THE BLOG
10/21/2013 01:20 pm ET Updated Dec 21, 2013

10 Most Bizarre Uses of Paper in History

An association of paper historians in the United Kingdom recently estimated there are twenty thousand identifiable uses for paper in the world today, making it a manufactured material of extraordinary application that has lost little of its versatility. Not only do millions of people still read books and get their information on paper, they use it as currency, conduct their business, record their history, create art, print photographs, wrap food, blow their noses, and correspond on it -- even boil tea and smoke tobacco in it.

When Johnny Carson suggested in 1973 in one of his "Tonight Show" monologues -- erroneously, it turned out -- that a shortage of toilet paper was in the offing, panic buying of such magnitude swept the nation that it occasioned front-page coverage in the New York Times; the shopping frenzy that took place was bizarre enough, to be sure, but that certainly could not be said of the ubiquitous tissue itself, which very definitely was then -- and remains now -- indispensable to daily life. "The paperless society," a noted historian of libraries defiantly quipped in the early 1980s, as the electronic challenge to traditional communications media became increasingly evident, "is about as plausible as the paperless bathroom." But there is always a downside to everything, including the functionality of this remarkable material. "We can lick gravity," space pioneer Wernher von Braun told a reporter in 1958, "but sometimes the paperwork is overwhelming."

Given that among the several definitions of "bizarre" are such qualities as "wacky," "strange," "weird," and "odd," I feel I am on safe ground in offering up what we might all agree have been some "out of the ordinary" (yet another definition) uses of paper. Setting aside for the moment that the Chinese who first developed the process used the material for a plentitude of purposes -- they rank the making of paper from a watery pulp of cellulose fibers with the magnetic compass, gunpowder, and printing as one of their four outstanding inventions of antiquity -- even they might be amused to see some of the ways it has been utilized over the centuries.

Because paper has such limitless applications, I have cast a wide net with respect to weirdness, and apply the standard broadly in the examples that follow. For other instances equally peculiar, I respectfully refer you to my new book, "On Paper: The EVERYTHING of Its Two Thousand Year History," just released by Alfred A. Knopf.

