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Writing material refers to the materials that provide the surfaces on which humans use writing instruments to inscribe writings. The same materials can also be used for symbolic or representational drawings. Building material on which writings or drawings are produced are not included. The gross characterization of writing materials is by the material constituting the writing surface (for example, paper) and the number, size, and usage and storage configuration of multiple surfaces (for example, paper sheets) into a single object (for example, a spiral notebook). Writing materials are often paired with specific types of writing instruments. Other important attributes of a writing material are its reusability, its permanence, and its resistance to fraudulent misuse.
Because drawing preceded writing, the first remains of writing materials are the stone walls of the caves on which the famous images were drawn. Another precursor were tally sticks used to record the count of objects or the passage of discrete units of time (days). Tally sticks have been found made of wood and of bone. Knotted ropes and similar materials were also used for tallies. Such materials did not take a great deal of preparation for their use for drawing or writing. Animal hides also had potential for use as a material for writing or drawing, although the drawings and writings may have been decorative or to convey status or religious meaning. Among the barks of trees, birch bark is very well suited for use as a writing material and was so used both in Northern Europe and among native peoples in North America.
Three other classes of material were sometimes used for writing: clay, wax, cloth, and metal. The value of metal for useful implements may have made it less than useful for practical writing and drawing. The very hardness of many metals that made them useful also made it an inconvenient material for many kinds of writing. But foils or sheets of soft metals like lead were usable. Lead sheets were used for curse tablets.
Cloth probably shared its mode of use with animal skins. Clay introduces the useful combination of extreme ease of making the inscription with the potential for rendering it fairly permanent. Unglazed pottery can readily accept inscription even after firing. Wax offers another novel combination of advantage: a reusable surface, easily inscribed and erased, and easy combination with materials like wood that give it durability. Stone tablets, clay and wooden writing tablets, and wax-covered wooden tablets are some of the first specialized configurations of materials in flat surfaces specifically for writing.
The archaeological record contains either examples of these materials used for drawing or writing or it has indirect indications of their use for writing, drawing, or tallying.
Common writing materials of the Middle Ages
In western civilisations, early use of papyrus was soon replaced by parchment made by treating animal hide. A wide variety of parchments from various animal skins, with different texture, quality and hue were widely used for codices, religious and cultural texts. This was replaced by the advent and increasing access and availability of paper.
In eastern civilisations such as India, the principal writing media from the time of Christ were birch bark or bhurjapatra (Sanskrit) and dried palm leaves. The use of paper began only after the 10th century AD. However birch bark and palm leaf continue to be used even today on a limited scale in a rural milieu for the use of horoscopes, wedding invitations and other cultural uses.
Writing seems to have become more widespread with the invention of papyrus in Egypt. Parchment, using sheepskins left after the wool was removed for cloth, was sometimes cheaper than papyrus, which had to be imported outside Egypt. With the invention of wood-pulp paper, the cost of writing material began a steady decline.
The dramatic increase in demand for paper associated with the printing press stimulated dramatic cost reduction efforts. Specialized materials developed for printing have also been made available for writing. The invention of the typewriter was a major step, making possible reliable production of legible written materials by organizations and individual writers.
Electronic media have utilized the keyboard developed for the typewriter, electrical and electronic circuitry and storage devices, and the viewing screen developed for reading electronic signals to separate the medium for writing from the medium for reading.
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- Harris, Roy (1985) The Origin of Writing. La Salle, IL: Open Court.
- Martin, Henri-Jean (1988) The History and Power of Writing, translated by Lydia G. Cochrane. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994.