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This substance, so well known to most persons, was for a long time, from its European name perhaps, considered to be an artificial substance and made of rice. But, if held up to the light, a beautiful cellular tissue is discoverable, such as no art of man can imitate. It is the stem, or rather it may perhaps be called the pith, of a plant which grows abundantly in the marshy plains of Bengal, or on the borders of extensive lakes in every province between Calcutta and Hurdwar. It is of straggling low growth, and seldom exceeds a diameter of two inches and a half in the stem. It is brought to the Calcutta bazaars in great quantities in a green state, and the thickest stems are cut into thin leaves, from which the natives form artificial flowers and various fancy ornaments to decorate their shrines at Hindoo festivals. The Indians make hats of Rice Paper, by cementing together as many leaves as will produce the requisite thickness ; in this way any kind of shape may be formed, and when covered with silk or cloth, the hats are inconceivably light.
In cutting this material into leaves, the section is not made transversely across the stem, but vertically round the stem. The most perfect stems are of course selected for this purpose, but few are sufficiently free from knots to produce a cutting of more than from nine to ten inches in length. The whole then unrolls like a scroll of common paper.
The article became first well known in England by means of Miss Jane Jack, 1814, who was celebrated for the beauty of her artificial flowers. Dr. Livingstone brought a quantity of this substance from China, and gave to that lady. Using the material in the manufacture of her flowers, they attained additional celebrity, fetched very high prices, and were eagerly sought after by persons of the highest rank and most acknowledged taste. For a bouquet which Miss Jack presented to her royal highness the late Princess Charlotte of Wales, she received the sum of 701. The pieces of Rice Paper, procured by Dr. Livingstone from the Chinese, were dyed of various shades and colours, and did not exceed in size four inches square. The pieces are now much larger, and the price very considerably reduced.
It is an article of great use to the fishermen of the East; it forms floats of the best description to their extensive nets. The slender stems of the plant are tied into bundles of about three feet long, and with one of these under his arm does every fisherman go out to his daily occupation. With his net on his shoulder, he proceeds to work without a boat, and stretches it in the deepest and most extensive lakes, supported by this buoyant faggot.
By the aid of a somewhat similar plant, the natives of South America pass their largest rivers ; on their arrival at the opposite bank, the light bundle is thrown across their shoulders, and the traveller proceeds onward till a second stream presents itself, when he again commits himself to its waters, relying with full confidence on his frail bark.