There was a city called Leominster, and in this city there was one word; plastic. What we know as plastic products we take for granted today would not exist without the creative and hard working minds of these Leominster factories. You have to understand that during these times it was as if the world had discovered a brand new element. You can think of forks, combs, plates, cups, computers. This was “plastic city”, “comb city”, or “flamingo city” depending on who you asked. At the same time there was the city of Holyoke nicknamed “paper city” and the Maine paper factories in the town of Millinocket known as “magic city” that were paramount in creating the first industrial centers of textbooks and newspapers that would go on to form the first public schools and universities, so that now even the common man could afford books and read the news. Out of this also came the adoption of mass distribution of news in the form of the nation’s first widespread newspapers. It truly was a time period of wild west opportunity where everyone and anyone named Bob and Samantha was trying to get their hands on either the plastic or paper industry. Summer nights were about as foul smelling as could be, and the rivers and rivulets were polluted and colored green. However you could rise within the shop job to foreman or machinist or a place in the office or learn the plastics business and buy a couple of molds of your own. It was this economy that raised an entire generation of New Englanders.
Industry was cradle to grave up until the late 1960s, and then the system began to leak at the seams. There were layoffs more often, not just seasonal. It was in the late 1980s when there was a massive outsourcing from Leominster, and four “powerhouse” companies closed their factories in five years alone. The three main factors such as rise in cost of electricity in Massachusetts, new environmental and zoning laws that were put into place that made it more difficult for companies to remain profitable, and increased outside competition from foreign labor that was perhaps the largest factor and nail in the coffin to ultimately weaken labor union power. By the turn of the century after trade deals such as NAFTA and permanent trade status with China had been passed, the entire plastic and paper industry had moved south of the border or overseas, but at one point in history it was made right here at home. You wouldn’t know it today though because the National Plastics Center and Museum which opened in 1982 in Leominster forced to close in 2008 for lack of funding and never reopened again, and paper production became frowned upon as a means to clean up our rivers from toxic dyes. Today these sites are now abandoned factories of forgotten dreams. I think it is important that we tell their story and what ultimately led to their demise.
American Pad & Paper (1884–1991)
If you’re a school teacher or remember your childhood, you probably used a product made by this company no matter what part of the country you live in. Many don’t know it, but for over 100 years every notebook sold in stores across the country was made in factories in Massachusetts.
This was the second major paper company operating in Holyoke alongside Parsons by local entrepreneur Thomas Holley along with investor Cyrus H. Taber. He did this at first by taking the “waste” pulp and paper material from the Parsons plant dumpster which he was allowed to obtain for free, cut the paper himself, inscribed lines into it and glued into pads, and started selling his product to discount stores. This was essentially the invention of the first legal pad ever to be produced. Some positions at the factory included “product manager”, “director of business development”, “assistant product manager”, “closing operator”, “maintenance supervisor”, “machinists” “millwrights” machine repairmen”, and “plant electricians”. They practically invented the canary-colored legal pads, to the point where by the mid century they were responsible for sixty percent of the legal pads sold. Company officials said psychologists told them a preference for the color yellow is often a sign of an orderly and consistent mind.
In 1889 he opened his own store and filled an entire floor on Main Street in Holyoke with his invention. By the early 20th century the product was so popular Holley bought two buildings on Winter and Appleton Street just to store his inventory. It was a huge local favorite that was about to blow up. However at this time in the early 20th century the company only employed 120 people at its original five story plant in Holyoke. During WWII the company started to massively expand their operations across the country. They were a generous company as well. Workers were reportedly paid so well, that in December of 1956 it was written in the Boston Globe that 120 employees by a 3 total margin had voted to forego their Christmas present (bonus) from the company and instead have it applied to Hungarian relief. Two-thirds to the International Rescue Committee for Hungary and one-third to Red Cross relief for Hungary. The action of the Holyoke workers was believed to be the first of its kind int he country, and Donald R. Taber, treasure and general manage, had high praise for the move.
In 1957 the company announced a new $700,000 115,000 square foot building in Holyoke which expanded their space by 25 percent for production and warehousing. The new two story building would incorporate the latest ideas in industrial design replacing a five-story structure the company had occupied for about 60 years. This land was given away from Holyoke Water & Power company as an incentive to bring more business into the city. Practically every school in New England including colleges were customers of their products including UMASS. For the upcoming fall semester of 1975, Campus Promotions contracted with American Pad of Holyoke to produce 500,000 copies of a standard spiral bound notebook which contained ads for some of their largest customers such as Nikon cameras, Landlubber jeans, Jose Cuervo tequila, and Gillette razors. It should be noted that every employee that worked for the company was given shared ownership in stock when they were manufacturing locally, also known as profit sharing.
By the late 1970s the company opened two other plants in Mattoon Illinois and Salt Lake City, and distribution centers in Atlanta, Chicago, and Los Angeles, and Grapevine Texas. This would be a sign of things to come. In 1983 shareholders voted to rename the company Ampad Incorporated as they wanted to expand their operations worldwide, but this would not be a good sign for what was once the paper city of America. In the 1986 Mead purchased the company and two years later voted to cut hours on workers and remove company pensions for new employees. This resulted in United Paperworkers International Union going on strike for the first time. This also followed another strike at their Marion Indiana plant in 1990.
Mead decided to sell the company rather than give in to demands, so in 1991 they gave 80% share to Bain Capital which was an investment group owned by Mitt Romney who would go onto be a future Governor of Massachusetts. In July of 1992, the Boston Globe reported that the Mead investors chose to shed an estimated 1,000 jobs across the country. This included the sale of their Holyoke office supplies headquarters on Appleton Street known as Ampad to Mitt Romney. Romney embarked on a “roll-up strategy” in which a firm buys up similar companies in the same industry in order to expand revenues and cut costs. Through Ampad, Bain bought several other office supply makers, borrowing heavily each time. By 1999, Ampad’s debt reached nearly $400 million, up from $11 million in 1993, according to government filings. The result: Ampad couldn’t pay its debts and plunged into bankruptcy.
“They asked me if you could talk to Mitt Romney what would you say? But what I said was from the heart.” Said Sharon Alter, a 53 year old divorced mother of three who worked at the Marion plant for 30 years before she was fired in July.” — Boston Globe (10/03/1994)
“Bain Capital put $5 million into its purchase of American Pad & Paper and quickly began charging management and other fees. It also made payments to investors. In all, Bain and its investors reaped more than $100 million even though Ampad ended up in bankruptcy, workers lost jobs, and stockholders were left with worthless shares.” — Boston Globe (6/26/2007)
In July of 1992, the Boston Globe reported that the Mead investors chose to shed an estimated 1,000 jobs across the country. Within one year after a July 4th weekend in 1994, workers in Holyoke and at the Indiana factory showed up to notices of employment termination. When Mitt Romney who made the decision to pull Ampad’s headquarters out of Holyoke the city lost hundreds of jobs and the loss of the last major paper industry in Holyoke.
On Google maps you can see the factory building today sitting in a dilapidated state with bashed out windows and filled with graffiti in a state of disrepair, when just a few decades before it was a powerhouse to the local economy. In an ironic twist Mitt Romney would later go on to become Governor of Massachusetts from 2003 to 2007, voters seemingly ignoring the damage which was caused to his own state he acted to care about but evidently did not when it came to saving the industrial mecca known as the Paper City.
