On Paper and Pen


Today, both paper and pens are a ubiquitous and affordable resource. Pens may carry a cultural value when given as special gifts, yet others are discarded at the first sign of malfunction. Historians have tended to subsume the history of paper within printing and the mass production of books; whereas, paper and pen have acted as both cause and effect of increased literacy throughout history.

Rather than view changes in technology as progress, we hope to frame the reciprocal influences of this technology as “an agent of change without insisting that it works in isolation or in opposition to other aspects of culture” (Bolter, 2011, p.20).


While the focus of this essay is on pen and paper, innumerous materials have been used to record information upon.  Stone, metal, wood, wax, ostraca, clay tablets, papyrus, parchment, vellum, both rag and pulp papers have all been selected at various times as most appropriate. Writing tools have also taken many forms: brushes, reed pens, quills, fountain pens, ball point, etc.

Paper is essentially macerated fibers collected or pressed on flat surfaces. The first form of paper was developed in China roughly around the second century B.C.E. and was initially used for packaging, wrapping, clothes, toiletries, and functions other than writing. Paper, traded as a commodity, made its way through the Islamic world to the west in the eighth century.  It was only later produced in Europe by the twelfth century (Ong, 1982).

Prior to the becoming the dominant writing material in the West, people of the early Middle Ages considered parchment to be superior. It was more durable, attractive and could be produced locally; unlike papyrus, which was difficult to obtain from Egypt. In the later Middle Ages, when rag paper was introduced from the Far East, paper became the dominant medium because it could be produced locally and in greater amounts (Bolter, 2011).

Papermaking centers multiplied in the thirteenth century. As supply increased, prices dropped. The fifteenth century saw the substitution of wood pulp for rags and further mechanization. Mills started to produce paper in continuous rolls. Mass production continued to evolve to meet rising demands throughout the industrial revolution and into the modern era (Hunter, 2011).

Reciprocal Influences

A tool can have a reciprocal influence upon the culture, both changing the culture and being shaped by the culture that adopts it. In the earliest forms of cuneiform writing, it has been found that over time “symbols lost detail and became increasingly abstracted” (Florey, 2009, p24). This is attributed to the blunt shape of the cuneiform stylus and the nature of using a clay writing surface. The tools did not allow for ease in use while writing, so the culture adapted its symbols. Another significant example of a tools influence over practices would be how limitations of the reed pen influenced the Greeks to adopt the now common Western method of writing from left to right (Bhavnani & John, 1998).

Tools and materials also experience changes as they change hands through trade. Early paper developed in Asia was soft, resembled toilet paper, and intended to be used on only one side. Europeans found this undesirable. Glues were added that made it harder and impervious. In part, these changes are believed to have assisted in the development of the printing press. As an aside, it is historically important to note that China, Japan, and Korea were printing whole books many centuries prior to Gutenberg (Man, 2002).

A new technology may turn out to become revolutionary, but it must exist and work within the existing world. Consider the reciprocal influences between paper and Gutenberg’s printing press.  The paper and scribal inks used in quills were unsuitable for a press. Complex inks had to be specifically developed for a new purpose. Printers had to dampen alternate sheets as existing paper was too coarse and brittle to survive the process. For the paper copies of Gutenberg’s printing of the Bible, locally produced German paper was not of a high enough quality. “Paper for the bible was hauled overland from Italy, as the watermarks reveal” (Man, 2002, p.165).

Technological Determinism

It is tempting to adopt a technologically deterministic perspective; where a new technology marks the end of one period and the beginning of the next.  Technology is not an autonomous factor of progress. It exists within a social, political, and cultural system.

There are also several examples of a technology’s overlapping use. The quill had been used as a writing instrument since 250BC, “but it wasn’t until sometime in the late seventh or eighth century that they became the major writing instrument in the world” (Florey, 2009, p31).  In 750BC, in Hebrew culture, “Parchment appears to have become the normal writing material from this time on for permanent records while administrative matters were still recorded on papyrus.” (Jonston, 2012, Parchment, para. 3).  Wax tablets, which were easily reused, were in use from Antiquity all the way through the Middle Ages.  There are many examples of secondary technologies that have fulfilled specific writing needs not met by the more dominant technologies (Bolter, 2011).  It appears that new mediums must be capable of co-existing with existing ones for an indefinite amount of time.


In 1221 the Holy Roman Empire declared all official documents written on paper to be invalid. This decree was motivated religiously as early paper was considered part of Moslem culture. However, the economic interests of a local industry producing sheep and cattle for parchment and vellum may have been greater factors (Smith, 1881).

Following the fourteenth century, rag paper being far easier to produce, soon became far more plentiful than vellum and parchment. It was an improvement in quantity, not quality, that saw paper become the dominant technology. (Hotchkiss & Robinson, 2008).

