Historical investigations into the origin of the paper mill are complicated by differing definitions and loose terminology from modern authors: Many modern scholars use the term to refer indiscriminately to all kinds of mills, whether powered by humans, by animals or by water. Their propensity to refer to any ancient paper manufacturing centre as a "mill", without further specifying its exact power drive, has increased the difficulty of identifying the particularly efficient and historically important water-powered type.
Human and animal-powered mills
The use of human and animal powered mills was known to Chinese and Muslim papermakers. However, evidence for water-powered paper mills is elusive among both prior to the 11th century. The general absence of the use of water-powered paper mills in Muslim papermaking prior to the 11th century is suggested by the habit of Muslim authors at the time to call a production center not a "mill", but a "paper manufactory".
Scholars have identified paper mills in Abbasid-era Baghdad in 794–795. The evidence that waterpower was applied to papermaking at this time is a matter of scholarly debate. In the Moroccan city of Fez, Ibn Battuta speaks of "400 mill stones for paper". Since Ibn Battuta does not mention the use of water-power and such a number of water-mills would be grotesquely high, the passage is generally taken to refer to human or animal force.
Dutch paper mill from 1654 in the Arnhem open-air museum
Stromer's paper mill, the building complex at the far right bottom, in the Nuremberg Chronicle
of 1493. Due to their noise and smell, papermills were required by medieval law to be erected some distance from the city walls.
An exhaustive survey of milling in Al-Andalus did not uncover water-powered paper mills, nor do the Spanish books of property distribution (Repartimientos) after the Christian reconquest refer to any. Arabic texts never use the term mill in connection with papermaking and the most thorough account of Muslim papermaking at the time, the one by the Zirid Sultan Al-Muizz ibn Badis, describes the art purely in terms of a handcraft. Donald Hill has identified a possible reference to a water-powered paper mill in Samarkand, in the 11th-century work of the Persian scholar Abu Rayhan Biruni, but concludes that the passage is "too brief to enable us to say with certainty" that it refers to a water-powered paper mill. This is seen by Leor Halevi as evidence of Samarkand first harnessing waterpower in the production of paper, but notes that it is not known if waterpower was applied to papermaking elsewhere across the Islamic world at the time. Robert I. Burns remains sceptical, given the isolated occurrence of the reference and the prevalence of manual labour in Islamic papermaking elsewhere prior to the 13th century.
Hill notes that paper mills appear in early Christian Catalan documentation from the 1150s, which may imply Islamic origins, but that hard evidence is lacking. Burns, however, has dismissed the case for early Catalan water-powered paper mills, after re-examination of the evidence. The identification of early hydraulic stamping mills in medieval documents from Fabriano, Italy, is also completely without substance.
Clear evidence of a water-powered paper mill dates to 1282 in the Spanish Kingdom of Aragon. A decree by the Christian king Peter III addresses the establishment of a royal "molendinum", a proper hydraulic mill, in the paper manufacturing centre of Xàtiva. This early hydraulic paper mill originated from Muslim Mudéjar in the Moorish quarter of Xàtiva, where paper mills were a Muslim Mudejar operated enterprise. However, it appears to be resented by sections of the local Muslim papermakering community; the document guarantees them the right to continue the way of traditional papermaking by beating the pulp manually and grants them the right to be exempted from work in the new mill.
The first permanent paper mill north of the Alps was established in Nuremberg by Ulman Stromer in 1390; it is later depicted in the lavishly illustrated Nuremberg Chronicle. From the mid-14th century onwards, European paper milling underwent a rapid improvement of many work processes.
The size of a paper mill prior to the use of industrial machines was described by counting the number of vats it had. Thus, a "one vat" paper mill had only one vatman, one coucher, and other laborers.
By the early 20th century, paper mills sprang up around New England and the rest of the world, due to the high demand for paper. At this time, there were many world leaders of the production of paper; one such was the Brown Company in Berlin, New Hampshire run by William Wentworth Brown. During the year 1907, the Brown Company cut between 30 and 40 million acres of woodlands on their property, which extended from La Tuque, Quebec, Canada to West Palm, Florida.
In the 1920s Nancy Baker Tompkins represented large paper manufacturing companies, like Hammermill Paper Company, Honolulu Paper Company and Appleton Coated Paper Company to promote sales to the distributors of paper products. It was (said to be) the only business of its kind in the world and was started in 1931 by Tompkins and prospered in spite of the business depression.
“Log drives” were conducted on local rivers to send the logs to the mills. By the late 20th and early 21st-century, paper mills began to close and the log drives became a dying craft. Due to the addition of new machinery, many millworkers were laid off and many of the historic paper mills closed.