Borden Chemical (1956–1987)
Borden Chemical had a short but substantial history in the Leominster area, as they were the pioneers of PVC plastics in the region along with Dupont. In December of 1956 President of Borden Company Harold Comfort announced he had chosen Leominster on Lancaster Street for the opening of a new polyvinyl chloride resin plant, which was set to be the first of its kind in the country. From their record books they provided various employment positions such as “maintenance mechanic”, “chemical fireman”, “production helper”, “control lab assistant”, “lab electrician” “lab secretary”, and of course the “lead technician”. They offered on the job training for graduates out of high school.
In 1970 Borden President Harry Wechsler opened up a second $1.2 million factory in Leominster dedicated as a compound plant for production of the materials used in food packaging and bottled water. They would produce both the powder and in granule form at this new factory. The second plant ultimately doubled their production capacity, and during their peak of operation in the 1970s they employed close to 500 workers. They were the second largest plastics company in Leominster at the time.
Records show that the factory pumped out molds for another decade of solid employment until at first a 1979 incident. In 1979, the federal National Labor Relations Board sued Borden Chemical for “unfair labor practices”. Court documents show they were requested to furnish Local №533, International Chemical Workers Union (Union) with the information requested, and that it compensate former employee Donald J. Collette for unpaid accrued vacation benefits; and that it post the appropriate notices.
However this was just a cake walk for what would happen just a few years later. In 1978 under the Carter administration, Congress decided to change the definition of enforceable emissions to include factory work place standards and design. In 1983 documents show that the United States EPA sued Borden Chemical in Massachusetts 3rd district court for what they deemed a violation of air emissions, for releasing vinyl chloride or PVC into the upper atmosphere as valve discharge. Their emergency valve discharge system is what prevented the plant from blowing up. The EPA also decided to fine Borden for every day their emissions violated their new standards going back to 1976, which at the time was up to $25,000 per day on record.
“Borden has argued to the court that these are actually work practice standards, promulgated in 1976 when the Administrator had only the authority to promulgate emission standards. These regulations are not enforceable emission standards and are not possible.” — 1983 Borden Chemical Statement
The Massachusetts court sided with the EPA in 1984 stating that provisions which the EPA sought to enforce were actually work practice standards, even though they were being labelled an “emissions.” The bottom line was that Borden Chemical was fined over 65 million dollars in 1984, which would be the equivalent in the year 2020 of almost a quarter of a million dollars. The EPA even recognized that a zero emissions limitation would effectively prohibit the manufacturing of products containing vinyl chloride in Leominster.
The company continued operations for another three years getting fined by the EPA every day, until in 1987 when they made the decision to close their doors laying off 350 workers. This ending the second oldest major plastic plant that was left in Leominster, and the end of PVC manufacturing in New England. Today China is the number one exporter of PVC plastic products.
Dupont / Mi-Lor (1901–1995)
Dupont was once a household name, but little does anyone know that the plastics arm of Dupont was founded right here in Leominster as the Viscoloid Company. The Viscoloid company was the first plastics company in the United States if not the world, and started as the Sterling Comb Company.
The company was the first in the world to develop pyroxylin (celluloid) plastic hair combs, toilet articles, and a number of different products. Documents show that Viscoloid made the first plastic toys in the world in 1914 known as pyroxylin toys. By the 1920s the factory was so large that it spanned 106 buildings, and was the third largest factory in Leominster employing close to 400 workers. In 1925 it was bought by Dupont who decided to jump into the plastics business. This company would go onto to be officially called the Dupont Viscoloid Company headquartered on Lancaster Street, and owned by the original founder who took over Dupont Bernard Boyle who’s family ran the factory for almost 100 years and employed hundreds.
In 1977 the original owners from Dupont decided to sell the factory to another family owned company. Local newspapers show it was purchased by Mi-Lor who only laid off 10% of the 175 workers during that year. They continued the same production of pyroxylin products for another 13 years successfully. They were famous for the Mi-Lor combs, tooth brushes, and dental floss we all remember from the 70’s and sold across the country. Mi-Lor also kept the Dupont logo, and in the early 1980’s expanded again reaching their peak employment during that time of 250 union workers.
However outside foreign competition would not act too kindly to the former Dupont factory, as it was reported in various newspapers that Leominster started raising their water and sewer rates on businesses. The first sign of things to come came in the year 1990. The Fitchburg Sentinel reported on March 12, 1990 that Mi-lor laid off close to 100 workers over the period of a year as they made cutbacks due to lower production orders from the surrounding community, and sold off seven toothbrush making machines to a competing company Pro Corp in Florence after that company refused to headquarter in Leominster. On top of that wages were cut and hours changed causing many workers to quit, and in response the IEU (International Union Of Electrical, Salaried Machines and Furniture Makers) along with the National Labor Relations Board sued Mi-Lor in Massachusetts district court.
“Mi-Lor Corporation, a brush manufacturing company, decided to reduce its workforce due to a lack of production or orders. That decision would have been alight if the company had only followed the contract layoff procedures. But it didn’t. The arbitrator found that the company had deceived Lapointe into thinking he would be laid off, and he ordered his reinstatement with full back pay and full benefits.” — IUE People (May-June 1993 Issue)
“It’s happened too often in the state of Massachusetts. It’s got to stop somewhere. We’re just looking to keep a company in Leominster that is already in Leominster. We don’t need anymore shopping malls. We don’t need anymore condominiums. We don’t need $5 to $6 per hour jobs. The city should try to attract businesses instead of raising their water and sewer rates.” — Raymond Johnson (IEU Local Ch. 253 President 4/19/90 statement)
17 year worker on pg. 8 of 3/12/90 issue of Fitchburg Sentinel;
“They lied to us, they deceived us, they betrayed us.” — Joseph Mazzarella (17 year Mi-Lor worker)
Their trial began on June 13th of 1990 and the NLRB ruled in the favor of the workers union and charged them with a labor dispute. In June of 1993 worker Emil Lapointe was awarded $5,680 of union back pay after it was found he was misled by the city into voluntarily resigning after he was convinced he would be laid off. Also on the understanding he would be brought back to the company at full pay after two weeks which never happened. Mi-Lor wouldn’t last much longer after this, when finally Mi-Lor President Jack Ernst sent a letter in the mail to 135 union workers that June 6th, 1995 would be their last day of work. Over the course of five years the company lost 204 workers in the community, marking the end to the oldest plastics company in the world and the last of the major “powerhouse” plastics companies in Leominster.
Foster Grant (1920–1986)
This company I am about to talk about started it all in Leominster. They were the world leading manufacture of sunglasses in the world and in terms of notoriety. It involved everyone from Mia Farrow, Anita Ekberg, Robert Goulet, Woody Allen, and even OJ Simpson. When you think of the prime of plastics American manufacturing this is the company that comes to mind. The 1986 Foster Grant catalog pictured 164 different pairs of sunglasses, all of them priced at $20 and under, and had pumped out 15 million pairs a year making them the largest sunglasses company in the world.
