The people of Norwich, CT celebrated the bi-centennial anniversary of their city’s settlement September 7th and 8th in 1859. To mark the occasion, the publishers of the local newspapers printed a hymn on brown paper to be sung during the festivities. The paper, measuring 25cm by 16cm, is unremarkable except for a statement at the bottom of the page that states that it was printed on paper produced from the linen wrappings of mummies.
“The largest paper manufacturer in the world. The material of which it is made, was brought from Egypt. It was taken from the ancient tombs where it had been used in embalming mummies. A part of the process of manufacturing is exhibited in the procession. The daily production of the Company’s mills is about 14,000 pounds.”
The hymn for the bi-centennial anniversary of the settlement of Norwich is one of the few existing pieces of mummy paper. Dr. Isaiah Deck, a hobby archaeologist and explorer, introduced the idea of mummy paper in 1855 in an article titled “On a Supply of Paper Material from the Mummy Pits of Egypt” in which he proposed mummy linen as an alternate source of rags. Deck claimed that during a trip to Egypt he saw mummies and mummy parts buried in the desert and calculated that there were millions and millions of yards of linen rags just waiting to be harvested from tombs and burial pits and that this would supply the American paper industry for years. But it’s not clear if this was satire or if Deck was serious.
Considering that Westerners had been grinding up Egyptian mummies for medicine, known as mumia, and paint, known as mummy brown, it wouldn’t be hard to believe that Americans would turn mummy wrappings into paper. Not to mention that in the early 19th century museums and wealthy people unwrapped mummies for entertainment at unrolling parties.
From the 14th to the end of the 19th century cotton was one of the main fibers used in paper production. Known as cotton or rag paper, mills used fiber crops, like flax and cotton, as well as rags to produce it. But rag paper required a lot of cotton for production. According to an 1855 issue of the Annual of Scientific Discovery: Or, Yearbook of Facts in Sciences and Art, 1½ pounds of rags was required to make one pound of paper. It was calculated that the 750 paper mills in the U.S. in the mid-1800’s needed 405,000,000 pounds of rags annually, approximately the same out as France and England combined.
Mills experienced shortages regularly due to the large quantity of cotton needed to manufacture paper. Mill owners purchased cotton scraps from scavengers, known as rag-pickers, and imported discarded cotton scraps from Europe. When the shortages worsened in the mid-1800’s, paper manufacturers had to import discarded cotton clothing and rags from Egypt.
But there is some dispute among scholars about whether or not paper mills went so far as to use ancient mummy linen in paper production. Those that believe mummy paper was manufactured cite newspaper reports and stories from paper mill workers as evidence.
In 1858, the Cleveland Daily Leader reported that a correspondent from the Journal of Commerce visited a paper mill in Gardiner, ME shortly after a rag shipment from Egypt. This reporter claimed to have witnessed mummy wrappings mixed in with discards clothes and rags.
“Yesterday I visited, in company with Mayor Woods (of Gardiner,) the two principal paper factories, and I was astonished in looking at the millions of pounds of rags piled up in warehouses or spread over acres of ground to find that a portion of them had recently arrived from Alexandria in Egypt. They were the most disagreeable odiferous old clothes that I have ever had the fortune to smell. This, doubtless, was owing to the fact that a part of them were in a damaged state. The Egyptian rags has been collected from all corners of the Pacha’s dominous – from the living and the dead. How many cast off garments of Howadjis and Hadjis; how many tons of big, loose, Turkish ragged breeches; and how many headpieces in the shape of old doffed turbans, the deponent sayeth not. But the most singular and the cleanest division of the whole filthy mass came not from the limbs of the present generation of travelers-pilgrims, peasants, soldiers and sailors of Egypt-but were the plundered wrappings of men, bulls, crocodiles and cats, torn from the respectable defunct members of the same…Mummy clothes as well as old rags of Italy…are ground up and come forth mingled in fond embrace and in the purest white.”
There are also stories told by relatives of paper mill workers about the making of mummy paper. William Joseph “Dard” Hunter some of these in his book Papermaking: The History and Technique of an Ancient Craft. One of the more detailed accounts happened at a mill owned by I. Augustus Stanwood in Gardiner, ME. Stanwood’s son Daniel told Hunter that his father opened the mill in Gardiner in 1863. When his father had a hard time finding an adequate supply of rags during the Civil War he imported several shipments of mummies from Egypt just for their linen.
Some scholars, however, are skeptical about the existence of mummy paper. Joseph Dane, in The Myth of Print Culture: Essays on Evidence, Textuality, and Bibliographical Method, maintains that there is little evidence to confirm the production of mummy paper. He says that the accounts relating to its production, like the Stanwood story, are “vaguely documented or pure products of oral history.”
It’s also difficult to find other publications, aside from the Norwich celebratory hymn, that are printed on mummy paper. One of the few other examples is an issue of the Syracuse Daily Standard printed on July 31, 1856. According to Nevart Apikian in ‘Mummy Paper Caused a Stir‘ (The Post-Standard of Syracuse, NY), the “City Item” section of the issue in question proclaimed:
“Our daily is now printed on paper made from rags imported directly from the land of the Pharaohs on the banks of the Nile. They were imported by George W. Ryan, veteran paper manufacturer from Marcellus Falls in this county; and he thinks they are quite as good as the general run of English and French rags.”
Plus there is no empirical evidence to substantiate that mummy paper was ever produced. In the American Antiquarian, S.J. Wolfe, author of Mummies in Nineteenth Century America: Ancient Egyptians as Artifacts, writes that chemical and microscopic analysis would show only that the paper came from cotton or linen. Also carbon-14 dating would likely be inconclusive because the linen from mummies would have been mixed in with rags from other sources in the mill beaters. Despite Daniel Stanwood’s account of multiple shipments of mummies that were sent to his father’s mill from Egypt, Wolfe was not able to find any existing shipping or paper mill records that indicate any such cargo was ever transported.
So was the hymn for the Norwich bi-centennial anniversary printed on ‘mummy paper’?
As Wolfe points out, there is no way to know for sure. It’s certainly possible that the Chelsea Manufacturing Company imported rags and discarded clothes from Egypt, like the Gardiner mill did in 1858, and mummy wrappings were jumbled in with a larger shipment of clothes and other rags from the region, but this may have been by accident rather by design.
Cotton shortages were only a problem until the second half of the 19th century when mills started using wood pulp in the paper-making process. Today linen or rag based paper is used primarily in printing currency and high-end paper.