History of Papermaking

Discovery of Papermaking

In 105 A.D. Ts’ai Lun, a Chinese court official, mashed pieces of mulberry bark, cloth and hemp in water until they were reduced to pulp. He then drained away the water, pressing and drying the matted fibers. The result was paper.

The secret of papermaking remained in China for 650 years, until Arabs learned the art from Chinese prisoners of war. The process was brought to Europe in the 12th century—but the method of making paper from wood was lost along the way. Rags were used instead.

Early American Papermaking—Use of Rags as Raw Material

William Rittenhouse and William Bradford founded the first North American paper mill in 1690 at Wissahickon Creek, near Philadelphia. Other mills soon opened, with much of the industry concentrated in New York, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and Connecticut.

Papermaking in Maine began in the 1730s, when a small mill was built on the Presumpscot River in Westbrook. Maine’s attraction for paper manufacturing was its rivers and streams—important sources of power and clean water for the manufacturing process. Wood was as yet unimportant to papermaking, which still used rags as its raw material.

In 1854 Samuel Dennis Warren purchased the mill in Westbrook for $28,000, starting the S.D. Warren Company. At that time discarded clothes were beaten to a pulp and poured into molds to make paper at the mill. Under his leadership the mill grew steadily; by 1856 the S.D. Warren mill (now owned by Sappi Fine Papers North America) was the largest importer of rags in the world.

Use of Wood for Pulp Sparks Maine Industry

A rag shortage in the 1850s, along with increasing demand for paper, enticed European and American inventors to find alternative supplies for making pulp. These inventors found mechanical and chemical methods for efficiently making paper from wood. Poplar was the wood of choice, and new mills began to open near the source of this fiber. Many of these mills were in New England.

The first wood pulp in Maine was produced in the basement of a Topsham sawmill in 1868, marking the beginning of the paper industry’s rapid growth in Maine. The Topsham mill produced 1 ton of pulp per day. By 1875 the S.D. Warren mill in Westbrook first blended wood fibers with rag pulp; five years later the Westbrook mill was the largest paper mill in the world.

At this time mills were using a mechanical pulping process (many still do). But in 1866 an American named Benjamin Tilghman developed a sulfite chemical pulping process, heating liquefied wood fibers with a sulfurous solution. The first mill using this process was built in Sweden in 1874. In the 1880s this process was brought to Maine, beginning a period of rapid growth in Maine’s pulp and paper industry.

The Growth Years

In 1882 a sawmill in Old Town began using their byproducts to make soda pulp, forming the Penobscot Chemical Fiber Company. In 1883 the company built a sulfite pulp mill, producing 18 tons of pulp per day. This mill grew and transformed into the Old Town Fuel & Fiber mill operating today.

In 1888 Hugh J. Chisholm built the Otis Falls Pulp Company mill in Jay, then the third largest paper mill in the country. In 1898 this mill became one of the founding mills of International Paper, the same year that IP established its corporate headquarters in Portland. International Paper sold the Otis mill in 1978; it was closed in 2009.

President Grover Cleveland led a team of investors to bring a new sulfite pulping technology to central Maine in 1889, starting the Madison Paper Industry mill that is still in operation today.

New mills came on line across the state, in Gardiner, Mechanic Falls, Poland, Canton, Waterville, Norway, South Paris and Brunswick. Although these mills are no longer in operation, their presence shaped the towns that they helped to build.

By 1890 there were 25 pulp mills in Maine: twelve soda/sulfite mills producing 182 tons of pulp per day, and 13 ground wood mills rated at 157 tons per day.

Five years later Maine’s capacity increased to 1036 tons per day of pulp and 508 tons per day of paper. Maine led the nation in pulp production. Three of Maine’s current mills were built during this period of rapid growth.

In 1900 the Great Northern Paper Company began manufacturing newsprint in Millinocket. This mill was, as it opened, the largest in the world, producing 240 tons/day of newsprint, 120 tons/day of sulfite pulp, and 240 tons/day of ground wood pulp. Great Northern expanded the facility in 1906, adding a mill in East Millinocket. These mills are now owned by the Katahdin Paper Company.

In the early 1900s two mills that are still in operation today were built on opposite ends of the state. Hugh J. Chisholm opened the Oxford Paper Company’s Rumford mill, now owned by NewPage, in 1901. In 1906 St. Croix Paper opened the Baileyville (Woodland) mill, now owned by Woodland Pulp LLC.

With this growth Maine surpassed Connecticut, New Hampshire, and Vermont in the volume of paper produced, becoming the third leading papermaking state, behind Massachusetts and New York. But the expansion was not limited to the northeast—new facilities were being constructed in Illinois, Michigan, Ohio and Wisconsin.

1910-1930: Continued Growth, Increasing Competition

In the early part of the 20th century Maine’s mills grew, primarily by adding new machines, although existing machines were also made to run faster. But new factories continued to be built further west, as Wisconsin became an increasingly important player. Competition also came from Canada, where shipments of paper (largely newsprint) to the U.S. increased from 3.9 million tons in 1912 to 37.7 tons in 1918. Some Maine mills could not compete and closed; others converted to the production of writing papers.