Who’s that behind those Foster Grants? Much has already been written about this famous company, but it was started by a man named Sam Foster a former employee of Dupont also based in Leominster on Hamilton Street in 1920. These are the kind of names that were New England institutions.
Foster Grant when they first started primarily sold ladies hair accessories, but they quickly found their niche. Cheap sunglasses. That may sound mundane now, but you have to understand that nothing like that had even been accomplished or invented before. The were the first company in the world to invent the plastic sunglasses we know and love today. After all even sunglasses made out of real glass used a polarized polymer film.
“Back a few years kids would get out of high school and find a wife, a local job at Foster Grant and that was security. You could rise within the shop to foreman or machinist or a place in the office, or learn the plastics business and buy a couple of molds of your own.” — Frank Mazzarella (Leominster resident)
Foster Grant was the largest plastics manufacturer in New England at the time, and their Leominster factory was equipped with a state of the ark exercise center, cafeteria, entertainment center, and daycare center. They were one of the first companies to bring plastic injection machines over from Germany where the founder reengineered them for sunglasses, and attracted the best designers and engineers around New England. They were the third largest producer of polystyrene in the United States, manufacturing upwards of 200 million pounds of polymers each year. Their products primarily sold at Walgreens and Woolworths making them the most popular brand for over a century and were made right here in Massachusetts for 66 years. They also produced the plastics that went into coffee cups, typewriter cases, boats, children’s toys, ice buckets, and instrument cases.
By World War II the company had the largest collection of molds. At the time the Leominster factory had 127 machines and housed around 1000 workers making them the largest factory in Leominster. A career at Foster Grant could be expected to last a lifetime. It was what you could call cradle to grave job security out of high school, and retirement with pensions which is almost completely unheard of today. Good work, short hours, and great benefits including profit sharing. Generations of families worked here, and it represented a substantial part of the community and Bay State.
In 1974 the original family sold the company to an investment firm. Towards the 1970s we opened up trade with China and later Mexico. By 1978 80% of sunglasses were produced overseas, which resulted in the original family selling the Foster Grant company to multiple venture capitalists over the period of a decade. The company’s future would not be certain and everyone in the neighborhood knew the inevitable was about to happen.
“The trouble is that Foster Grant is moving to Mexico. Foreign competition has hurt the plastics industry, and in Leominster even the machine shops that supplied it with molds have been auctioning off their machinery.” — Boston Globe (August 3rd, 1986)
By the mid 1980s Foster Grant made the decision facing raised property taxes and fines and lowering sales to sell their company to Yesterday Adlinger Company, an investment banking firm out of New York which two months into acquisition had announced the complete and total closure of the Foster Grant factory out of Leominster for the first time in 66 years.
This resulted in 1000 workers getting laid off in 1986, the machines auctioned off, and building demolished as the company fell into bankruptcy.
“Since we have to move, it makes sense for us to move some operations closer to our sources of supply said Edward Russel, Vice President of Human Resources.” — Boston Globe (4/12/1986)
This had a huge effect on the class of recent graduates in the area as reported in local Massachusetts newspapers, having lost their new careers.
“After government sponsored retraining, the 29 year old high school graduate went from rote work molding and packaging sunglasses to an eight month training program in word processing, computers, and other office skills. She worked at Foster Grant about 10 months before being laid off in February 1986.” — North Adams Transcript (Jan 13, 1987)
“I miss the beach at Speck Pond that the employees got enjoy. Back when good companies offered real benefits beyond a 401k and maybe some insurance.
I spent a huge chunk of my childhood there.” — Christie Misquez (Leominster Resident)
This was already a major hit to the community, already experiencing the loss of another major plastic company a decade earlier, and would follow two other major plastic companies leaving Leominster in the next five years. The legacy left by the plastic plants of Leominster were felt with a mixed emotion and memories from the residents who lived around it. In 1990, a mother of an autistic child contended that she had uncovered an alarming pattern of autism in children born to parents who grew up in a section of Leominster. The State Department initially said that blaming Foster Grant was jumping to conclusions, but began to take more serious look as more reports of autism were uncovered. State studies showed that petroleum wastes, heavy metals and other volatile organic compounds on the site had leaked into groundwater there. 14 cases of autistic children were uncovered in which one or both parents grew up in the neighborhood adjacent to the plant. Although there was never any proof found, it grew into a lawsuit of concerned residents as a big push to clean up the factory and declare it a Superfund site.
According to a theory held by Altobelli and many others in Leominster, once the center of a thriving plastics industry, the parents could have suffered reproductive damage from air pollution that led to autism or Pervasive Developmental Disorder in later generations. Altobelli began working on suggestions by Dr. Grady as to the possible causes of autism only later concluded that proximity to the Foster Grant site was a possible connecting link. — North Adams Transcript (7/23/1990)
“Avis Ciccone kept an unusual diary from 1964 to 1986. Her entires all focus on her next door neighbor, a plastic plant. For all those years Ciccone painstakingly documented the times when the plant spewed white polyvinyl chloride powder onto her home, belched fumes into her living room and when sirens sounded in the middle of the night, signaling an accidental release of chemicals into the environment.” — North Adams Transcript (5/28/1991)
Foster Grant site was labeled as a “non priority” as a Superfund site, based on evidence that trace elements of hazardous waste found in soil and groundwater were contained at the site. The state at the time had 4,000 suspected and confirmed hazardous waste sites. It would not be accurate or fair to blame simply one industry when all industries were like this. However it does paint an accurate picture of how businesses once operated in America before environmental laws. Hoescht Celenese bought Foster Grant in the late 1980s and took responsibility for cleaning up the site.
Today the original factory of Foster Grant on Hamilton Street actually reopened under new company ownership Fosta-Tek Optics, who describe themselves on their website as a worldwide leader in the design and manufacturer of high quality polymer components for optics and lenses. They state they are the rare small U.S. manufacturer that is having success despite the recent economic headwinds and global sourcing opportunities. They currently employ 80 non unionized workers in contrast. You can find one online review stating a “horrible experience” from one former employee. According to Angel Villot, “the owner doesn’t care of his employees. Benefits are horrible, vacation time sucks and the week you have off is because holidays and time is unpaid. No growth, you stay where you are and push more responsibilities on you.” To be fair this is not a personal attack or remark on the owner or business, but it seems this is the common story when original owners are pushed out and the unions are broken up.
Great Northern (1897–2014)
This is another moment of how could you forget them? You could not mention the word PAPER without mentioning this now defunct mills. They represented a time period and era of American manufacturing that seems to no longer exist. Today we pick up piece of paper and don’t really think anything of it, but you can just imagine in that time the world had never seen anything like it. It was a way of life and career for tens of thousands of New Englanders who never believed it would ever go away. At one point in time, the Great Northern was among the largest and longest lasting paper manufacturing plants across New England that no one thought would ever go away, because who doesn’t need paper? If you picked up a magazine or newspaper along the eastern seaboard in the last century, you probably touched paper that was made at this factory and built by New Englanders. Every important headline from the the Kennedy assassination to the moon landing was produced on paper made by them. When you think of just how large the scale of this operation was and how many families it fed, an entire railroad line the Bangor & Aroostook was erected mainly to serve the supplies to this factory if that paints a good picture.
