A Paper World: The Collection and Investigation of Plant Materials for Paper Making, c.1830-1914

Lead Research Organisation: Royal Holloway, University of London
Department Name: Geography


Innovations in the technology of print and the vast expansion of publishing during the nineteenth century stimulated the global search for new sources of paper. British industrial and scientific interest in paper making was enhanced by official concerns over paper shortage, notably in the 1840s, and a wide variety of natural sources for paper-making (including mulberry, barkcloth, bamboo, eucalyptus, flax, hemp, jute and a variety of grasses) were sought out and experimented with prior to the large-scale mechanisation of papermaking using wood pulp from the 1880s. While the economics of papermaking attracted the attention of industrialists and botanists, there was also a longstanding ethnographic interest in techniques of indigenous papermaking, stimulated by the accounts of travellers and explorers in various parts of the world from the second half of the eighteenth century, especially Asia and the Pacific. This combination of economic and ethnographic interest in paper inspired the assembling of collections of different types of paper, analogous to the better-known collections of indigenous textiles associated with the Cook's Pacific voyages and the textile sample albums circulated by the India Office from the 1860s.
The role of paper in the print culture of colonialism has recently become a subject of considerable interest, especially in the context of scholarly attempts to complicate assumptions about the nature of oral and print cultures. Clearly the history of empire-making underpinned the search for new resources, including paper just as much as food staples and minerals. Yet the history of the collection and investigation of alternative sources of paper has yet to be outlined in any depth. This project, drawing on the unrivalled collection of plant materials and manufactured papers in the Economic Botany Collection at Kew, will place paper collecting in its economic and cultural contexts. What is clear from scoping research conducted to date by the co-supervisors is that the range of paper sources investigated by industrialists, botanists and ethnographers was much wider than hitherto acknowledged: and the effort and experimentation involved substantial research programmes in which Kew played an important role. The project will focus mainly on the period between the end of the Napoleonic Wars (and the concomitant stimulus to global trade and exploration) and the advent of modern pulp-based methods of paper manufacture. It will encompass paper collections at Kew and elsewhere, including samples from colonial and non-colonial territories in the Pacific, India, Burma and Japan. It will also require archival investigation into the wealth of archival and print sources in the archives at Kew Gardens, where paper was referred to in this period simultaneously as both an 'economic product' and a 'cultural product'. The project will also require to collections held elsewhere, including India Office collections of paper samples at the British Library and the business records of manufacturers such as Thomas Routledge of Sunderland.
Intellectually, this project crosses disciplines, reconnecting the economic and the cultural through studies of a product made from natural fibres. The PhD thesis is likely to take the form of a series of well-chosen case studies, drawing on the rich heritage of collections at Kew and raising wider questions concerning the formation of knowledge about raw materials, technologies and commodities.


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Description Economic Botany Department, Royal Botanic Gardens Kew 
Organisation Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Charity/Non Profit 
PI Contribution As the home of my research collection, my research contributes to the understanding, display and use of relevant objects from the collection. From my thesis projects will be planned for follow up research and a significant amount of information on the objects studied will find back into resources such as the collections catalogue.
Collaborator Contribution Kew has contributed access to it's collections and research facilities including: dedicated research space in the economic botany building; inductions and training including access to IT facilities; staff level access to relevant collections including the economic botany collection, library, archives and herbarium. Kew has also supported my project through the support of specialist staff including archivists and the collections Curator Professor Mark Nesbitt.
Impact Participation in Open House Day; two tours for Design Historians
Start Year 2018
Description Kew Open House 2019 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact The event was focused on a select group of research objects being presented to the general public, and myself and a trained volunteer presenting my research to visitors. The event prompted discussion, debate, and engagement in the topic with over 1000 visitors. From these engagements many visitors stated they were keen to visit the Economic Botany Collection from where the objects derived.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
Description Presentation and Tour of the Economic Botany Collection for Design Historians 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact The event included a presentation on my own research and a tour of the economic botany collection with over 30 postgraduate students in the field of the history of design. The presentation aimed to engage the students in the world of economic botany and historical geography, whilst prompting questions about using material culture as a historical source. The impact included debates, questions, bookings to view items in the collection and omissions that the event had change student views on the topic.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018,2019