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15th Nov 2016

Paper Revolution

Printers in Hampshire

At this time of upheaval and divisive political outcomes both here in the UK and across the pond, the way that ideas are communicated is a subject lurking heavily on the horizon. Paper has been fundamental to a great many moments in social history - the invention of the printing press and the social revolutions that followed laid roots that are still evident today. The ability of paper to enable ideas to be communicated is admittedly dwarfed by the vast reach of the internet but should not be ignored or forgotten.

From its very inception, paper was designed to be a medium for ideas and knowledge. The earliest evidence of paper was found in China and dates around 180 BC. It depicts a map and “quotations or commentaries” were described as a subject worthy of record on paper. Paper making reached Europe by the eleventh century, with France boasting a paper mill by 1190, but Britain did not join these ranks until John Spilman set up a mill in Kent in 1588.  Block printing was common on cloth by 1300 and a hundred years later when paper became relatively easily available the method transferred easily to small woodcut religious images printed on paper.

Once paper became part and parcel of human society, it was only a matter of time (in Britain’s case, not until the Civil war period in the mid seventeenth century) before the material was purposely utilised in the support or detriment of the establishment. The Gutenberg printing press was developed between 1436 and 1450 and allowed printing in a way that was efficient and economical and by 1482 there were about 100 printing presses in Western Europe, four of which were in England.

The key impact of the printing press was not simply how it enabled the spread of views and knowledge, but also in what types of information and opinions it was spreading. The works, ideas and philosophies of Martin Luther, Galileo and secular groups such as The Levellers were spread far and wide by the printing press. The spread of knowledge and alternative ideas were instrumental in the build up and duration of the English Civil War and changed the dynamic between the ruling and subservient classes for good.

It is clear that the ability of ink and paper to communicate ideas became ever more dangerous to the establishment. The lasting impact of mass produced ink on paper is that, despite the book and pamphlet burnings that have occurred throughout history, the ideas enclosed cannot be completely destroyed. The structure of society was forever changed by paper and the printing press.

From this point, the route was clear for advertising to develop. The first newspaper to sell advertising space on its pages was La Presse in 1836. The subsequent rise of advertising reflected that paper and ink as a mass communication tool had spread its focus from politics to commercialism. Print advertising became the primary means for companies to communicate with consumers through newspapers, magazines, flyers, posters and billboards. It forms the surroundings that we are familiar with today.

In our eco-aware world many firms, including ourselves, try to be conscientious of their paper printing and advertising. The story of the rise of digital media over paper and ink to communicate not just advertising but also concepts and ideas, is oft told. It has taken hundreds of years of paper history to build a society that is receptive to new ideas and keen to communicate them. When designing or planning your print, it is worth recalling this historical journey that the medium has behind it, and considering what we can learn from looking at the past.