The Alkaline Paper Advocate

Volume 05, Number 5
Nov 1992

The Great Cotton-Rag Myth

by Ellen McCrady

Most people believe that the incredibly sound, white paper in early books was made from cotton rags, or cotton and linen rags. Dard Hunter himself never questioned this myth, but perpetuated it in his books, saying that early European paper was made of cotton and linen rags (Hunter, 1974).

Cotton was the main fiber used for printing and writing paper in the US. for about 80 years, until 1870, but its day in the sun was comparatively brief, compared to hemp, linen rags and even wood. And it was not used in early European papers before the Industrial Revolution.

The reason I call this belief in cotton as an archetypal fiber a myth is that 1) it is put forth as a factual statement, 2) it is transmitted from one person to the next by word of mouth or in popular literature, 3) it is not based upon serious professional research, and 4) it explains the origin of something important and common in our culture, as myths have always done.

It is also very old, and it survives all attempts to disprove it. One such attempt was made by C.M. Briquet, a leading authority on handmade paper and a great collector and student of watermarks. His work is described by Allan H. Stevenson, who says (1955), "Briquet's most revolutionary exploit was his rejection and disproof of the old, old theory that early paper had been made of cotton. [At that time, about 1880] the standard opinion was, and long had been, that the earliest European paper and also Arabian paper had been made from cotton fibers....

"Briquet was troubled, however, by the difficulty of ascertaining the time and place of the change-over from cotton to linen rags as the material for paper. And from very early he was puzzled by the difficulty that scholars had had in distinguishing between the two sorts of paper, and by their frequent disagreement as to which was which.... Then came the light. Despite such honored phrases as charta bombycina, charta cuttunea, papier de coton, there was (probably) no such thing as cotton paper! ... On 29 October 1884, Briquet announced his new hypothesis. Under a powerful microscope he and Professor J. Brun had painstakingly examined samples of papers from 14 of the earliest manuscripts on paper in Europe. None of them contained the ribbon-like fibers of cotton, all of them contained only the cylindrical fibers of hemp and/or linen....

"In 1886... he was able to report on microscopic analyses of no fewer than 122 manuscripts owned by archives and libraries of Switzerland, France, Italy, Germany, England, and ranging in date from 960 to the 18th century for Arabian paper and through the 13th and 14th centuries for European paper. Every single manuscript proved to be made up of hemp or linen fibers, or a mixture of these...... Stevenson guessed that these papers had been described as cotton papers from their white appearance, since they were sized with starch rather than gelatin.

In 1886, Julius Wiesner, a contemporary of Briquet's who specialized in identifying paper fibers, said of certain ancient documents from el-Faijûm, Egypt, housed in the Austrian Museum, that "according to opinions prevailing today, one would tend to think of papers of this antiquity [perhaps as early as the 8th or 9th century] as having been produced from cotton." He did not agree with the prevailing opinion. His analysis showed that none of these Egyptian documents contained cotton. They were made mainly from linen rags, and were sized with paste (Wiesner, 1887).

Paper (or proto-paper) came on the historical scene a few centuries before Christ, and so did the cotton plant, in several regions around the world (Donnell, 1872). But cotton is found in early papers only as a contaminant. Stevenson (p. xxii) looked for an explanation for what seemed to be the avoidance of an obvious fiber source, and speculated that cotton was too hard to macerate until the hollander came into use sometime before 1682. He does not say, however, whether any paper was made of cotton between 1682 and the late 18th century. When he was writing, the focus of attention was still on Arab paper and the first two centuries of European paper production.

The transition from linen to cotton was probably different in every country, but it may have taken place first in England simply because that is where the Industrial Revolution began. It had an overwhelming effect on the textile industry, which was the source of fiber for the paper industry.

The machines that powered the growth of the textile industry were invented between 1733 and 1793, but did not come into wide use until several years after their invention. (The best-known obstacle to their acceptance was opposition from the workers--Luddites--who feared for their jobs, but there were other obstacles too. Some inventions, like Watt's steam engine, were not used widely until 10 or 20 years after they were patented because of the need for extensive development.) The machines included:

1733 - Flying shuttle
1764 - Spinning jenny
1769 - Steam engine
1784 - Spinning mule
1785 - Power loom
1793 - Cotton gin

England's textile industry had traditionally relied on wool, linen, cotton and silk for its fiber, but after 1780 its use of cotton (half of which came from America) increased exponentially, and must soon have outdistanced all other fibers. England imported twice as much cotton in 1785 as it did in 1780, three times as much in 1789 as in 1785, and so on. The imported fiber first went into textiles, which after five or ten years were turned over to the ragpicker, who took them to the paper mill. So we would not be far off if we said that cotton began to be the dominant fiber in English papermaking sometime after 1790. It held first place for about 80 years, until 1870, in book papers at any rate, when the use of wood fiber became common (Barrow Laboratory, 1974).

Cotton linters were first used in commercial papermaking in the early 1940s. Cotton rags are still used, though they are "post-industrial" rags now rather than the traditional "post-consumer" rags.


W.J. Barrow Research Laboratory. Physical and Chemical Properties of Book Papers, 1507-1949. (Permanence/Durability of the Book, VII) Richmond, 1974. Table 3.

Donnell, E.J., Chronological and Statistical History of Cotton. 1872. Donnell says that the first mention of cotton by a European writer was in 450 BC, by Herodotus.

Hunter, Dard. Papermaking. New York, Dover, 1974. pp. 62, 309,311.

Stevenson, Allan H. "Briquet and the Future of Paper Studies." In Monumenta Chartae Papyraceae Historiam Illustrantia. Vol. IV: Briquet's Opuscula. Hilversum, Holland, Paper Publications Society, 1955.

Wiesner, Julius, "Mikroskopische Untersuchung der Papiere von El-Faijûm " (Microscopic Examination of the Faijûm Papers). Originally published in Mittheilungen aus der Sammlung der Papyrus Erzherzog Rainer, Wien, 1887. Translated into English by Gudrun Aurand. Edited, with an introduction by Jack C. Thompson. Caber Press, 7549 N. Fenwick, Portland, OR 97217, January 1986. 13 pp.

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