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Martin Paul Eve

Professor of Literature, Technology and Publishing at Birkbeck, University of London

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I’ve spent the past few weeks tracking down answers to the questions: “When and why did paper become white and why was white paper so valued?” for my work on Paper Thin. Here are some of my very abridged findings.

This sounds as though it’s a trivial question. Obviously, we think, it must have something to do with contrast and ensuring the best legibility. This is definitely not the case. As Jonathan Senchyne shows, a mid-nineteenth-century survey reported that “brown paper preserves the eye better than white”, with pure white paper referred to, unflatteringly, as “glaring”. He also cites a report that “white on a black ground is more distinct” (p. 142).

The earliest papers in ancient China were almost certainly not white, in their usable state. Many accounts attribute the creation of paper (or at least refinement of its manufacture) to the court eunuch Tshai/Ts’ai (Cai) Lun in the +2nd century (e.g. Monro, Hunter). In ancient China, though, early paper-making used various dyeing processes to protect the sheets from insect damage and for artistic purposes. These processes resulted in red and yellow paper. For instance, the dictionary shih Ming from around +200 defined the word huang as “dyeing paper”. A +3rd century commentator, Meng Khan, noted that paper at this time was dyed yellow, apparently using a liquid from the Phellodendron amurense (cork tree) (Tsien, p. 174). While this process appears designed to protect the paper from insect damage and to create a glossiness, it had a side effect of changing the color (Hunter, p.204). One of the earliest surviving papers from Tunhuang that exhibits this dyeing is a 26-feet long roll providing a commentary on the Vimalakīrti Nirdeśa Sūtra. Crucially, part of this roll of paper does not exhibit the dyeing and, as Lionel Giles notes, “at the very end the original whitish colour is visible” (Giles, p. 813).

In later European paper-making environments, coloured papers still played key signifying roles. As Müller charts it, citing Karabacek and Loveday: “[t]he blue paper on which death sentences were issued in Syria and Egypt signified grief; court petitions were often written on red paper; and pure white was considered to be a challenge to the eye in Arab culture, so white paper was covered with as much writing as possible” (p. 76).

Nonetheless, as time goes by, the sheer whiteness of paper becomes a valued commodity. But a fundamental point seems to be that book historians do not really know why. As above, it isn’t because it was viewed as the definitively superior inscriptive surface. It seems, instead, to have something to do with the fundamental reorientation in the Western colour system that took shape around the 15th century, when black and white became seem as distinct from all other colours. As Michel Pastoureau puts it: “Though we do not know the reasons or the means, paper rapidly progressed from beige to off-white and then from off-white to true white. In the medieval handwritten book the ink was never completely black nor the parchment white. With the printed book, henceforth the reader’s eyes beheld very black ink fixed on very white paper. That was a revolutionary change that would lead to profound transformations in the domain of color sensibility” (p. 118, emphasis mine).

So, a crucial point here is that nobody actually quite knows why ultra-white paper becomes the desired norm. There were arguments about it either way. The earliest papers were not white by default. And when the change to white did happen, historians “do not know the reasons” for such a rapid shift. Hence, I am led to believe that the answer lies in the intersection of a range of socially conditioned and material factors. The difficulty of making white paper is certainly one area that I will continue to explore, alongside questions of material substrates and so forth in inks. The cultural codes around whiteness (and race) that Senchyne is so good at drawing out also seem important, particularly in the American rag-paper environments. Pastoureau’s arguments about a shift in the relationship of white and black to other colours also seems critical. There are various religious arguments about the symbolism of purity and whiteness – and the fact that the printing press was set to printing Bibles when first developed in the European contexts. But the answers to those seemingly simple questions are actually deceptively complex.