Before any method of separating cellulose was discovered, paper was manufactured exclusively from discarded clothing, sailcloth, ropes and other fibrous products.
By 1800 there were about 430 paper mills in England and Wales and less than 50 mills in Scotland. A large proportion of these paper mills were producing brown paper, categorised as ‘browns’ in the trade directories of the time, consuming old ropes, bagging, tarpaulins, and ‘all other fibrous rubbish worthless for any other class of paper’. Wrapping papers were extensively used and several special papers existed for shopkeepers. There were special grades for wrapping butter, tea and flour, whilst ‘blues’ and ‘purples’, essentially describing the colour of the paper, were used for packaging sugar, which was not purchased in granulated form as it is today, but sold as cones or blocks. ‘Small hands’ was the grade of choice for drapers, and even pins and sewing needles had their own special wrapping paper.
Stowford Mill at Ivybridge, located between Plymouth and Exeter, was well situated with regard to the accessibility of imported rags. The growing local populations also offered a ready supply of discarded clothes.
The Plymouth Dockyard during the nineteenth century conducted sales for discarded naval supplies described as ‘paper stuff’ which included rags, ropes, hammocks and canvas, all regarded as good material of paper making.