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Door 7 – Wrapping up for Christmas!

Thursday, December 7, 2017 3:02
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This post by Florence Bullough originally appeared on Four Degrees, part of the EGU blogs network.

In our second look at links between geology and Christmas, Flo Bullough investigates the geological origins of wrapping paper…

Christmas wrapping paper! Source: Wikimedia commons

The use of wrapping paper was first documented in ancient China, where it was invented in the 2nd century BC. But it was the innovations of Rollie and Joyce Hall, the founders of Hallmark Cards, that helped popularise the idea of wrapping in the 20th century. Wrapping paper is made using specially milled wood pulp, itself made from a special class of trees called softwoods. The paper is then bleached and decoration and colours are printed onto the paper using dyes and pigments.

Whilst many dyes that are used in the modern day are synthetic, originally all dye materials were sourced from natural materials. Here we focus on how to make the dyes and pigments for christmassy colours!


Powdered Alizarin dye. Source – Wikimedia Commons

There are a variety of natural materials that can be used to make red dyes, including lichen, henna and madder. Madder, made from the dye plant Rubia tinctorum, has been used as a dye as far back as 1500 BC – it was even found in the tomb of Tutankhamun. Madder was also used to make Alizarin, the compound 1,2-dihydroxy-9,10-anthracenedione. Alizarin was a prominent red dye until synthetic Alizarin was successfully duplicated in 1869 when German chemists Carl Graebe and Carl Liebermann found a way to produce alizarin from anthracene. A later discovery that anthracene could be abstracted from coal tar further advanced the importance and affordability of alizarin as a synthetic dye. This reduced cost caused the market for madder to collapse almost overnight. While alizarin has been largely replaced by more light-resistant pigmens it is still used in some printing.  (QI – it is also used in classrooms as a stain to indicate the calcium carbonate minerals, calcite and aragonite!)

Other more exotic inks and pigments used in wrapping paper such as metallic pigments are also made through mined raw materials. To produce metallic pigments, materials such as Aluminium powder (aluminium bronze) and copper-zinc alloy powder (gold bronze) are used to produce novel silver and gold inks!

Our favourite geology inspired wrapping paper!

Now you’ve had some background into how wrapping paper is made, why not theme your Christmas presents with some geological wrapping paper? Here are some of our favourites!

Mineralogy paper, Cavillini & Co 

A-Z of geology, British Geological Survey shop

Minerals paper, British Geological Survey shop

Dinosaur paper, Cavillini & Co 

Geoadvent Challenge!

For those keeping score, yesterday’s window represented Clogherhead and the Shannon Estuary, Ireland.

Leave a comment identifying which plate tectonic story today’s window represents to be in with a chance of winning our Geoadvent prize!


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