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The Importance of Paper: Five Times It Changed the World

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Categories: Ideas and Innovation

Whether it’s celebrating life’s special moments, showing how much we care for someone or ensuring our wishes are fulfilled, the importance of paper is felt in our lives in many ways. Beyond being part of our normal routine, paper has also played a pivotal role in changing the world.

Here are some examples that demonstrate the importance of paper to civilizations throughout world history.

1. Gutenberg Bible

The earliest full-scale work printed in Europe using moveable type, the Gutenberg Bible is one of the rarest and most influential books in world history. Historians have estimated German inventor Johannes Gutenberg printed 180 copies of the Bible during the early 1450s. Although no two are exactly alike, most of the Bibles contain 1,286 pages bound in two volumes. Only 49 copies have survived the centuries, and they are housed in library, university and museum collections. The last sale of a complete Gutenberg Bible occurred in 1978 for $2.2 million. A lone volume was later sold to a Japanese buyer for $5.4 million in 1987 — at the time, a record auction price for a printed book. Experts estimate a complete copy could fetch more than $35 million at auction today.

This Gutenberg Bible is in the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. The Bible was completed around 1455 and is one of only 20 complete Gutenberg Bibles.

2. The Federalist Papers

To appreciate the importance of paper in shaping American history, consider the Federalist Papers, a collection of essays written by statesmen Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay, and published in 1788. They’re considered one of the most consequential political documents in U.S. history. The authors, who wrote under the pen name “Publius,” urged ratification of the United States Constitution. Though the essays originally appeared in various New York newspapers in 1787, high demand led to their publication by printers J. and A. McLean in a more permanent, bound form the following year. The original works are kept at the Library of Congress.

The Federalist Papers is a collection of 85 articles and essays written by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay under the collective pseudonym “Publius” to promote the ratification of the United States Constitution.

3. The Gettysburg Address

President Abraham Lincoln delivered one of the best-known speeches in American history on a Pennsylvania battlefield on Nov. 19, 1863. In just 271 words that became known as the Gettysburg Address, Lincoln reiterated the principles of human equality found in the Declaration of Independence and said the end of the Civil War signaled “a new birth of freedom.” Lincoln wrote five manuscripts of the address. The Library of Congress has two copies stored in specially designed, temperature-controlled display cases filled with argon gas to protect the documents from deterioration caused by oxidation. The State of Illinois, Cornell University and the White House have the other three handwritten copies.

Abraham Lincoln delivered his famous speech on Nov. 19, 1863, at the dedication of the National Cemetery at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, the site of one of the decisive battles of the American Civil War.

4. Anne Frank’s Diary

Considered a timeless testament to the human spirit, Anne Frank’s diary was discovered in the attic where she hid with her family for two years during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands. After her sister Margo Frank received a letter ordering her to report to a work camp in Germany in 1942, the family went into hiding in an attic apartment behind their father Otto Frank’s business in Amsterdam. In 1944, Anne Frank and seven others in hiding were discovered by the German secret state police and were arrested. The following year, Anne Frank died at age 15 in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in Germany. The diary was retrieved by Miep Gies, who gave it Otto Frank, the family’s only known survivor after the war. First published by Contact Publishing in Amsterdam in 1947, the diary would eventually become an international best seller. It has been translated into more than 70 languages and is required reading in schools around the world. Her original handwritten diary is on display at her family’s hiding location, which is now a museum.

The Diary of a Young Girl, also known as The Diary of Anne Frank, is the Dutch-language diary kept by Anne Frank while she was in hiding for two years with her family during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands.

5. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter From Birmingham Jail

In 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was jailed in Birmingham, Ala., after defying a state court injunction by leading a march of Black protestors to urge an Easter boycott of white-owned stores. King’s letter was a lengthy response to a statement published in The Birmingham News that was critical of the march and other demonstrations. The nearly 7,000-word statement, which was smuggled out of jail with the help of King’s lawyer, called for “constructive, nonviolent” tension to force an end to unjust laws. It became a defining document of the civil rights movement and endures to this day as an inspiration for the ongoing social justice movement.

Martin Luther King Jr. started writing this letter in the margins of a newspaper and continued it on various bits of paper that he was able to get while in jail.