“Dead tree edition” is an often used internetism to refer to hard copy editions of publications that are increasingly available online. It’s obviously meant to be a dig at how old and uncool printed material is… but “dead tree editions” largely refer only to 20th century books. Antiquarian books largely aren’t printed on “dead trees”. And the books of the future may still be printed on paper… but there won’t be any trees involved.
Paper may look all the same once its bound in a “dead tree edition” but it often involves no trees at all. Sometimes you’ll find information on the title page telling you what type of paper was used in the printing. This is pretty rare, but you’ll trip across it every now and then from specialty presses.
COMMON PAPERS OF TODAY
Wood Pulp Paper
This is your basic paper used in most books from about 1880 onward. When most people think of a book or paper, this is what they think of. Wood pulp paper may not be straight wood pulp however. All kinds of additives are added to wood pulp to change its texture and brightness. Minerals and “rag” are the most common additives. Rag is usually either linen or cotton fiber. US “paper” money is actually mostly rag paper, giving it its extraordinary strength.
Clay, calcium carbonate, titanium dioxide, and ground limestone are added to some papers to make them whiter and give them a smoother finish. Many hardcovers use papers that have mineral coatings to whiten the pages… which is why they weigh a TON compared to a similarly sized paperback. They really are doorstops!
The downside with wood pulp papers is that the chemicals needed to remove the lignin in wood pulp ultimately set it up to crumble decades later. “Acid free” papers remove most of the chemicals used for this and extend the life of paper… but most paperbacks are produced on raw pulp. This is why they turn into brittle dust after many years.
Hemp paper is naturally acid-free which makes it an excellent choice for archival printing. Hemp was the most common base for paper for around 2000 years, which means most books that are pre-1880 will be printed on this or a mix of hemp and rag.
Hemp doesn’t require the same bleaching that wood pulp does due to a different chemical makeup. Hemp is high in silica (most often found in sand and glass) which is where much of its strength comes from. In some ways its like natures fiberglass. It’s also has some inherent anti-microbial and anti-fungul properties that make it partially resistant to mildew and foxing.
Hemp fell out of favor due to the rise of the timber industry and then the death knell came when marijuana was outlawed in the US. Hemp and marijuana are in the same plant family, though hemp lacks the psychoactive chemical present in marijuana. (the exact history of how wood pulp displaced hemp as the preferred paper material is waaaaaaaaaaaay too long for this article.)
Many items that are stated as being printed on “archival” paper will be printed on hemp or hemp blends. Bibles are very likely to be printed on this. It is used in mainstream publishing, but primarily outside the US.
Odds are good that if you have two books of similar age with a similar history of care and storage and ones falling apart and ones not, one’s printed on wood pulp and one’s printed on hemp. (check out the picture at the top of the post, its of an 1830 Bible on hemp paper from the US Hemp Museum. Pretty good for a 180 year old book!)
UNCOMMON PAPERS OF TODAY
You can in fact make paper from rice straw, but “rice paper” is actually usually made from mulberry bark. It’s also called kozo, gampi,or mitsumata depending on exactly what kind of mulberry it came from. Some hemp or bamboo papers will also sometimes be called “rice paper”. This is made from BARK rather than the wood of the tree and uses a different process than standard wood pulp papers. It’s stronger than normal wood pulp paper.
Older books, scrolls, and art from Asia may be printed or written on this. However since this is a very labor intensive process, most newer books will be produced on wood pulp, hemp, bamboo, or rice straw paper. It’s commonly sold as art paper and for scroll making.
(“rice paper” can also refer to edible paper made out of rice flour. It’s used to wrap spring rolls. You won’t find it in books.)
PAPERS OF THE FUTURE
It’s becoming increasingly popular again because not only does it produce better paper than wood pulp, it’s also a drought resistant crop that actually improves the soil it grows in. It also yield about 3 times as much material at a faster rate than a similar stand of wood. It requires less energy and chemicals to process than similar wood pulp paper. Industrial hemp is different than smokable weed (article title was thus a joke), so expect agricultural areas with chronic drought problems to push for this to come back into production. California farmers have been seeking to legalize industrial hemp for awhile. (that you can also use it to make earthquake resistant concrete also makes it an even better fit for California!)
Bamboo is a grass so grows VERY fast. Bamboo is also used to make fabric as it has natural anti-microbial and anti-fungul properties. This makes it somewhat resistant to mildew and foxing. It’s used in some paper making, often as an additive. Some things labeled “rice paper” are actually made from bamboo.
Kenaf is an ancient fiber crop grown in Egypt, though it was primarily used for fabric, not paper. It was only really considered as a paper source starting in the 1960s. It’s not widely used in the book publishing industry but is often used for catalogs and for some newspapers as it’s generally tougher than wood pulp paper and naturally whiter. It takes colored inks well. Some copy shops (including Kinkos) offer the option of printing on kenaf, so some zines and self published items may be on kenaf.
Sugar Cane (Bagasse) Paper
Another relatively new paper made from the waste from sugarcane. It reuses material that otherwise has to be disposed of as trash. This is primarily found in countries that produce sugarcane. The downside with sugar cane paper is it is generally thinner than wood pulp paper and also reportedly biodegrades easier. You’re more likely to run into a sugarcane paper cup than a book today, but more is gradually being produced for printing. It’s popular for use in notepads.
Bagasse refers to the fiber left over pulping sugarcane, sorghum, or agave. Sugarcane is just one of the prime sources, so things labeled as “bagasse” paper are PROBABLY sugarcane, but could also contain sorghum, agave, or a few other crops.
Wheat Straw and Rice Straw
This is usually a blend of wood pulp and some type of cereal straw. Rice straw and wheat straw are the most common, but you may find more exotic “straw” papers here and there. This is another paper that utilizes waste material to make paper. None of the “straw papers” are in wide use so unless you happen to be in a country working to develop it, you probably won’t find books printed on this. China is the primary producer of both wheat straw and rice straw papers.
Banana Paper can be made either from banana tree bark or from actual bananas, peels and all. The material is chipped and usually mixed with recycled wood paper pulp. This is another rare paper you won’t see in many books, except possibly locally produced books from countries that export bananas.
No, really. Many large herbivorous animals leave a lot of fibrous material behind in their dung. And if you happen to raise these animals, the pile can get awfully big awfully fast… what to do with it all? Dung paper basically strips the fiber out of dung and the rest becomes fertilizer. A lot of the chemical breakdown of the plant fibers is handled by animal digestion, so harsh chemicals aren’t really needed, just sterilization.
You can buy this as novelty paper. Elephant dung paper is most prevalent because well, elephants produce a LOT of waste. Don’t expect to find this in many books. And even if it does become more prevalent, don’t expect publishers to label their books as being made of this!
Many of the papers of the future use waste sources to produce tree-free paper using high tech methods. So check your new books carefully. You may be holding a highly engineered product carefully disguised as a retro product!