Man beside giant roll of paper

How very different our lives would be without paper. There would be limited recording of histories, sentiments or creative processes if we still recorded ideas on parchment also known as ‘animal skin’. The sharing of ideas would be more difficult. Would there be computers or other modern conveniences we enjoy today if not for the ability to draft and revise plans on paper for building and inventing?

(PLEASE ENJOY THIS WELLSPRING PODCAST OF PULP AND PAPER)

Over the past few years, I’ve come to enjoy buying paper in upbeat colours, memo pads with patterned borders, and ornate sticky notes. In my pantry, you’ll usually find a few packages of paper dinner napkins. I’m surrounded by books, books, and more books. In the office, there are receipts, file folders, documents and a recycle box of newspapers and envelopes. Downstairs, I have a shelf where gift bags, boxes, and wrapping paper are stored. Let’s not forget the watercolour paper, sketch pads, printer paper and notebook paper too. Where does it all come from?

 Rag pickers would sift through garbage heaps for discarded articles made of fabric. They would sell their findings by the pound to middlemen who would then sell the rags to companies that then used the materials to create new products like paper.Rag picker in Paris France, 1899-1901. (Photo credit: Eugène Atget (French, 1857 - 1927))
Rag pickers would sift through garbage heaps for discarded articles made of fabric. They would sell their findings by the pound to middlemen who would then sell the rags to companies that then used the materials to create new products like paper. Rag picker: Paris France, 1899-1901. (Photo credit: Eugène Atget (French, 1857 – 1927))

The manufacture of paper requires fibres. Early in the history of paper making, the remains of coarse spun silk or bamboo, hemp, papyrus, rice paper plants provided fibre for making paper. These materials have cellulose fibres that are porous and become flexible when saturated with water. When these fibres are suspended in water, they become tangled. Then, when water is drained away and the fibres are pressed, they mat together to form paper.

The Arab practise of using recycled rags as a fibre element in paper making was adopted across Europe. In Canada, however, cotton and linen rags were scarce so paper makers turned to conifer tree pulp for the  cellulose fibres.  Conifer trees like spruce, poplar and pine trees were abundant in many areas of the country.

"LUMBERING. With more than 1,000,000 square miles of timber land, Canada ranks third in the world as a producer of wood, and lumbering is a major industry. From massive log to flimsy sheet of paper is a long journey, requiring many different processes. Logs come up jack ladder from the river to be sawn into proper lengths before going into barking drums." National Film Board of Canada (Photo credit: Harry Foster, 1943)
“LUMBERING. With more than 1,000,000 square miles of timber land, Canada ranks third in the world as a producer of wood, and lumbering is a major industry. From massive log to flimsy sheet of paper is a long journey, requiring many different processes. Logs come up jack ladder from the river to be sawn into proper lengths before going into barking drums.” National Film Board of Canada (Photo credit: Harry Foster, 1943)

In the early 1800’s, the focus of the lumber industry, in the Ottawa Valley, was square-cut timber. Trees were felled and their sides hewed away until they were sculpted into a perfectly square shape. These hewn timbers could be efficiently stacked in the hull of ships for export to Europe or lashed together tightly for floating down river to a sawmill. Any logs that were below grade (i.e. cracked, too short, small in diameter) were abandoned on the forest floor. Although valuable to pulp and paper, in the – timber trade, black spruce was a mere nuisance of no value.

As the sawmill activities slowed, lumbermen recognized the potential to recoup the expense of costly timber limits (licenses to cut timber in defined areas) through the new rising industry of pulp and paper. Not only had they found a market for the logs they would otherwise have cast aside as undesirable, but they could also harvest and sell the spruce, balsam, poplar and jack pine they’d previously left behind in the bush. Not only were these trees were smaller and easier to handle, there was no need to worry about damage to the lumber during transport. Even some new settlers were able to capitalize thusly on the timber cleared from their fields.

Ottawa schoolhouse, September 1898 (Photo Credit: James Ballantyne/Library and Archives Canada/PA-134258)
Ottawa schoolhouse, September 1898 (Photo Credit: James Ballantyne/Library and Archives Canada/PA-134258)

In several provinces, changes to the laws about the export of unprocessed pulpwood encouraged the growth of Canadian pulp and paper mills.  As an added bonus, in 1913, the Americans dropped their heavy tariffs on the import of Canadian newsprint and pulp.

The demand for paper, especially newsprint, increased steadily in the 1800’s along with the rise of literacy.  At that time, education was free and compulsory.  Retail sectors were growing rapidly and their demand for advertising fueled a mass distribution of print media and journalism. Canadians were hungry for news at home and abroad.

Pulp logs at mill in Amos, Quebec, 1922 (Credit: Canadian National Railways/Library and Archives Canada/PA-)
Pulp logs at mill in Amos, Quebec, 1922 (Credit: Canadian National Railways/Library and Archives Canada/PA-)

What I learned through this research will lend to the content of a novel I’m currently working on. In this interest, I continue to watch with great interest, the number of pulp and paper mills closing in Canada due largely to the shrinking demand for newsprint. I’m also gathering research for a historical novel to be written in the future. It will be loosely based on what I know about my Irish ancestors who arrived in Bytown, Ontario in 1830.

The photo at the beginning of the post was sourced through the Library and Archives of Canada. I will close this piece by quoting a caption that accompanied the photograph:

“This gigantic roll of paper dwarfs the worker standing beside it. The roll weighs app. 20 tons and spans 10 metres. Although most trees are not harvested for the production of paper, it is estimated that a small black spruce can produce 12,500 sheets of paper or 62,500 $20 dollar bills.” 

Do you have a story to share? Have you ever worked at a paper mill?

Please leave a comment. I’d love to hear from you.