  • Balloon Bombs
    During the latter months of World War II, the Japanese army used square sheets of hand-made paper to construct the airframes of 10,000 balloon bombs designed to cross the Pacific at high altitudes and explode randomly over the western United States. About a thousand of these incendiary weapons reached North America, most falling uneventfully in unpopulated areas or shot down as they approached the coast. One that landed in the woods north of Klamath Falls, Oregon, killed a woman and five children who happened on the unexploded device – and according to a memorial plaque erected there, is the “only place on the American continent where death resulted from enemy action during World War II.”
  • Paper Dresses
    Imgur/jorimoo
    Among the many curiosities observed by Marco Polo during his travels to the Far East in the 13th century was how some Chinese fabricated “very fine summer clothing” from paper, so the idea that the material is suited for apparel is not without precedent. Still, the introduction of disposable paper dresses and mini-skirts in the 1960s caused something of a fashion stir during the swinging decade, though they never became more than a passing fad. Single-use paper masks, surgical gowns and the like do have their place today, though, in hospitals and health-care facilities.
  • Starstruck
    Getty
    Despite assurances from the International Astronomical Union (IAU) that any star in the heavens named by private companies and sold for profit will never be recognized or cited by any scientific body, people still pay good money to hitch their names to a heavenly body – or so they think. What buyers do get to “document” their place in the cosmos are handsomely printed certificates, complete with “telescopic coordinates” of location, proof positive that some things are not worth the paper they’re printed on. As the IAU states unequivocally on its website, “like true love and many other of the best things in human life, the beauty of the night sky is not for sale, but is free for all to enjoy.”
  • Paper House
    AP
    Located on the eastern tip of Cape Ann in Massachusetts, the town of Rockport is best known as a charming North Shore community with breathtaking harbor views and fresh seafood. Well off the beaten path – and unknown, even, to most Bay State residents – is a summer cottage in the Pigeon Cove section of town built in the early 1920s by Elis F. Stenman, a mechanical engineer and inventor, entirely from newspapers, about 100,000 of them printed in all (at the time) forty-eight states that he compressed in compact layers and laminated with glue, then cut into remarkably sturdy building blocks and sealed with varnish. Known aptly as the Paper House, the structure is operated today as a museum by Stenman’s grand-niece.
  • Famous Fakes
    University of Delaware
    Forgeries and counterfeits have been with us for centuries, with the purported diaries of Adolf Hitler and Jack the Ripper, and a phony memoir of Howard Hughes, among the most notorious of recent times. For pure chutzpah, few hoaxes on paper can surpass the creation, out of whole cloth, of a Shakespeare play titled "Vortigern" by its putative discoverer, a London hack named William Henry Ireland, along with a trove of other materials supposedly in the Bard’s hand. The play was staged for one surreal performance by the Theatre Royal at Drury Lane in 1796. L aughed off the stage by incredulous viewers, it was exposed definitively as a fraud two years later by the critic Edmund Malone.
  • Airplanes from Space
    AP
    Who among us has not, at least once, made an airplane from a single sheet of paper, origami style, and sent it aloft to soar like an eagle? One ambitious design that was never actually attempted – but gets top grades for industriousness – was proposed in 2008 by a team of Japanese aeronautical engineers to be set adrift from the International Space Station to demonstrate the feasibility of slow-speed, low-friction reentry. Prototypes for the project were folded on paper treated with silicon and successfully tested in a hypersonic wind tunnel to withstand aerodynamic heating up to 400 degrees Fahrenheit. The tiny aircraft, just eight inches in length, were never launched for the practical reason that tracking their descent and safe arrival on earth would have been impossible.
  • Worthless Currency
    At the height of the German hyperinflation crisis of 1921-23, many billions of reichsmarks were turned out nonstop by more than 130 printing firms hired by the Weimar government. Some five hundred quintillion in total currency was in circulation at the time of the monetary collapse, or 5 times 10 to the 20th power, with wheelbarrows stacked full of notes barely sufficient to buy a daily newspaper. One enterprising citizen found a practical function for the worthless notes –- lining his wall with them for decoration. Other photos of the period picture women using bricks of the notes to fuel their stoves and furnaces. In a more recent currency crisis, Zimbabwe issued banknotes in $100 trillion denominations, examples of which could be bought on eBay by collectors for pennies.
  • Stasi Files
    Getty
    During nearly five decades of communist rule in East Germany, the secret police organization known as the Stasi compiled many millions of secret dossiers on the private lives of its own citizens through a network of 175,000 informers. In the weeks leading up to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1990, operatives worked frantically to destroy the salacious files, a Herculean task that fell well short of the objective, but did manage to fill 16,250 trash bags with 600 million torn fragments, which were confiscated by the new government before they could be incinerated. They are now being reassembled with the help of a pattern recognition device known as the ePuzzler, a monumental undertaking described as piecing together “the world’s biggest jig-saw puzzle.”
  • Gun Wad Bible
    For more than 200 years, the paper cartridge was the most efficient way to pack gunpowder together with a metal projectile for use in firearms, falling out of favor finally with the arrival of the repeating rifle in the late 19th century. With the scarcity of paper during wartime, alternative sources for paper were often sought out for munitions, none more ironically than the use by both sides during the American Revolution of unbound copies of an early edition of the Holy Scriptures printed in the German language by the Pennsylvania printer Christopher Sauer. Only a few dozen copies of the printing, known today as the Gun Wad Bible, survive, including this one, in the collections of the Library Company of Philadelphia.
  • Hanging Chads
    Getty
    For 36 days in the fall of 2000, the selection of a new president of the United States hinged on a recount of the 5.9 million votes cast in the state of Florida, the uncertainty heightened by the confusing nature of the punch-card ballots, with such phrases as hanging chads, pregnant chads, and dimpled chads entering the language. “We are trying to determine what someone was thinking based on a piece of paper,” one exasperated official explained of the dilemma. When the U.S. Supreme Court summarily terminated the recount on December 12, 2000, George W. Bush was declared the winner by a margin of 537 votes, giving him the majority he needed in the Electoral College to claim the presidency.

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