Based on this question I asked before and it being too broad, here's a more specific question related to it.

What would happen to books as we know them, if wood was not available as a resource?

I presume humans would still want to write things down and use written communication.

  • How would they do it now, with no wood to make normal paper?
  • Would they use some kind of plants?
  • Would it be more expensive to make books a different way?
  • How many of said plants would one need to make a decent number of books in a city?

Assume medieval time period.

  • 25
    $\begingroup$ I'm afraid I can't use one word, but.. Papyrus. $\endgroup$
    – Mikey
    Feb 8, 2016 at 22:13
  • $\begingroup$ Computers / eBooks? $\endgroup$ Feb 9, 2016 at 7:41
  • $\begingroup$ I forgot to mention it here, but it iis in medieval times. $\endgroup$
    – Noralie
    Feb 9, 2016 at 8:55
  • $\begingroup$ youtube.com/watch?v=pQHX-SjgQvQ $\endgroup$
    – user
    Feb 9, 2016 at 11:51
  • $\begingroup$ @Noralie could you edit the question to include this additional information? $\endgroup$ Feb 9, 2016 at 15:29

6 Answers 6


Throughout history and before the wide use of wood pulp in paper people have used many different types of materials for writing. This varies from

  • parchment / vellum (made from animal skins, including human!)
  • bamboo
  • plastics
  • hemp
  • cotton
  • flax
  • papyrus (made from mashed reeds)
  • clay tablets
  • slate

People have historically used which ever material filled the need in the required quantity & quality and that was as cheap as possible. For areas with trees, this most frequently was wood pulp. In Egypt, it was papyrus (thank you Todd Wilcox for helping me round out my answer).

According to Wikipedia,

In papermaking, a dilute suspension of fibres in water is drained through a screen, so that a mat of randomly interwoven fibres is laid down. Water is removed from this mat of fibres by pressing and drying to make paper. Since the invention of the Fourdrinier machine in the 19th century, most paper has been made from wood pulp because of cost. But other fibre sources such as cotton and textiles are used for high-quality papers. One common measure of a paper's quality is its non-wood-pulp content, e.g., 25% cotton, 50% rag, etc. Previously, paper was made up of rags and hemp as well as other materials.

So apparently in a pinch most any plant fiber will do.

What sort of plant might fill the role of pulped wood depends entirely upon the types of plants in the vicinity of your city. What sort of plants live near your city?

So to answer your supplemental questions:

  • Use one of the other plants listed below dependent upon what grew in their region
  • Yes, they would like use one of the other plant fibers.
  • Yes, the paper and books made from this paper would likely be more expensive.
  • I don't have any information on a per plant basis but it looks like it would take more land to produce.

I haven't found any quantitative comparisons between the use of these plants for making writing materials. However, this is what I could find on the qualitative differences:


So far I've found that papyrus was inexpensive to make but the quality of material was significantly less than that of most other materials used to make "paper". Papyrus would crack if folded or bent and it had an uneven surface.

The reeds used to make papyrus only grows in tropical to subtropical climates and they do not tolerate any frost. Since papyrus comes from reeds, it requires a particularly wet habitat.

Hemp Paper

There's another SE site with a comparison between hemp paper and wood paper.

From a strictly production per acre comparison, hemp compares unfavorably (despite its advocate's claims). It would likely cost more to cultivate and require more acres of cultivation to create as much paper. It is apparently more expensive to process.

Hemp seems to have a very wide range of viability from perhaps the equator all the way into Canada in the western Hemisphere - making it perhaps the widest ranging plant considered in my answer.

Cotton Paper

Cotton paper seems to be more economical (less labor and energy) to produce a given amount of paper than hemp fiber, however, it takes more land to produce that fiber and more than four times as much water as hemp. So it's a bit of a mixed bag.

Cotton grows best in warm regions (like Egypt and the Southern US).

Flax Paper

As with the other fibers I've discussed, flax can be used for a wide range of uses from clothing to paper and even bow strings.

Until economical means of pulping wood were developed, flax was one of the primary plant fibers used in the creation of paper. So a civilization without viable wood pulping technology would probably still be using flax as its primary plant fiber in making paper.

I haven't found any production numbers but assume that the amount of fiber harvested would probably compare favorably to that of cotton on a per acre basis and favorably to hemp on a labor/cost basis. In fact, for climates that supported its growth it'd be the most likely replacement for wood pulp.

Flax grows in cooler climes - essentially making it the cooler weather alternative to cotton. However, flax cannot tolerate heavy clay soils.

