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Museum of Oxford Digital Exhibitions

A global trade

Photo credit: By permission of the Secretary to the Delegates of Oxford University Press

This tiny book is printed on a remarkable new kind of paper invented in the nineteenth century. Oxford India paper, first used to print the Bible in 1842, was the outcome of what has been described as the University Press’ ‘obsession’ to produce ever thinner paper and ever smaller and more portable books. The origins of this incredibly thin yet strong new material are still shrouded in mystery – although it seems that it was inspired by advances in paper technology from East Asia. What is clear is that it helped Oxford University Press to flood the Empire with scripture. Many missionaries were sent out from Oxford too – and returned with materials and artefacts from the lands whose peoples they intended to convert to Christianity.

The development of the diminutive India Paper Bible demonstrates the global business ambitions of the Oxford University Press. The Bibles were printed using a hard-wearing yet ultra-thin paper originally from China, but later from various parts of East Asia. The OUP's version was first produced at Wolvercote Mill in 1875 and was promptly used for the printing of compact but high-quality Bibles. These miniature volumes were a commercial success for the press and were distributed widely. They were often used in missionary work, through which the East Asian technology that had led to the Bibles' production returned to those regions, albeit in a new context.