Donald Fraser opened a sawmill in New Brunswick in 1877. His company grew into the largest wood products business in the Maritimes. His son, Archibald Fraser, opened a sulfite pulp mill in Edmundston, New Brunswick in 1918. Seven years later the company reincorporated as Fraser Paper Ltd., and opened a two-machine paper mill in Madawaska. In 1928 Fraser started its first lightweight paper machine, and installed a mile-long pipeline to connect the Edmundston pulp mill to the Madawaska paper mill. This allowed the newly created company to compete in the American fine paper market. This mill is now owned by Twin Rivers Paper Company.

When Central Maine Power completed the Wyman Dam in Bingham they needed a customer for its excess power. CMP created an affiliate, the Maine Seaboard Paper Company, and built what is now the Verso Paper mill in Bucksport. This mill initially produced newsprint, but later shifted to lightweight coated paper used for magazines and catalogs.

By 1930 Maine surpassed Massachusetts in paper production, becoming the second leading paper producing state behind New York.

Maine Becomes the Leading Papermaking State

From 1930 to the early 1960s no new mills were built in Maine, but many changes at the existing mills propelled Maine to be the nation’s leading paper producing state.

The sulfite pulping process dominated the industry until 1937. At that time, Kraft (from the German word meaning "strong") pulping became the dominant chemical pulping process and still is today. The Kraft process had several distinct advantages: it produced a high-strength pulp, the chemicals used to dissolve the lignin were recoverable and tremendous amounts of energy were produced during the recovery process, and the process could pulp softwood trees, which predominate in the northeastern United States. Many Maine pulp mills shifted to Kraft process during this time period.

Investments in Maine mills also allowed them to shift production to printing and writing papers, which were growing rapidly in demand. Maine became a leader in coated paper and uncoated ground wood production, and remains so today. These grades of paper are used in magazines and catalogs, and in copy and printing papers.

The Challenge from the West and South

International Paper opened the Androscoggin mill in Jay in 1965. The mill, owned by Verso Paper, now includes a woodyard, three woodrooms, utilities, two continuous pulp digesters, two bleach plants, and five paper machines. The five paper machines have the combined capacity to produce more than 1,800 tons per day—more than the combined total of all 12 mills operating in Maine in 1880 and approximately ¼ as much as all of the other mills operating in Maine when the Androscoggin mill was opened.

Machines at other mills continued to be improved to operate faster and with wider rolls to increase productivity. Despite these improvements, by 1960 Maine lost its claim to be the largest papermaking state to Wisconsin, as many new mills were brought on line there. Much of the U.S. brown paper (eg. cardboard) production moved to southern states, which increased their share of the U.S. paper market as new plants were built to use fiber from southern pine plantations. The industry in the Pacific northwest also grew rapidly.

This trend continued through the 1970s and 1980s. Paper companies continued to invest in Maine, but Wisconsin, Washington, and several southern states became more attractive for investment dollars and saw their position relative to Maine improve.

In 1981 Maine’s newest paper mill was completed in Skowhegan. The Sappi Fine Paper North America Somerset mill now has Maine’s highest capacity, capable of producing 2,410 tons of paper per day, along with 1,500 tons of Kraft pulp. The mill produces high quality printing and writing papers.

Maine was making more pulp and paper than ever before. However, Maine’s smaller, older mills had to change in order to compete with the new mills in Maine and elsewhere. Some mills shifted to specialty papers, while others upgraded their machines to run more efficiently. Other mills that did not make these investments were forced to close. Maine retained its position as the second largest paper producing state, but the competition was relentless.

Current Status

Recently competition has come from places far more distant than Massachusetts, New York, Wisconsin or Canada. Off shore competition started in Europe, where many new mills and upgraded facilities were completed in the 1980s and 1990s. Then Latin America jumped in—aided by a vast forest resource of fast growing trees Brazil and Chile built large new pulping facilities, causing a decrease in U.S. pulp production since 1995.

New paper capacity is now shifting to Asia. While no new mills have been built in the U.S. for many years, many new mills are under construction in China, Korea, Indonesia and across the globe. These new mills are larger and faster than those in the U.S. In most cases the cost of labor is much cheaper where the new mills are being built. As a result pulp and paper prices continue to decline.

In order to compete Maine mills have rebuilt their older machines, when they can obtain the capital to do so. They have increased productivity through process improvements, while reducing their labor force. Unfortunately many older mills were forced to close.

Many smaller mills now have niche markets—for example the Sappi mill in Westbrook, built by S.D. Warren, now makes transfer paper that produces patterns in shoes and leather goods—through technology they have established a profitable position for one of the first mills in the country.

Through innovation and continued investment, along with a top-notch workforce and superior forest resource, Maine has remained competitive. Maine remains the second leading paper producing state in the U.S., and continues to produce more paper than ever before. Maine has been producing paper for over 270 years. In that time mills have opened, closed, changed, struggled and prospered. They continue to do so today.

Sources of Information

Much of the information for this paper comes from a book by David C. Smith from the University of Maine. His book, The History of Papermaking in the United States (1691-1969) provides an interesting and comprehensive look at the history of the industry in the U.S. Other sources of information for this paper include Papermaking in Maine: Economic Trends, 1894-2000 by Lloyd Irland; a five part series on the Maine paper industry written by Kathryn Skelton of the Lewiston-Sun Journal in 2002, the websites of the American Forestry & Paper Association and the Wisconsin Paper Council; the Future Forest Economy Report (2004) by Eric Kingsley and the Maine Forest Service; and MPPA member companies