Everyone should remember the name of the men who started it, a cooperation between two 19th century industrialists Charles Mullen (a power plant operator) and Garret Schenck the owner of the Rumford Mills, along with investors Oliver Payne and William Collins Whitney. You will find that at least the robber barons of the last century chose to invest in industry inside the United States. The late Charles W. Mullem, former mayor of Bangor and well known civil engineer, has been called the father of Millinocket, the discoverer of the place where the great mill of the Great Northern Paper Company was located. A University Of Maine gradate cruised the area around Millinocket and was impressed by its potential water possibilities as a site for the manufacture of newsprint. Realizing what a marvelous site Millinocket was for a paper mill, completely hidden away in a virgin wilderness of abundant water power and vast forest of pulp wood. The late Mr. Mullen and the late Garret Schenck’s who’s achievements in connection with the founding and building of this remarkable institution are sacred memories to the thousands of people in the vicinity of the company mills, had a vision that resulted in what became the greatest newsprint mill in the United States.
“The Great Norther Paper Company is today an object of admiration on the part of the entire paper industry. It is the perfect self-contained paper mill, and it has paid substantial dividends since the day it started. It is not only a prosperous and important industry, but it is an organization that has contributed much to uplifting and bettering conditions of thousands of people coming under its influence.” — Bangor Daily News (3/05/1931)
The history of Great Northern is unique and exceedingly remarkable. East Millinocket, Medway, and Woodville are small, adjacent towns located about 60 miles north of Bangor near the foot of Mount Katahdin. This area is known for its abundance of forests and waterways. In fact, all three towns are built along the Penobscot River where the East Branch and West Branch come together. Garret Schenck on November 1st, 1900, opened the gate that turned the water on to the turbines of the great plant and by pulling the switched that started the wood room machinery in operation, wrote pages into he paper making history of the state of Maine. It would be in the town of Millinocket where they would choose the site of the “Millinocket Mills” or Great Northern, with the construction of the Ripogenus Dam. It’s generating capacity of the Millinocket mill complex became 200,000 horsepower (150,000 kW) making them by 1910 the largest paper factory in the world producing 240 tons/day of newsprint, 120 tons/day of sulfite pulp, and 240 tons/day of groundwood pulp. By the mid 1950s its daily production had increased to 1,000 tonnes per day and sold to more than 250 newspapers east of the Mississippi River. People began refereeing to Millinocket the “Magic City” in the wilderness. It was the first paper mill to have an electrical generation and distribution facility built into the plant. The company’s innovations included a pulpwood grinding machine still known throughout the paper industry as Great Northern grinders.
The system of relationship between management and labor carried on by the Great Northern Paper company can be held up as a pattern for the entire world, the president elect of the International Brotherhood of Pulp, Sulphite and Paper Mill Workers declared here tonight. — Bangor Daily News (8/21/1951)
It would be in October 28th, 1946 when the first labor agreement of LOCAL 192 was signed in Boston. It was at the meeting where Paul R. Hutchings, International President of the Union flew from Washington D.C. stressed the danger to America if either member of the team was shackled by ill advised legislation, but he painted a picture of the destiny of all Americans if industry be permitted to continued on a foundation of mutual respect and cooperation. The company was now fully unionized representing at peak a total of over 7000 workers at Millinocket, 650 workers at East Millinocket, and 250 workers at the Madison mill which was later sold by 1960. Great Northern Paper was the first mill in the country to establish an eight-hour work day and also gave the first paid vacations for mill hands. The need for a modern well-equipped hospital in the Millinocket, East Millinocket, and Medway area had been fully realized for many years. In 1948 through its president, William Praught, the union secured the support of the Millinocket Central Labor Union, the citizens of Millinocket, East Millinocket and Medway, the Maine Department of Health and Welfare, and $453,000 donation from the company in the first community hospital project. They also built new schools and a full time fire department.
Great Northern and the Millinocket community was seen to be still thriving as far as the late 1980s. However in 1970 the original owners sold the company in a merger with Edwards Paper Company based in Wisconsin which also had mills in Arkansas, Georgia, Mississippi, Virginia. This was a time period when many industries were leaving Maine for the South such as textiles and foundries, and many feared the acquisition would lead to the closure of the plant. However the factory held on for much longer and remained profitable. In 1986 the company went through another merger with Nekoosa Packaging. Business had been so prosperous that the company had rebuilt the East Millinocket mill in a $200 million project in 1987. Significant expenditures for the modernization of the Millinocket mill had also been approved with brand new machines and lighting, and the company President assured locals that they were devoted to keeping industry in Maine and not laying off workers.
“The base of operations we have in Maine as wood, energy, mills, and most of all, people is one of the great assets of the company. We plan to modernize the Millinocket mill to make it as competitive as East Millinocket now is.” — William R. Laidig (Company Chairman)
Nothing seemed like it could take down the empire except for politics. This is a very extreme example of one of the companies which was affected severely by the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). In 1989 Great Georgia-Pacific, a subsidiary of Koch Industries owned by the Koch brothers sought to purchase the Maine institution. This is where all of the trouble began. Georgia-Pacific launched a hostile takeover of the company which closed in 1990 for $3.8 billion. Georgia-Pacific in turn sold the Maine holdings to a company known as Bowater in 1991. It was here when the company decided to divest and sell off its assets for the dollar.
With the industry the way it was going, in the year 2000 the company requested they buy the hydro system from the town to power its mills. The fear was they once they transferred from a user of power to a public utility, the new priority would no longer be paper production and keeping workers employed if they could just sell power. This included a massive hydroelectric system on the West Branch of the Penobscot River, consisting of six hydroelectric power stations; steam plants in East Millinocket and Millinocket; and a transmission and distribution system that stretches nearly 60 miles from Mattaseunk Dam in Matawamkeag to Ripogenus Dam in Wells. The power system had a capacity of 286MW and could generate both 40 and 60 cycle power. The actual transfer of the power system assets could not occur until the company obtained state and federal regulatory approval to do so.
“Vernon Haines, an official of the Millinocket Fin & Feather Club, told members of the Town Council last week his worst fears were that the company could shut down the Millinocket paper mill and begin selling power. He suggested the town request that new conditions be added to the company’s license, such as requirng specific employment levels at the Millinocket mill.” — Bangor Daily News (1/31/2000)
It would be in the same year when Bowater Inc, Great Northern’s former parent company, sold 656,000 acres of land along the West Branch of the Penobscot River to McDonald Investment Company Inc. of Birmingham, Ala. for $155 million in 200. McDonald Investment, in tune, hired Wagner Forest Management Ltd. to manage the tract. Wangner was a timberland investment and forest management organization. After the sale, Wagner contracted with North Maine Woods Inc., a nonprofit organized, to manage recreational access to its new lands. After ownership of the land changed hands in that year, manager for the new owners reinstated gate fees, raising the ire of the Fin and Feather Club, which for decades fought to eliminate the gate fees. Club members said the deal they cut with Great Northern 7 years before was to provide free day use for Maine residents for 30 years, the term of Great Northern’s new hydroelectric license. Great Northern eliminated resident day-use fees in October 1996 as part of a deal it struck three years earlier with the club. In return, the club agreed to drop its intervenor status against the company’s efforts to relicense its dams.
