The Basel Paper Mill

The Swiss Museum for Paper, Writing and Printing of Basel preserves and actively shares with visitors the ancient techniques that have allowed the collection and diffusion of ideas and knowledge throughout the centuries.

Nico Zardo

Sprawled on a bend of the Rhine River, in the center of Europe, Basel - with its landscapes and buildings - knows well how to evoke the signs by an important history and a great civilization. Bastion of the Roman Empire under the name of Augusta Raurica, it became a dynamic crossroads of different European cultures thanks also to the presence of the first university founded north of the Alps, in 460 A.D. by Pope Pius II, where Paracelsus and Erasmus of Rotterdam taught. Headquarters of important pharmaceutical companies, historic reference for international peace negotiations and conferences, today the city hosts important museums and study centers for every form of art, making its propensity towards culture clearly alive and visible.


THE PAPER MUSEUM IS HOSTED IN AN OLD MILL, in the St. Alban quarter where from the 12th to the 17th centuries about a dozen mills assured Basel the primacy in the production of paper in Switzerland. In the same area where Antonio Gallician founded his paper mill in 1453, which was later modified by other paper producers and remained active until 1924, today it is still possible to follow the production process using the methods of yesteryear, directly taking part in the main phases. The practical intervention initiative is combined with a didactic itinerary that, through exhaustive graphics and important exhibits, narrates the history of paper starting from its very origins: from the tapa, obtained by processing the internal part of the bark of mulberry trees, to papyrus, to parchment.


AT THE BASEL MILL, PAPER is produced by following traditional procedures and using vintage tools and machines. We start with the collection and processing of rags, shredded using large trip hammers actuated by hydraulic energy. Mixed with water, the rags are reduced to a fibrous pulp. The mold is emerged inside which, once drained from the excess water, will assume the aspect of the future sheet of paper. Removed from the mold, carefully placed between felts, the sheets are squeezed by a large press to eliminate excess water. They are then hung on lines and left to dry like clothes under the sun. Afterwards, the sheets are smoothed andtreated to make their surface impermeable to ink which would otherwise expand on it like it does on a piece of absorbent paper.


THERE’S NOTHING LIKE FOLLOWING THE MANY PHASES OF ITS PRODUCTION TO INSTILL RESPECT FOR THESHEET OF PAPER, just for the sheer effort that it entails. It is hence natural to feel admiration for and recognition towards the Frenchman Nicolas-Louis Robert who in 1798 invented a machine that enabled the production of a continuous band of paper, thus setting the stage for the improvements made by the Englishman Bryan Donkin (1804) relative to the technique for its industrial-scale production.

Particularly interesting is one paper machine we find inside the museum, a miniature model similar to the large Fourdrinier machines currently in use, built by Kämmerer Ltd. in 1964, that can produce 30-cm wide rolls. The exemplary spirit of thoroughness in exhibiting the different types and uses of paper also takes toilet paper into consideration, reserving a corner of mini-history to it with samples that go from pages of newspapers hung on a metallic hook up to the first modern rolls of tissue.


BUT THE BASEL MUSEUM DOES NOT STOP AT PAPER; it includes much more and completes the important function of collecting the history of “white art” - paper - and “black art”, i.e., writing, typographical characters and printing machines and then the creation of a book. For the history of writing, we can admire stone statuettes bearing hieroglyphics dating back to 1500 B.C., tablets with wedge-shaped engravings from 600 B.C., and a 15th-century printing office with manual presses, similar to those that could have been used by Gutenberg. From wooden types we pass to lead ones in a laboratory where they are cast “on-site” under the eyes of the visitor.

Upstairs, we find printing machines that were in operation until the 1980s, when, in just a few years, the digital revolution rendered obsolete all techniques and procedures “carved” in metal.

All these machines are there not only to bear witness to a technology that has marked our history: they are functional and operational, available to anyone who wants to order products printed using “antique” modes and qualities and to offer learning and job opportunities to persons with disabilities. A further merit of the precious, small but great Basel Paper Mill. •

  • An artisan collecting the pulp with the mold.
  • A woman collecting rags in the 18th century.
  • The entrance to the museum.
  • The sheets hung out to dry.
  • The trip hammers to mash the rags.
  • Sheets of vegetables paper (tapa)
  • The toilet paper corner.
  • A reduced scale model of a Fourdrinier paper machine.
  • Document bearing antique writings
  • Document bearing antique writings
Login or Register to publish a comment