By the 1850s, the 800 American paper mills in existence needed approximately 18,000 tons of rags per year to keep in production. Most of these rags were imported from Europe with the largest source being from Italy. By 1854, however, Italy also started exporting rags to
England, decreasing the supply available to American paper-makers. This meant that a substitute for or a new supply source of rags needed to be found, and quickly.
Articles discussing the practicality and the financial implications of the import of mummies for paper for the government of Egypt and American paper mills were widely published... for example in the 19 June 1847 issue of Scientific American.
However, by 1856 the New York Tribune was able to report that about two and a quarter million pounds of rags have been imported from Egypt.
Dard Hunter in his book Papermaking: The History and Technique of an Ancient Craft, relates the experiments of I. Augustus Stanwood in both ground-wood paper and mummy paper. During the American Civil War, Stanwood was hard-pressed for materials for his Maine mill. As such, he imported mummies from Egypt, stripped the bodies of their wrappings and used this material for making a brown wrapping paper for grocers & butchers.
Dard Hunter also writes in an extensive footnote of a letter he received relating the recollections of a paper mill worker in Broadalbin, New York between 1855–1860.
He was one of the men responsible for unrolling the old linen wrappings from the mummies the mill received. The rolled-up vestments retained the shape of the mummy, so that when the workmen tried to straighten or unroll the cocoon it sprang back at once into the shape of the mummy it had encased so long. She also describes the material as cream-coloured linen still bearing fragments of embroidery on the edges.
The Evidence against Mummy Paper
Outside of scientific tests, there are no extant records of paper mills buying mummies. If there were records or account books, they have either been lost or recycled by the mill itself for more paper. There are no photographs of mummies or mummy wrappings at any paper mills.
Shipping records and custom records have likewise vanished. However, since rags for paper were duty-free at this time, the cargo wouldn’t have needed to have been declared. Even if the mummy rags had been declared, they probably would have been declared as rags for paper, without the provenance given.
The Smoking Gun
However the existence of the Norwich Broadside at Brown University rare book collection is “the smoking gun” that proves mummies were mulched for newsprint. . A notice, printed on the program, states that it was composed of material imported from Egypt, and taken directly from the ancient tombs where it had been used in embalming mummies.
Another Use for Mummies
In 1881, the artist Laurence Alma Tadema famous for his romantic ancient Egyptian scenes saw his paint preparer grinding up a piece of a mummy. Realizing where “mummy brown” came from, he alerted his fellow painter, Edward Burne-Jones, together with some family members, the remorseful artists held an impromptu funeral burying a tube of mummy brown paint.