“Seven years ago no one ever imagined that Bowater would sell off the back bone of Great Northern Paper. In hindsight, it was unfortunate.” — Brian Stetson (Great Northern Director Of Environmental Affairs)
“I, for one, will not stand idly by and watch as our achievement for all Maine people be lost to some corporate shell game,” said Ray Campbell of Millinocket, a member of the club. “We are here today to start this lawsuit and ask courts to ensure that we get the benefit of our bargain, not just for ourselves, but for all Maine citizens.” Campbell said the issue boiled down to corporate greed, and he criticized the state as being part of the problem.” — Bangor Daily News (6/01/2000)
“The return of the day-use fee drew a protest from the club last spring. Vernon Haines of Millinocket, a club member, went to the Mile 44 gate on June 30, 1999, and allegedly entered without paying the $4 fee. He was summoned for criminal trespass.” — Bangor Daily News (6/01/2000)
After these actions the company was brought into bankruptcy multiple times under multiple venture capitalist owners that had no interest in paper production. In 1999, Inexcon, a Canadian company, acquired the Maine holdings. The Inexcon holdings in Maine went into bankruptcy in 2002. They were acquired by Brascan Corporation in April 2003 and operated under the name of Katahdin Paper Company LLC. In 2003 Brookfield Asset Management bought the mills after the company filed for bankruptcy. It would be under the new owners who would put the nail in the coffin laying off the remaining 150 workers who still worked at Millinocket and shut down the factory.
“I had already picked a path. It was easy for me to follow my family into the mill. I thought I had my career set for 30 or 35 years. I thought I was set. Everybody did back then. The mill had been going for 80 or 85 years. Every time they resold the mill, we lost something. A lot of people have relatives around here and they can’t leave.” — Pat Stanley (Machine Operator @ Millinocket)
415 workers remained at the East Millinocket plant, but that too would not continue on for much longer. They continued under new owners Cate Street Capital of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, who attempted to revive the plant after it had remained closed from 2008 to 2011. In 2014 it would have its last hooray. Its final legacy would be in 2014 when they were tasked with printing pages for America’s greatest pornographic thriller Fifty Shades Of Grey, an ironic twist of fait for a company and state once rooted in good old fashioned Irish Catholic Yankee conservatism. Today if you pass a playground and follow a dusty road, on the other side of a chain-link fence, is the wreckage of the paper mill that was born before this town was. The main drag here is pocked with empty glass storefronts, a shadow of the days in the late 1970s and early ’80s when department stores and other shops served between 4,000 and 5,000 people employed by Great Northern in the area. A New York Times reporter wrote, one recent afternoon, backhoes picked through the rubble of a vast room that once held 10 paper machines, while a handful of townspeople, some smoking in their idling cars, watched.
“The decline of Great Northern decimated the area’s economy, making it an extreme example of once-prosperous Maine manufacturing communities that have been hollowed out as their mills have closed or shed jobs. Public officials confront the vexing question of what their town can be without the mill that built it. The mill stopped running in 2008, a turn of events that had once been unthinkable. Since the closing, the town has been unable to find a strategy that could provide an economic engine on anything near the scale the mill did. ” — New York Times (8/02/2014)
I don’t think there’s any question that Millinocket, right through the ’70s, was one of America’s leading centers for paper production,” said Richard Judd, a historian at the University of Maine. That made Millinocket a boomtown in the middle of nowhere, where every family had job security, needing nothing but the mill and the natural resources the company owned. — Professor Richard Judd (University Of Maine)
“Since NAFTA started in 1994, so much has changed in the town of Livermore Falls, Maine. What was once a thriving industrial town is now not that much more than a bedroom community for people who work in bigger cities like Lewiston and Portland. In the morning, you’ll see a line of cars leaving town and, at night, you’ll see a line of cars coming back.” — USW Local 4–900 (2020 Statement)
Since the mill’s closing in 2008, unemployment in Millinocket has fluctuated between 10 and 21 percent, well above the state average over the same period. The town has aged, and it has shrunk: The median age has doubled since 1970, from 25 to 51, and the population dropped to 4,466 in 2010 from 7,742 in 1970. Many are beginning to sound the alarm for help, but they don’t know if anyone is listening to their cries.
“We’re in a significant downsizing mode, and there isn’t anything that’s going to save us. There are towns that have become ghost towns, faded away. If we do nothing, that’s probably what will happen.” — Peggy Daigle (Millinocket Town Manager)
“In 1906, there were more than 100 pulp and paper mills in Maine. Today there are six. At my plant, we used to have 12 machines running. Now, we’re running four.” — Linda Deane (USW Main Council Chair)
Today, most of what remains is located in and around Baxter State Park. Currently as of writing this there remains only one paper factory left in the region, the Rumford Mill that employed 621 people as of 2016. Most of the region in and around Bangor rely on tourism through growing state parks, but these jobs are seasonal to warm summer months and don’t pay nearly as well. What remains is Our Katahdin, an non-profit organization that is determined to revive the former 1,400 acre Millinocket site which closed down in 2008 as an industrial park when they purchased the land in 2014. They describe their project as “exciting new opportunities for economic development, partnership and community engagement abound.” The vision for redevelopment of the mill site is to have multiple, diverse enterprises that create a more resilient economy. However upon purchasing they found that the previous owners left a heaping many of legal entanglements such as funds owed to the town through municipalities, funds owed to the IRS through federal lien, and also unpaid environment permits to the Department of Environmental Protection. This involved spending $8.5 million on improvements to its roads, rail, water and sewer systems, as well as to its power grid and data capacity hoping to attract new buyers from a grant awarded by the U.S. Economic Development Administration. It has been a decade since the land was purchased and so far no industry has moved back. It is hard to predict what it will turn into, but it is safe to say that paper production won’t be returning. There remains tens of thousands of acres of unused forest and yet no businesses can stay profitable. It is no longer about the resources available which is what originally attracted so many to the region, but whether a plant can compete with outside competition. Apparently in a post NAFTA world the community cannot.
Parsons / American Writing (1853–2005)
This is the company that would become a direct competitor to St. Regis. Perhaps even larger, they would have the Massachusetts city of Holyoke become known as “paper city”. Observers might have attributed the phenomenal success of Holyoke paper mills to the expert skill and knowledge of paper making of the men at the head. It should also be known that up until the mid 20th century, over half of the capital which funded these paper operations came from residents of Holyoke themselves.
In 1853 Joseph Parsons a resident of Holyoke decided to open up an extremely small paper company along the Connecticut River. The Boston Associates at the time which included Nathan Appleton and Abbot Lawrence actually laughed at Parsons for the small size of his operation, and very much doubted the paper company could produce enough product to succeed. However they were quickly proved wrong as within the first year of the company’s existence they sold $50,000 worth of fine writing paper and within the first 5 years had already built a second mill along the river.