  • 3
    $\begingroup$ Let's not forget cotton and papyrus and flax. And hemp. $\endgroup$ Feb 8, 2016 at 21:33
  • $\begingroup$ It's medieval setting, so plastic wouldn't be available. Could you also add an approximate of how much of each substance would be needed for a book? $\endgroup$
    – Noralie
    Feb 8, 2016 at 22:08
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ Not only plants. Writing has been pressed into clay (cuneiform tablets), carved into bone (scrimshaw), and chiseled into stone. If you have dirt and water you can still have writing ... its just bulky to store. $\endgroup$ Feb 8, 2016 at 22:37
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ It may be worth noting that until the late nineteenth century, most paper was made of things other than wood; if wood were unavailable, paper would not have dropped in price as it did following the invention of wood pulping processes, but much of it would be less subject to aging. $\endgroup$
    – supercat
    Feb 9, 2016 at 0:42
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @Jim2B, you might want to add a note about amate paper, which is what the famous Dresden Codex is made of. $\endgroup$
    – Joe
    Feb 9, 2016 at 18:22

Well the earliest paper we know of is papyrus which was made from pounding reeds into paper. Another one that could do a good job would be Hemp, which is a very useful fiber plant and very cheap to grow.

So there are plenty of other options to make paper. It would just take some effort to retool the industry to use the new fiber source, whatever is chosen.

  • $\begingroup$ How many reed do you need for a book? $\endgroup$
    – Noralie
    Feb 8, 2016 at 22:10
  • $\begingroup$ @Noralie don't know. quit a few I would think $\endgroup$
    – bowlturner
    Feb 8, 2016 at 22:50

The first medium ever used for writing was stone. Pretty much every culture on earth, ancient or modern, has either painted, scratched, or carved stone to preserve their art or records.

Some other mediums which haven't been mentioned yet are metal plates:

enter image description here

Another form of record keeping, which actually isn't really a writing system at all is Quipu:

enter image description here

The ancient Inca used Quipu for all their record keeping, they could keep inventories and read these strings tied with a sort of morse code of knots:

enter image description here


Paper can be made of many things.
There are also non flexible writing surfaces.

The earliest known form of writing was Cuneiform, which was written by using a sylus to make impressions into clay tablets.

They even wrote on the bricks that made up their walls.

Somewhere between a half million and 2 million tablets have been recovered from dig sites.

  • $\begingroup$ Are those feasible in terms of making books? $\endgroup$
    – Noralie
    Feb 8, 2016 at 22:11
  • 6
    $\begingroup$ @Noralie: Define "feasible". Until the printing press, books were never really feasible. Enormous amounts of effort went into everything written. In a world without paper, you could still have libraries, except that these libraries wouldn't hold the books, they would be the books. The walls, floors, ceilings; every scrap of surface would be covered in the written word. Different libraries would have different functions. Then with modern technology, it would be trivial to stamp or engrave them in bulk, though the information density would necessarily be lower until the advent of computing. $\endgroup$
    – MichaelS
    Feb 8, 2016 at 22:50
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @Noralie Well, not books as you would recognise them, but they did write longer works with it, like the Epic of Gilgamesh, which is believed to be the world's first great work of literature. $\endgroup$
    – AndyD273
    Feb 8, 2016 at 23:12

Just like building shelters, humans historically have used, and would continue to use, whatever material provided the necessary properties at a market-bearing cost in sufficient quantity. There are many materials used for "paper," including cotton. Cotton paper is noted as being superior to wood pulp paper, and, like wood pulp paper, could be an ancillary product of a cotton crop (eg. most of the cotton is used for textile production, but the "linters" or "cotton wool," which has few other purposes, could be used for paper production). Cotton paper can also be made from recycled cotton textiles.

The Cost of Paper is Relative

You are asking about medieval times. In medieval times, despite the invention and subsequent widespread adoption of the movable-type printing press in western Europe, most of the populace still could not afford to purchase books, nor would they have had the ability to read one if they could afford to purchase one. For example, public education was not available in England until 1870. The cost of education (or merely having the time to prioritize learning to read instead of focusing on critical survival tasks) was prohibitive to most. Even if the cost of reading material doubled due to having to use an alternate fiber for paper production, it would likely have had little impact on the average lay-person, and for those that had the means to purchase books and pursue an education, the added cost, as a percentage of the overall investment, would have likely been relatively small.


Assuming that we could build an industrialized society without wood (remember, wood is used to make machines, produce charcoal used by blacksmiths, produce buildings housing businesses, build the early printing presses used to print books), I would see little long-term impact of having to use an alternate fiber. The efforts that went into the invention of machines and techniques used to make the production of wood pulp paper efficient would instead have been concentrated on making whatever other means of "paper" production economically feasible. By the time society had advanced to its current position, there would likely be very little difference in the cost of whatever flexible writing surface we came up with. In fact, we just might be using a product that is both cheaper and more durable to exchange written information.

If you look at human history, widespread availability of paper for exchanging information, from the viewpoint of the common person, is an extremely recent development (perhaps the last 200 years or less), and will be a fleeting one. The newspaper industry is already crumbling, and subsequent generations will see less and less paper use as information is stored and shared electronically (barring some apocalyptic scenario). Cultures have always desired to preserve and share information. Doing so on paper in a widespread manner is a fairly modern invention.

  • $\begingroup$ Excellent answer, welcome to the site. $\endgroup$
    – Samuel
    Feb 9, 2016 at 18:55

A choice for writing in the past was also vellum, or thinned calf skin. I don't know why they chose it over paper, but it seems it was more durable.


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