Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 1227:
PAPER FROM MUMMY WRAPPINGS

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Today, the mummy's curse. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

I like to obey two principles in regard to fringe science -- like dowsing, UFOs, and New Age medicine: First, never take it at face value; and second, don't just dismiss it. For it's based on something. Here's a case in point: the matter of mummy paper.

Joseph Dane finds standard works on paper-making which report that, when mid-19th-century paper-makers didn't have enough rags, they resorted to making paper from the linen wrappings of mummies.

What a great story! Only a grinch would want to debunk it. Dane goes looking for origins. In the late 12th century, before Europe had learned to make paper, an Arab account told of Bedouins who robbed graves to get linen for making both clothing and paper.

So there could be something to the story. The ancient Egyptians certainly used a lot of linen to wrap a mummy -- as much as a whole kilometer of the stuff, by some accounts. Then, after 1800, two things happened. First, scientists who'd been with Napoleon on his Egypt campaign started a resurgence of interest in Egyptology.

Meanwhile, the new 19th-century automatic presses were using paper much faster than people wore out clothes. At first, paper-makers stretched the limited supply of old cloth by mixing straw and grass in with rags. But that still wasn't enough, and we had yet to invent wood pulp paper. In 1855 the London Times offered a one-thousand-pound prize for a new paper-making material.

So people starting thinking about all those Egyptian mummies. Wishful thinking fed the idea that there were enough mummies to supply the demand for rags. Articles started reporting that mummy rags were showing up in America at three cents a pound.

Dane follows the articles like stepping stones. One tells of an edition of the Syracuse Sentinel printed on mummy paper. Another describes how hard it is to open the linen shell around a mummy so it can be reduced to fiber. Another scholarly article tells how the unwrapped corpses were used to fuel the engines on an Egyptian railway. Mark Twain picked up on that one. He wrote about an Egyptian railroad engineer shouting at his fireman, "Damn these plebeians, they don't burn worth a cent -- pass out a King."

So the story snowballed until we finally got the wood pulp process under control. Then the stories faded. And yet one thing is sure: paper made from fine linen is much better than paper made from wood pulp.

A few years back I visited a paper preservation lab in Oregon. I found the director making paper out of old fire hoses. Like mummy wrappings, fire hoses were once woven from fine linen.

No historian has yet located an authentic piece of mummy paper, but believe me: the day I go into the business of writing horror novels, I plan to begin by seriously trying to find some of the stuff.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


Dane, J. A., The Curse of the Mummy Paper. Journal of American Printing History, Vol. XVII, No. 2, 1995, pp. 18-25.

I am grateful to Pat Bozeman, UH Special Collections Library, for suggesting the topic and providing the source.

For more on paper making and its history, see Episodes 894, 1051, and 1052.


The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.

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