Their primary machinery were 63" Fourdrinier machines made by Goddard Rice & Co. out of the city of Worcester. By the Civil War they were the largest writing and envelope paper producer in the United States, and one of their largest customers was the United States government printing office. By late 19th century the company expanded sales globally in three continents. Their product line consisted of bristol board, envelope paper, and ledger bonds. In 1888 they built their third and largest mill building that would become a local iconic landmark for their offshoot company “Parson #2.” By 1887 Parsons had reached an international market, selling its bristol board, envelope paper, and ledger bonds to customers across the United States as well as in South America and Australia.
They did this because in 1899 Parsons sold off the company name to the pulp giant American Writing Paper which absorbed this company, along with 16 other paper mills in Holyoke. All together the Parsons empire after the equation employed upwards of 4000 factory workers throughout the city, making them the largest paper empire in the world at the time. The giant would continue for another 60 years in Holyoke, providing jobs to many workers with great benefits and the equivalent of six figure salaries if you included overtime and healthcare. It’s reported facing a series of labor strikes and bankruptcies that the company folded in 1963, putting thousands of workers onto the streets of Holyoke. The one company that remained out of all of this was the second Parsons company which was created in 1888 by the original owners adjacent to the original factory on the Connecticut River.
“Paper companies here are battling two powerful economic disruptions: cheap imports from places like China and Brazil, and the digital revolution. With enough overtime, some mill workers were earning six figures. A paper mill job was a ticket to a solid, middle-class life. — Sarah Gardner (Massachusetts historian)
“Flames engulfed the abandoned Parsons Paper Co. building on Sargeant Street in Holyoke, Monday night. Fire Chief David LaFond said the building had no power, leading him to believe the fire was deliberately set.” — The Berkshire Eagle (6/11/2008)
In 1959 the National Vulcanized Fiber Company purchased the Parsons Trademark and continued the Holyoke factory and kept the workers. For nearly another 50 years they continued to produce high quality art papers, parchment and calendar papers and watermarked bond. As late as 2003 the company was still giving out guided tours of their factory by appointment. The paper industry was not very healthy in a post NAFTA world and it was only time before the inevitable took place. Parsons filed for chapter 11
protection on June 20, 2005, and decided to close the last paper factory in Holyoke. They listed estimated assets loss of between $10 million to $50 million and estimated debts of more than $100 million. This laid off the remaining unknown amount of workers that were formally union. Having outlasted St. Regis by four years, the closing ended the city’s 200 year history with paper and last major paper plant in Massachusetts. In 2008 the original factory building suffered a major fire and has been left abandoned since. In 2016 it was announced that Aegis was buying and redeveloping at the former Parsons Paper site in Holyoke. No progress has been made as of yet to do anything with the property, despite receiving a $2 million grant from the state Brownfield Fund through MassDevelopment. Many pressed Mayor Alex Morse asking where the money had gone?
Today you can still find families living in the brick row homes that were constructed for factory workers. Holyoke is no longer an industrial city and currently has succumbed to amongst some of the higher poverty and crime rates of Massachusetts when manufacturing did not return.
Solar Chemical (1953–1976)
Solar Chemical was first established in the year 1951 by Doctor Jack Zomlefer as a one man company in a small shop in downtown Chicago. Jack Zomlefer was a Jewish immigrant from Chicago that was a former President of the Jewish Community Center in Fitchburg. He was awarded a citation by the Leominster Chamber Of Commerce when he chose Leominster as the new headquarters in 1953 with a 4000 square foot building on Marguerite Avenue. The company specialized in process development and design, economic evaluation, and pilot operations of polystyrene molding powders of different strengths and formations. At the time they were the sixth largest producer of polystyrene in the world, and their plastics went into no fewer than 40,000 consumer products sold around the globe.
In 1967 Zomlefer constructed a new two million dollar plant on Fuller Street in addition to their old one which had also been rebuilt from a violent explosion in 1960. This included a new color building, a new warehouse, and a building for research laboratories and administrative offices. All together their new facility covered 22 acres and during their peak of production in the 1970’s employed close to 250 workers. With the new factory Governor John Volpe gave Zomlefer the “Faith In Massachusetts” award. They also had sales offices in New York, Ohio, and as far as Chicago. However the only major manufacturing plants they ever built were right here in Leominster.
“Our fast and accurate matching techniques, our electronic color matching equipment, and a well trained staff of skilled personal in our modern color lab makes us the most advanced color plant in the country.” — 1961 Solar Color Program Customer Brochure
Job opportunities advertised included “switchboard operators”, “machinist welders”, “inventory clerks”, “color matchers” “porters” “production helpers”, “foremen” “factory mechanics”, “chemical engineers”, and “mechanical engineers” with fringe benefits provided by the Chemical Workers Union. Each worker was given the opportunity to own a stake in the company under a profit sharing program, and the owner was known to gift gold watches, diamond earrings, and even luxury Cadillacs to reward progress.
This plant was successfully operating for 22 years until the year 1975. That year would not act very kindly to the plant. We have to understand how Solar Chemical came into existence to begin with. In 1953 when Solar Chemical was built, the city of Leominster had what was called “unrestricted zoning”.
This kind of freedom allowed plastic companies to setup headquarters in any location in the city they pleased. In 1975 a planning board under Mayor John McLaughlin and headed by Director Willy Rizzo sought to remove unrestricted zoning, as residences in Leominster were complaining that the value of single family homes were going down within close proximity of a plastic manufacturing plant. The unrestricted zones at the time were Willard and Central Street, Debbie Drive, Beth and Marguerite Avenue. As you recall Marguerite was the location of the original Solar Chemical headquarters, and if the city board removed unrestricted zoning then that would be the end of the company in its entirety. Solar Chemical took an advertisement out in the Fitchburg Sentinel opposing the district zoning changes.
“Between rising taxes being imposed by an irresponsible Governor and legislature which is horrendous to begin with, you now add on the land restrictions and it all adds up to things being more difficult for business expansion.” — John Longo (Solar Chemical statement 11/11/75)
Well after a year long debate and battle, the city decided to do just that in 1976 by creating an industrial sector, a residential sector, and agricultural sector. This meant for the first time the city could enforce permit fees. It was reported that attorney for Solar Chemical John Longo threatened to sue the city of Leominster if they forced the company to shutter its doors.
Their last job advertisement was taken out in the Lowell Sun on December 13th, 1975. On April 14th of 1976 which was five months after making the above statement, the Boston Globe reports the company was auctioned off and the factory folded laying off 250 workers after they relocated to California and survived as a company until the year 1982. The Fuller factory site today can be sort of viewed as a success story that survives owned by a plastics franchised owned by Teknor Apex based out of Rhode Island. As of 2018 the site was reported to be housing 99 employees. It is one of the last remaining plastics manufacturing plants in Leominster.
St. Regis (1877–2002)
The two largest paper manufactures were once headquartered in Massachusetts. It’s often a confusing history because it involves multiple companies and many mergers. This is the backbone of their history though. One of those was Champion International. In TBD, Charles Gage built and founded the Champion Card & Paper Company at his East Pepperell factory along the Nashua River. It was at this location that some of the first mass produced greeting cards were made from wood pulp. They used the C.M Gage patent machine in making paper, that finished paper on both sides at the same time. Charles Scribner’s Sons the great publishing house in New York as well as Cosmopolitan magazine used their services. At the time this was the only plant in America making this kind of paper. However this was a rather small company until later and employed a little under 100.
