - from the ...

Austrian Museum of Papermaking at Old Factory
Museumsplatz 1
4662 Laakirchen, Austria

Berlin | Germany
Lifeworld Ship”, “From Ballooning to the Berlin Airlift”, “Trains, Locomotives and People”: any technological developments that Berlin witnessed during the past 120 years are showcased in the capital's Deutsches Technikmuseum (German Museum of Technology). Greeting travellers from a distance there ...

German Technical Museum
Trebbiner Strasse 9
10963 Berlin, Germany

The Norwegian Museum of Science and Technology is full of pioneering, life-sustaining, and also miraculous discoveries and inventions. In a swift, highly varied and interactive manner it displays the extent to which the development of science, technology, industry and medicine are continually ...

Norwegian Museum of Science and Technology
Norks Teknisk Museum
Kjelsåsveien 143
0491 Oslo, Norway


Alsemberg | Belgium
The museum at Alsemberg, in the Molembeek Valley, 12 km south of Brussels, consists of an ancient farmstead, which incorporates a corn mill, a paper mill with 16th century origins and a building of 1763, and the Winderickx cardboard factory, one of several built in the valley in the 19th century, ...

Papermill Museum Herisem
Fabriekstraat 20
1652 Alsemberg, Belgium

Malmedy | Belgium
Belgium’s national paper museum is at Malmedy, the German-speaking city of 11,000 inhabitants near the country’s eastern border. It is one of several organisations that, under the name Malmundarium, occupy an early eighteenth century mansion that was part of a Benedictine monastery founded in 648. ...

National Papermuseum
Musée National du Papier Malmundarium Maison Cavens
Place de Chatelet 10
4960 Malmedy, Belgium

Velké Losiny | Czech Republic
Velké Losiny is a village of less than 3,000 people in the valley of the River Desna, north of the city of Šumperk in the Jesenik Mountains of northern Moravia. It was owned for several centuries by the Žerotin family who lived in the chateau that still stands. The paper mill was established on the ...

Velké Paper Mill
Ručni Papirna Velké
U Papimy 9
788 15 Velké Losiny, Czech Republic

Silkeborg | Denmark
The city of Silkeborg grew up around a paper mill established in 1844 on the banks of the River Gudena by Michael Drewsen, who in 1867 helped to acquire the paddle steamer Hjejlen (Golden Plover), which still plies on the Silkeborg lakes. The mill had a 6o hp iron waterwheel, and in 1847 acquired a ...

Silkeborg Museum
Hovedgårdsvej 7
8600 Silkeborg, Denmark

The village of Brunshaab south of Viborg takes its name from Bertil Bruun, who from 1809 moved his textile business from Fredericia to the site of an old grain and fulling mill. His factory was completed in 1820 and for a time he employed men and women from nearby pauper colonies. A fire engulfed ...

Bruunshaab Old Cardboard Factory
Bruunshaab Gl. Papfabrik
Vinkelvej 95
8800 Viborg, Denmark

The Estonian Paper Museum has comprehensive displays showing how paper is made, and on the history of printing. There are old printing presses with wooden and lead type founts, together with examples of paper sculpture. The museum regularly holds workshops teaching visitors book-binding, ...

Estonian Print and Paper Museum
TYPA Eesti trüki- ja paberimuuseum MTÜ
Kastani 48f
50410 Tartu, Estonia

Vääräkosken Cardboard Factory is a preserved mill for making paper and white and brown cardboard from wood pulp. The use of wood instead of textile rags transformed the paper and card industries in the late nineteenth century. New mills were built in rural areas with good supplies of wood and water ...

Vääräkosken Cardboard Factory
Vääräkosken Kartonkitehdas
Vääräkoskenkuja 28
63700 Ähtäri, Finland

The Sunila pulpmill at Kotka of 1937-8 was designed by the great Finnish architect Alvar Aalto (1888-1976) and is one of the most notable 20th century industrial buildings in Europe. It remains in production and parties can visit the premises by arrangement. Adjacent to it is a large residential ...

Sunila Pulpmill and Residential Area
Alvar Aallon katu
Kotka, Finland

Mänttä | Finland
Serlachius Museum Gustaf is located in Mänttä-Vilppula, a beautiful lakeside town of about 10,000 people in West Finland, 90 km north-east of Tampere. Museum Gustaf’s exhibitions feature the history of Finnish paper industry and art. The museum believes in the power of narrative and tells touching ...

Serlachius Museum Gustaf
R. Erik Serlachiuksen katu 2
35800 Mänttä, Finland

Verla (Jaala) | Finland
The mechanical pulp mill at Verla was founded in the 1870s by Hugo Neuman, a Finnish-born civil engineer who had worked in Zurich. The first mill buildings were destroyed by fire in 1892, but were replaced by richly-ornamented brick structures, a mill, a cardboard factory and drying sheds, designed ...

Verla Mill Museum
Verlan tehdasmuseo
Verlantie 295
47850 Verla, Finland

Couze-et-Saint-Front | France
Couze-et-Saint-Front is a small village in the Dordogne where there were 13 watermills in the late nineteenth century, of which three are intact. The Merle et Sub Roc mills are former corn mills, used for papermaking from the nineteenth century, which were registered as ancient monuments in 1989, ...

Moulin á Papier de la Rouzique
Route Varenne
24150 Couze-et-Saint-Front, France

The Musée de Papeteries Canson et Mongolfier at Davézieux in the Ardèche region of south-central France is centred on a water-power site that was used for paper-making from 1557. Michel and Raymond Montgolfier arrived to work there in 1692, married the two daughters of the owner, and built a second ...

Museum of the Canson and Montgolfier Paper Mills
Musée de Papeteries Canson et Mongolfier
Rue de Vidalon
07430 Davézieux, France

Mesnay | France
Mesnay is a village of between 500 and 600 inhabitants situated on the River Cuisance due east of Arbois in the Jura. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries water-power derived from the river stimulated the growth of many industries, corn mills, oil mills, the manufacture of iron tools and above ...

Écomusée du Carton
La Cartonneries de Mesnay
1 Rue Vermot
39600 Mesnay, France

Payzac | France
The paper mill on the Belles Dames stream in the valley of the Auvézère in the Dordogne was established in 1861, taking over the water-power system of a disused seventeenth-century ironworks. It used rye straw to make paper that was mostly used in food packaging – one variety was known as papier de ...

Vaux Paper Mill
Papeteries de Vaux
24270 Payzac, France

Saint-Léonard-de-Noblat | France
Moulin du Got is a paper mill in the small village of Le Pénitent, about 15 kilometres east of Limoges. The mill stands next to the river Vienne. It was built originally in the fifteenth century. On the guided tour, visitors experience the full process of making paper and learn about the history of ...

Le Moulin du Got
Le Pénitent 87400 Saint-Léonard-de-Noblat
87400 Saint-Léonard-de-Noblat, France

Bergisch Gladbach | Germany
It all begins with pulp. In ancient China it consisted of pounded natural fibres or – as in Europe later – old rags. The fibres are first soaked in water for several days causing them to swell. They are then pounded once more, drawn off and filtered into thin sheets on a wire screen before being ...

Old Dombach Paper Mill LVR Industrial Museum
Kürtener Straße
51465 Bergisch Gladbach, Germany

Düren | Germany
You can find it everywhere. The trouble is, mostly you don´t really notice it. It´s used in schools, or at work to store and carry information, in shops to pack food, as posters for publicity, or at home in the form of cardboard plates, tea or coffee filters, for wiping things clean (not only baby´s ...

Wallstraße 2-8
52349 Düren, Germany