Looking at Paper

Alisma plantago-aquatica specimen, Ulisse Aldrovandi herbarium at the University of Bologna’s Botanic Garden

I’ve been writing posts on herbaria for over four years and I’ve never discussed the use of paper in botany.  Considering the pivotal role paper has long played in the preservation and documentation of plants, this seems a gross oversight.  To make amends, this series of posts will deal with several aspects of paper’s relationship to plant collections.  First, a little history.  The Chinese created the earliest known paper from hemp in the first century BC; this was a relatively crude product used more for packing than for writing.  They refined their processes in the following centuries, and once mulberry was used in the 7th century, it became the raw material of choice.  Papermaking spread at that time to Japan and then on to the Middle East with the first paper factory in Baghdad opening in 794 (Weber, 2007).  Paper spurred the development of science and literature in the Islamic world and led to the first papermaking in Spain in the 11th century, from there it reached Italy in 1235, Germany in 1391, and England a century later (Basbanes, 2013).  Around 1450 when Johannes Gutenberg produced the first book printed with movable type, he ordered paper from Italy because of its smoothness and ability to take ink better than the German product.

In parts of Europe, paper was not a very old technology when the first herbaria were created, probably in the 1520s in Italy.  But by this time, the demand for paper for book printing led to much higher production rates, a greater variety of grades, and an increase in the uses to which paper was put.  In the 16th century, it was still an expensive commodity, but it was much cheaper and more available that parchment, made from animal skins, that had been the material of choice for important manuscripts and documents, even after the introduction of paper.  In her seminal work on early-modern printed herbals, Agnes Arber (1938) thought it curious that pressing plants wasn’t introduced earlier since pieces of fabric or thin sheets of wood could be used in place of paper and put it down to a lack of ingenuity.  By the time modern botany had begun to emerge in the first half of the 16th century, paper was becoming more familiar commodity and the rough type used to packaging would serve in drying plants.  In fact, it was more absorbent than papers that were sized, that is, coated with something like animal glue or gelatin to create a smoother surface and more receptive to printer’s ink.

But botanists weren’t just using paper to press and preserve plants, but were writing letters, taking notes, and making lists of plants in their gardens or encountered on field trips.  As Valentina Pugliano (2012) notes, lists were “among the new tools at the naturalist’s disposal for dealing with a scientific world increasingly populated by objects” (p. 716).  Luca Ghini, purported by some to be the creator of the first herbarium but definitely one of its key proponents, sent out seed lists each year from the Pisan botanical garden which he directed (Findlen, 2017).  His correspondents could request any of the listed seeds for planting, and some probably then made specimens of their own from the plants.  The seeds themselves were usually wrapped in paper, and Ghini was also known for sending portions of his herbarium to colleagues along with notes and drawings or prints as ways to communicate about plants.

Ghini’s protégé and his successor at the University of Bologna, Ulisse Aldrovandi, used paper on a large scale.  There are 15 volumes of his herbarium still extant and over 80 volumes of notes.  He developed a paste to adhere specimens to paper, and he also used it to paste slips of paper as additions to his notes.  The slips could be shifted to where the information might be more relevant.  This system was also used by Conrad Gessner in Switzerland and later by Carl Linnaeus when he added information to his Species Plantarum that was interleafed with blank pages.  Slips had the advantage of mobility when ideas were uncertain.  All this seems mundane to us, but these tools were being developed as botanical knowledge burgeoned and must at times have seemed unmanageable (Müller-Wille & Charmantier, 2012).

A number of botanists, such as Felix Platter, filed illustrations along with specimens in notebooks.  His are now in the Bern City Library and can be viewed on the web.  He often pasted a plant on the right-hand side and a print, drawing, or both on the left, with each supplementing the information in the other.  He also made the most of the images he had.  He somehow acquired the original watercolors by Hans Weiditz that were used to make the woodcuts in for Otto Brunfels’s classic 1530 herbal, one of the first printed herbals with naturalistic illustrations.  Weitz made the best use of his paper by painting on both sides of a sheet.  Platter didn’t want to sacrifice either image, so he cut around them, and pasted the cutouts across from their respective plants.  In most cases, the pieces were substantial enough to be useful, and perhaps the least successful were discarded.  This is a reminder both of how precious paper was and how ardent botanists were in trying to document plant information (Benkert, 2016).


Arber, A. (1938). Herbals: Their Origin and Evolution a Chapter in the History of Botany, 1470-1670 (2nd ed.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Basbanes, N. A. (2013). On Paper: The Everything of Its Two-Thousand-Year History. New York: Knopf.

Benkert, D. (2016). The ‘Hortus Siccus’ as a Focal Point: Knowledge, Environment, and Image in Felix Platter’s and Caspar Bauhin’s Herbaria. In S. Burghartz, L. Burkart, & C. Göttler (Eds.), Sites of Mediation (pp. 211–239). Leiden, NLD: Brill.

Findlen, P. (2017). The death of a naturalist: Knowledge and Community in Late Renaissance Italy. In G. Manning & C. Klestinec (Eds.), Professors, Physicians and Practices in the History of Medicine (pp. 127–167). New York: Springer.

Müller-Wille, S., & Charmantier, I. (2012). Natural history and information overload: The case of Linnaeus. Studies in the History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences, 43, 4–15.

Pugliano, V. (2012). Specimen Lists: Artisanal Writing or Natural Historical Paperwork? Isis, 103(4), 716–726.

Weber, T. (2007). The Language of Paper: A History of 2000 Years. Bangkok: Orchid.

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