Around the same time another industrialist formed the Fairchild Paper Company in 1877 which also fed from the Nashua River on Main Street. George T. Keyes graduated from Harvard with the class of 1889. He studied at Harvard Law School in 1889 and 1890, and became identified with Fairchild at East Pepperell in 1891. He latter acquired and continued the business with his brother, Charles W. Keyes under the name Nashua River Paper Company. This was at the time Pepperell’s second largest factory employing a reported 400 workers in 1946, and they specialized in a high grade of book and newspaper materials. Including gummed tape, plasticized paper, crepe and coin wrap. The mill had a rated capacity of 350,000 pounds in 24 hours. There were five paper machines, in widths of 144, 114, 90, 82, and 78 inches. They also built hundreds of brick homes in the surrounding area for their workers that are still standing today having been converted into 40B housing. In 1946 the company was purchased by St. Regis Paper Company out of New York. The mill which produced kraft paper, was bought from Mr. Anders and Louis Calder, who owned all the outstanding stock in the firm. St. Regis stated the motive for purchasing the company was to increase the supply of multi wall grade specification kraft paper in order to equip its bag plants better. Multiwall type paper was first produced in the Nashua mill. The late A.M Bates, who fathered the idea at Chicago in the 1920s went to East Pepperell later and there developed paper of the necessary strength for his product.
In 1893 another paper executive Peter Thomson out of Ohio and North Carolina who owned the Champion Coated Paper Company, bought half interest with Charles Gage at his Pepperell factory. Then in 1967 that company was merged with U. S. Plywood Corp, and this became the Champion International Paper Americans would become to know. This was truly a powerhouse organization in mid century America, with five locations in six cities across Massachusetts alone. They employed almost 600 workers at their Lawrence plant which was their pulp and chemical division, TBD in Newton on Oak Street for their laminated and coated products division, TBD at their Everett location, around 1000 in Pepperell, they had a warehouse in Braintree, and 350 workers in Attleboro on Starkey Ave which was their second laminated and coated products factory. They were headquartered with office locations in Boston. It is reported in old job advertisements that they provided company paid healthcare, paid holidays and vacations, life insurance, pension plans, and seniority protection.
These two major companies prospered for most of the 20th century under union ownership with United Paper Workers Local 524 until we entered the 1970s. This is when the dust hit the fan so to speak. In 1971 the Environmental Protection Agency fined various cities around Massachusetts for allowing raw untreated sewage to be dumped into the Nashua River. At the time the Nashua River was notably the most polluted river in America. The city of Fitchburg and Pepperell had been been dumping untreated sewage into the Nashua for over 200 years. This inadvertently allowed outrageous levels of coliform bacteria to grow from feces. It was the first such action ever brought against a Massachusetts community by the EPA.
“The town of Pepperell was cited for discharging raw toilet sewerage into the river at two sites, resulting in excessive levels of coliform bacteria and solids and violation of the dissolved oxygen criteria for the river. The report went on to cite Pepperell’s failure to meet a series of deadlines including “non-compliance” with a May 1970 deadline for starting construction on a municipal sewerage project.” — Lowell Sun (June 4th, 1971)
Newspaper reports of that year show that instead of the city of Pepperell building a modern waste treatment facility through public funds, the community relied on factories to fund and build their own through a series of lawsuits which happened in the 1970’s backed by environmentalists. This was despite the company’s good record on improving environmental standards. In the years prior St. Regis had already funded a $400,000 project towards air pollution control measures, and $500,000 on water pollution control. Adjusted for inflation this would equal over 6 million dollars today. From 1964–1970 the Pepperell factory saw a 40% reduction in effluents, from 2.2 million gallons a day to 1 million gallons a day and continued improvement. It’s also fair to report that in 1971 76.1% of pollutants in the Nashua River were coming from the paper industry. Only 0.11% was from Pepperell itself. However relying on industry itself to clean up their act did force factories to completely close down and that was the unfortunate tradeoff because of the way it was handled by the town. It was too expensive to repair on their own.
By the beginning of 1971 local environmental activists and lawyers such as Robert Holden and Willy Woods sued the factory to the tune of $1 million , claiming damage on the river for “carelessly” failing to exercise control over “certain” dam and flash boards located on Nashua River. In other words the factory was using up too much water to the city’s liking. Three more civil lawsuits were brought on by local residents toppling $375,000. At this point St. Regis decided to sell off the factory and cut their losses. James River Company based out of Virginia bought the factory in April of 1971, and they renamed it the Pepperell Paper Company as an umbrella business with Brenton Halsey as the new President. They were awarded the contract after they promised to invest another $750,000 into pollution control for the city. That meant switching to an oil boiler to reduce air emissions.
In 1974 the Pepperell Paper Company received complaints from residents in the area for an obnoxious smell that was lowering the value of single family homes. The Massachusetts Water Commission eventually got involved, and there were continued alleged allegations of air emissions violations. One year later the Fitchburg Sentinel reports there was an environmental activist who set the Pepperell Paper Company mills on fire in the middle of the night and burned down equipment costing the company millions of dollars. It was that year that the factory experienced its largest layoff in its history.
In 1984 St. Regis came back in a big way to Massachusetts by buying out Champion International. They now owned all their locations across Massachusetts. This relationship continued for a few more decades. However the company itself had scaled down production both from foreign competition, and for the fact that large scale production of papers to the extent they were made during the early 20th century was frowned upon on the river. At one point just the three paper mills in East Pepperell along the Nashua River which included St. Regis employed over 1500. By the year 2000 the factory employed only 100 as production was dialed back.
James River Company eventually sold the Pepperell Paper Company to Merrimac Paper Company in the 1990s who in the year 2002 announced the closing of their factory by laying off the remaining 63 workers.
“I will have worked here 44 years this summer and the only time I left was to go into the Army. I haven’t the slightest idea what to do. Maybe I’ll get some schooling.” — Albert Harris (St. Regis employee 5/26/02)
Albert Harris was one of the employees involved in the layoff who had been working at the company going on decades, was left without health insurance upon being fired and having no way to pay for his wife’s cancer treatments. This was another paper factory to hit the dust so to speak.
“Harris, 62, is the second generation in his family to work at the paper mill at Route 113 and Mill Street. His father was an oiler for 42 years, and his aunts and uncles, and cousins all worked at the mill. Harris’s concerns go beyond a weekly paycheck. His wife has cancer that is in remission be required ongoing testing. He is worried about how he will manage without health insurance.” — Boston Globe (5/26/02)
“We have strong overseas competition and the North American trade agreement, NAFTA, makes it hard for the products that Pepperell historically made to compete in the marketplace.” — Don Plummer (Merrimac Paper President 5/19/02)
The last remanence of the company in New England can be followed to St. Regis selling their laminated division based in their Attleboro plant to Fortifiber in 1979, and at the time 300 workers were employed at the plant. The Boston Globe in October of that year reported that the transfer “would not” significantly affect the workforce. However the company by 2004 was only reporting 45 workers, until that company sold the building in 2009 to Holland Manufacturing which in the year 2020 employs 22 workers. The former warehouse in Braintree was sold to a company in 2010 that calls themselves Superior Packaging and Finishing and employs 12 workers. A far cry from the former glory days of the powerhouse St. Regis mills. It was these companies that would later go onto be parodied in the “The Office”.
