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The Paper Museum, Santa Maria da Feira, Portugal
When it comes to the family tree of Antonio Luis Marques da Silva, there’s a good chance it’s been cut down and turned into pulp. You see, paper is in the genes. His father was a trader in the Portuguese paper business. And, although it seemed coincidental at the time, Antonio ended up in a job where he designed boxes made of cardboard.
Now, many years on, he is the director of Portugal’s official paper museum – a job which has father should be very proud of… on paper, at least.
The Paper Museum is set along the banks of a small trickling river in the quiet town of Pacos de Brandao (about 20 kilometres from Porto). Once upon a time this was a thriving hub of industry with no less than five paper mills on the small stretch that now makes up the museum’s land. There were once thousands of these mills across Portugal until it became much cheaper to do everything in bulk in a large factory.
“The community wants this museum to exist here”, Antonio tells me as he leads me through the building. He believes the local people still have an attachment to the business which employed so many people for so long.
For hundreds of years – right up until the end of the 19th century – paper was made in places like this out of cotton. Often it was all old rags that would be bought cheap that would be the main ingredient. Cut up into tiny pieces and then pulped, the workers would put the product into large vats of water where it would become a big pulpy wet mess. Then, using a sieve-like instrument, the workers would scoop up a tray of pulp, shake out the water and then place the damp mush somewhere to dry… into paper.
About ten kilograms of rags would make about 2000 sheets of paper and it would take one man all day to make just 500 sheets. Even though paper made from cotton is considered to be higher quality than the wood-based equivalent, you can see that it’s not really economical in today’s world.
In fact, with the revolutionisation of the industry in the early 20th century, the paper mills in Portugal gradually faded away. Any production that is done these days with the old method still incorporates a bit of modern technology – the eight metre long automatic machine with a cylindrical mould.
“It is a revolutionary machine”, Antonio explains, “but a small machine you can understand.”
Here, in the museum’s buildings, for instance, the paper is only made for something special or different – wrapping paper, perhaps. Or little bags for food.
On the top floor, you can see where this is done. The huge racks of paper drying fill much of the space. When they’re completely free of moisture they will be cut up and transformed (quite simply, as Antonio demonstrates) into souvenirs.
It’s something that us tourists can take away with us. But, more importantly, we can also take away an understanding of how these towns once were and how they survived prosperously for so long. The museum itself is an excellent testament to this heritage and melds the historical equipment with the ability to get a bit hands-on. It was rewarded for this approach in 2011 when it was named the best museum in Portugal.
Some things are worth much more than the paper they’re printed on.
Time Travel Turtle was a guest of the Porto and Northern Portugal Tourism Association but the opinions, over-written descriptions and bad jokes are his own.