How Books Came to Be

The ancient Egyptians were the first society to use “pages,” as such.  They did this by weaving together stems of a papyrus plant, then flattening the woven stems by pounding them flat.  This created a “page,” which, when glued together, became a scroll.

This technique was used for hundreds of years and the Greeks and Romans soon adopted it.  They would carefully wrap the scroll around a large piece of wood, so it could be stored or transported and then unwound in a very grand gesture, to be read out loud.  This method was used until the 8th century AD.

Slightly before this time, in another part of the world, parchment such as calf skin, or deer skin, began to be used, as it was less likely to tear, and there was a shortage of papyrus.  The parchment would be treated in alkaline then written over in ink.

The Greeks and Romans also invented wax tablets, which were blocks of wood layered with wax, so you could scratch a message into them, then erase them and re-use them again and again.

The first actual book written on paper is said to have been made in China.  It was created using mulberries, hemp, bark and even fish to form a big pulp, that could be pressed and dried to form paper.  Each sheet of paper was roughly the size of a newspaper and called a “leaf.”  As soon as the leaf was printed upon with ink by using wooden printing blocks, it was known as a “folio,” which is another word for leaf.

The first ever book

Gradually, individual books, which were highly precious, were formed.  Some of these books held highly important information or religious texts and others told glorious, wicked or wonderful stories.  The first book ever written that we know of is The Epic of Gilgamesh, a mythical retelling of an important political figure from history.

Years later, in 1454, a German man called Johannes Gutenburg built his very own (and the world’s first ever) printing press, or movable type.  This changed everything overnight, as books could be printed far more easily.

The first book Gutenburg printed (and the oldest surviving mechanically printed book) is the Gutenburg Bible (1455).

The Morgan Library & Museum is the only institution in the world to possess three copies of the Gutenberg Bible, the first substantial book printed from movable type in the West.  Fifty copies survive today in varying states of completeness from an edition originally of around 160-180 copies, of which perhaps three quarters were printed on paper, one quarter on vellum.  Other copies survive only as fragments.  The Morgan has one copy on vellum (PML 13 & 818) and two copies on paper, one in two volumes (PML 19206–7) and another in one volume (PML 12), containing only the Old Testament.  This presentation features digital images of the Old Testament copy along with commentary on its history and significance.

The invention of printing

The Gutenberg Bible does not mention the names of the printers or the place and date of publication.  Historians of printing credit Gutenberg with the invention and believe he and his associates printed the Bible in Mainz around 1455, on the basis of the Helmasperger Instrument.  Corroborating evidence (includes) a dated inscription in one of the surviving copies and an eyewitness account of Aeneas Silvius Piccolomini (the future Pope Pius II), who had seen sample sheets on display.  The documentary evidence does not answer all the questions about Gutenberg’s business dealings, but scholars have made great progress in learning about his ideas and techniques by studying the books themselves. The physical evidence suggests that letterpress printing, like other great inventions, posed a series of technical challenges, each of which had to be overcome to achieve practical, commercially feasible results.

The paper used in the Gutenberg Bible was manufactured in the Piedmont region of the Alps and shipped down the Rhine to Mainz.  The Bible printers bought paper in several installments, which can be identified by the watermarks, such as the bull’s head and grape cluster.


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