For every one tidy and well-packed joint I’ve rolled, there are the green and white entrails of five or more utter failures strewn across whatever counter or tray on which I’m giving a masterclass in how not to handle rolling papers. I blame this frustrating yet hilarious inability of mine on what my musician dad always called “bass fingers” — or, in less tactful but more accurate terms, my sausage fingers.
Let’s be honest, though, blaming it on my wider-than-average extremities is an excuse I tell myself to rationalize being bad at something. In reality, I’m just plain ol’ not good at it.
Having the coordination and dexterity of a moose calf when it comes to rolling doesn’t shake my appreciation for the simple smoking method or its small, rectangular apparatus though. Like so many things we handle on a regular basis, a rich history hides beneath the delicate exterior of this paper product.
When you think about it, most inventions result from a straightforward pattern that’s been repeated countless times throughout history: A person (or people) identify a common need or desire, then he/she/they make a thing that fulfills the need or desire. Rolling papers are no different. Some folks in Alcoy, Spain, realized late in the 18th century that a fair number of people wanted to encase plants (usually tobacco), ignite them and inhale the smoke. For those who couldn't afford fresh tobacco, a common practice involved salvaging cigar butts, crumbling them up to wrap in newspaper, which turned out to be an ink-filled health disaster. So innovative minds saw an opportunity for improvement, and improve they did.
By Decree of the Royal Intendancy of Valencia, “the brothers Vicente and Pascual Albors Gisbert were authorized to convert a fulling factory into a paper factory” in 1755, according to the website of Iberpapel, a mill that continues to manufacture rolling papers in Alcoy to this day. Per Real Academia de Historia’s biography for Vicente Albors Gisbert, he received his doctorate in theology and philosophy from the Valencia seminary, later becoming an astute businessman and skilled industrialist who co-led the factory to such success competitors emerged and began transforming fulling factories to paper mills.
At first, the Gisberts’ mill was intended to supply the wool and cardboard industries, but the company, PAY-PAY (which still exists), was already starting to produce white paper around 1764-65. “Cigarette” papers began to be made in large quantities and exported (mostly to the Americas) about 15 years afterward when metallic vats were introduced to the factories, facilitating “the creation of a new type of paper, finer than usual, specifically for rolling tobacco,” Iberpapel’s website says.
Vats contained the liquidy pulp that other mill workers had prepared and were used in the process of forming sheets. A “vatman” dunked molds into the sloshy substance and then removed them, allowing the water to drain off, while the pulp — now in a sheet-like shape — stayed on the mold.
According to papermaking historian Timothy Barrett, vats were often heated to accelerate this process: “Because warmer water is less viscous, the pulp drained more rapidly and more sheets could be made in less time,” he writes. “Warmer water was also considerably more comfortable than cold water for the vatman's hands.”
The type of fibrous plant used to make the pulp that comprised the very first rolling papers is, to my knowledge, unclear. However, Barrett notes that “microscopic analyses by Thomas Collings and Derek Milner of paper specimens made in Europe between 1400 and 1800 generally showed mixtures of hemp and flax fiber.” By 1765, used rags would no longer have been the favored material for papermaking, and cotton fibers were rarely used prior to 1800, so hemp and flax fibers are the frontrunners for the title of earliest rolling paper pulp.
While a handful of French companies had earlier advertised paper that could be used for smoking, these 1764-1780 developments in Alcoy mark the birth of the thin, pliable little sheets that are closer ancestors to what we’d find in cannabis stores nowadays. Earlier versions — in France, Spain and elsewhere — came in much larger and thicker units than the translucent little devils that refuse to cooperate with my fingers.
In 1815, PAY-PAY carried the idea to a finish line of sorts by packaging and distributing the not-new-but-improved rolling papers in conveniently-sized booklets with pre-cut sheets ready to roll — the days of inhaling ignited ink becoming specks in history’s rearview mirror. Hopefully.