The History of Papier Mache

By Michelle McGarry ; Updated September 15, 2017

According to the Encyclopedia of Crafts, papier mache is the French term for “chewed-up paper. ” It’s also the term for the technique of mixing paper and glue for use in crafts and fine arts. Papier mache has been used over the centuries to make sculptures, masks, dolls, toys and even furniture. Its origins date back to ancient times.

Method

Traditional papier mache involves tearing paper into small pieces and adding them to white glue or wallpaper paste. The mixture can then be placed on a mold or onto a frame and sculpted. When dry, the surface is hard and durable. The surface can then be smoothed with sandpaper and painted.

Techniques

The basic methods of applying papier mache are laminating, molding or forming with paper mash. Laminating is a technique in which layers of paper are glued together and are then cut, shaped and molded as desired. With molding, a form, such as a bowl or balloon, is used to shape the pieces of wet papier mache. Paper mash can also be used instead of using strips of paper, which is made by soaking paper in water for two days and then squeezing out the excess water. This paper pulp is then mixed with paste to be sculpted.

Origins

Although the exact origin of papier mache is unknown, it is suspected to have come from ancient China, where paper was first invented. The ancient Chinese made helmets from papier mache during the Han Dynasty (202 BC to 220 AD). These helmets were fortified with many layers of lacquer. Evidence of papier mache use was found in ancient Tibet, where they made highly decorative masks. In Japan, papier mache was used to make armor!

Uses

In the 1600s, the French became the first Europeans to use papier mache, creating boxes, trays and other decorative objects. During the 1800s, the English made trays, workboxes, snuff boxes and letter holders, and they eventually expanded to make furniture, such as chairs, beds and bookcases.

Dolls

During the 1800s, German factories began to use molds to mass-produce papier mache dolls. French toy makers also produced papier mache dolls during this period. In the United States, the first doll was patented in 1858 with a shoulder-head made of papier mache reinforced with cloth. It was patented by Ludwig Greiner, a German-born toy maker in Philadelphia.

Modern Uses

Today papier mache can be done simply by tearing up strips of newspaper and adding a mixture of white glue and water. It is a popular craft for children. Instant papier mache (paper pulp in a box) can be purchased at art supply stores.

About the Author

Michelle McGarry has been a freelance writer since 1998. She writes about cooking, parenting, health, culture, society, crafts, careers, education, books and libraries. She self-published a book and currently publishes a monthly newsletter for school librarians. McGarry has a Master of Arts in writing and publishing from Emerson College. She is also currently pursuing her Master of Library Science degree from Simmons College.