The increased production of paper modified social structures and created career opportunities. The ragman, collecting and sorting linens, was an important job (Bloom, 2001). In the fifteenth century, as the demand for professional scribes diminished, some chose to teach penmanship to the emerging educated classes, creating “a new profession that provided the best of them with an excellent living” (Florey, 2009, p.39). In the eighteen hundreds, the clerk was relegated out of a high class career. In the twentieth century, many women entered the workforce working closely with paper in what was considered lower class clerical positions.

Education & Literacy

Throughout history, literacy was one tool used to maintain hegemony. Ancient literacy rates were quite low; however, it is believed that fifteen percent of early Romans were literate, most of them being from the patrician class (Florey, 2009). Throughout much of history a scribe was a craft or a trade practiced by a privileged few. When one can hire a scribe, there was no need to learn to read and write any more than they needed to know how to build a building. (Ong, 1982)

Historically, literacy was restricted to the clergy (Ong, 1982, p.92); however, one early example of an education for the poor and disenfranchised include a decree from the Lateran Council in 1179 that a school be established in every cathedral to provide an education for priests, clerics, and the poor (Gutek, 1995).

Enlightened societies began to value educating the disenfranchised; however this requires materials to be not only available but also affordable. The increased availability of paper also facilitated the rise and spread of secular ideas. The ever increasing rate of paper production was both cause and effect for increased literacy.

“As paper made from rags became more popular, so books became cheaper. Merchants offices and city halls had their scribes, and the scribes acquired assistants and all needed an education, and the teachers needed books, and so literacy spiraled, feeding itself” (Man, 2002, p.87).


Bolter (2001) uses the term ‘remediation’ to describe how a new medium takes the place of another while still paying homage to the present. The new technology emulates the existing, yet offers an improvement or efficiency as rivalry. This explains why today technology products use the term ‘paper-thin’ in advertising; or how a stylus pen is included with a touch capable device. Another example of homage is how research is going towards computer screens that emulate the properties of paper. These prototypes are capable of playing video, while still being flexible enough to bend, and roll, just like paper.

While we may marvel at the present digital world, education is still entrenched in the use of paper. Devices are making their way into the classroom but textbooks, worksheets, and three ring binders have yet to be significantly displaced. Just as the adoption of paper was due to its affordability, perhaps the cost of these alternatives is also the reason paper and pen remain the dominant technology.


Bhavnani, S. K. & John, B. E. (1998). Delegation and Circumvention: Two Faces of Efficiency. CHI 98, 273-280.

Bloom, J. (2001). Paper Before Print: The History and Impact of paper in the Islamic World. New Haven:  Yale University Press.

Bolter, Jay David. (2001). Writing space: Computers, hypertext, and the remediation of print [2nd edition]. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum. ISBN: 0-8058-2919-9.

Clifford, G. J. (1984). Buch and Lesen: Historical Perspectives on Literacy and Schooling. Review of Educational Research, 54 (4), 472-500.

Florey, K. (2009). Script & Scribble: The Rise and Fall of Handwriting. Brooklyn, NY: Melville House Publishing.

Gutek, G. (1995). A History of the Western Educational Experience. Proespect Heights, Illinois: Waveland Press

Hotchkiss, V. & Robinson, F. (2008). English in Print.  Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press.

Hunter, D .(2011). Papermaking: The History and Technique of an Ancient Craft. Dover Publications

Jonston, G. (2012). The Means of Ancient Communication.  Retrieved from http://www.archaeologyexpert.co.uk/themeansofancientcommunicationpart2.html

Man, J. (2002). Gutenberg: How One Man Remade the World with Words. New York: John Wiley & Sons.

Ong, Walter. (1982.) Orality and literacy: The technologizing of the word. London: Methuen.

Smith, J. E. (1881). A History Of Paper. Dalton: Paper World Press.

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3 Responses to On Paper and Pen

  1. mckay says:

    While it may be inappropriate to be the first to comment on your own work, I just wanted to say that as this project went on, more and more of the content relating to the Pen fell on the cutting room floor to stay within the word limits.

    (as an aside, if you would also like to create links on the same page to your references or what have you, here is a simple tutorial on anchor tags.

  2. cmck says:

    Thank you for that tutorial. I never thought of using anchors in WordPress, but it makes sense because it’s using HTML.

    Your essay was a very nice read. Two parts in particular stood out: 1) Using the history of writing implements and the idea of coexisting media to build your argument about technological determinism, and 2) Discussing the reversal of the clerk’s status as writing became more common. Both of these parts were interesting and served a good purpose.


  3. mckay says:

    Thanks Chris, I wanted to include more on the relegation of the scribe to the modern clerical staff but it was difficult to find material and it was already difficult to stay within the word count.


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