Although this company had a short existence within New England itself, its name help define the town/city of Leominster as the plastics capital of the world, and was made exclusively in the United States for over a century. For that reason it wouldn’t be fair to leave this out.
A lot of us may take for granted today when walking through the supermarket aisles at the sight of plastic containers, but at one time in history the world had never seen anything like it and went ecstatic. If you peeked into a suburban living room in the 1950s, you might see a group of women in funny hats playing party games, tossing lightweight plastic bowls back and forth and chatting about their lives as they passed around an order form for Tupperware. Well stocked with punch and cookies, the daytime parties were well mannered affairs. But Tupperware parties were more than they might seem. Although they engaged in lighthearted socializing at living rooms, Tupperware party organizers were running thriving, woman-owned businesses. And the women who participated in them weren’t just stocking their homes: they were experimenting with cutting-edge technology that helped food stay fresh for longer. During the 1950s and 1960s, thousands of women started their own home businesses selling Tupperware, breaking gender stereotypes even as they reinforced them.
This is often where the businesses of Tupper often gets confusing, because many stories written about it fail to understand that these were two separate companies. It began as the The Earl S. Tupper Company beginning in 1938 in Leominster, then a center of the burgeoning plastics industry. Just after the war, he convinced Du Pont to send him some pellets of pure polyethylene, a recently invented wartime plastic. After months of tinkering, he came up with his first really good product: the Wonderbowl, with its now-famous burping Tupperwares Seal. Tupper’s product won design awards, and House Beautiful called it “Fine Art for 39 cents.” and eventually opened his first major factory in 1942 in Farnumsville, Massachusetts on Ferry Street.
Tupper had discovered that the waste product of the oil refining process could be turned into a flexible, firm, colorful and odor-free plastic product. After developing a method to purify the black polyethylene slag, he managed to transform it into a user-friendly and functional product for day-to-day household use. Because Tupper believed that too many worthless products were being sold as plastic, he called it Poly-T. The products were made of see-through, colorless plastic. Later, in 1947, they also became available in pastel colors. His first product was the clock-shaped Bell Tumbler, which was advertised with the slogan: ‘Poly-T: Material of the Future’. Earl Tupper also invented the Tupper Seal, an airtight and watertight lid, which was modelled on the design of a paint lid. The lid would become famous for the ‘Tupperware Burp’ — a characteristic sound created when the lid is being closed. In 1947, Tupper patented the Tupper Seal. Together with the rise of the refrigerator, Tupper’s invention would herald a new development in American households in the 1950s. Food could now be stored longer, kept fresh longer in plastic containers and dishes, and stacked neatly.
While Tupper ran the manufacturing entity, Tupper Corp. in Massachusetts, Brownie Mae Humphrey otherwise known as Brownie Wise ran the sales entity, Tupperware Home Parties Inc in Kissimmee Florida. From the beginning, the two companies had distinct cultures. “The manufacturing culture was very male” explains an old-timer from Tupperware’s accounting staff. “There were a lot of macho guys up at the plant, mostly engineering and financial types, rational and emotionally buttoned up. Down in Florida, the selling culture was very fable, very exuberant, very emotional. Those folks were encouraged to get up on stage and be zany.” Once top female field managers who usually earned more than butchers, policemen, and farmers they were married to were promoted to distributor, the job would be offered to them and their husbands as well. If the couple said yes, the husband gave up his job and the couple moved whoever Tupperware wanted them to go to “open up new territory. As the Florida company grew, Brownie traveled all over the country, 150,000 miles a year, visiting her rapidly expanding sales force. She inspired them with her own story and motivated them with minks and appliances and applause. Home-party selling was a new alternative to door-to-door which went from 80 percent male before World War II to more than 80 percent female by the end of the 60s.
It would be this team effort that would last as a cohesive relationships and representing New England entrepreneurship and manufacturing for the better part of 20 years. However, this is also an example of one of the first companies to jump ship out of New England when it was sold to Rexall Drug and Chemical (later renamed Dart and later Premark) which included Vanda cosmetics relocated the headquarters to Orlando Florida to be close to its sales center. This at a time when Tupperware Home Parties was threatened to becoming larger and receiving more publicity than Earl Tupper’s actual company, as as the story has been written about in more detail on many occasions, jealously lamented and led to a falling out with Brownie Wise as Vice President of sales. It would cost New England the loss of its Tupperware factory. While Florida gained a reported 75 to 220 employees by 1968, Massachusetts lost 150 manufacturing jobs. However it should still be noted that up until recently, the brand name Tupperware was still manufactured in the United States. In 1976 the company had invested in an 825,000 square foot facility in South Carolina which employed 950 people as late as 1992, making them Williamsburg County’s largest employers with an average starting wage of $10.52 an hour in 1988 reported in the South Carolina State newspaper. This changed heading into the following century.
Today Tupperware is still an independent company but has manufacturing plants in Belgium employing up to 500 workers, TBD Brazil, 230 workers in Greece, TBD Japan, up to 500 workers in South Korea, 200 workers in Mexico, 200 workers in Philippines, 260 workers in Portugal, and a whopping TBD in South Africa. They also lease manufacturing and distribution facilities that opened in 1996 with 200 workers at their South China plant, around 200 workers in India, and Venezuela. It would be in 2004 when the company announced they would be outsourcing half its line outside America.
“It is our intention over the next five to six years to outsource approximately 50 percent of our products, including core plastic products and noncore, nonplastic products,’’ Jane Garrard, vice president of investor and media relations, said in a follow-up e-mail April 22. ``We plan to maintain six to seven facilities around the world and will retain a proficiency in injection molding.’’ — Plastic News (4/26/2004)
In 2005 they laid off half the remaining workforce in the United States at their only remaining United States factory, a community which had already seen a large number of layoffs at the same factory in 1994.
“Plastics-maker Tupperware Corp. is cutting 250 jobs at its Hemingway, S.C.-based factory — about half of the plant’s total work force. It’s the third layoff in less than two years at the facility, the only U.S.-based manufacturer for the Orlando-based storage-container company. Smaller layoffs were announced in April and July last year, and in the fall of 2003.” — Orlando Sentinal (1/12/2005)
“And there’s Edward Wilson Willis, longtime Tupperware man. For $16.20 an hour he monitors the molding machines that spit out multicolored plastic bowls, cups and platters of all shapes and sizes. But those machines, and the jobs that go with them, are going away — bound for plants in Europe, Asia and Latin America. The 29-year-old factory — Orlando-based Tupperware’s last manufacturing operation in the United States — ceases production this week, putting Willis and 249 co-workers out of work.” — Orlando Sentinal (3/7/2005)
Today the factory still exists but its workforce has been reduced from almost 1000 to around 250. True as it may be they employ far more at their headquarters offices, we are strictly focusing on manufacturing jobs. For a town which had a Tupperware Road, a Boys & Girls Club named after the company’s CEO, and high-school diplomas that come with a handshake and a mug made at the nearby Tupperware plant, the slowdown of of American manufacturing hit the area hard. This has been multiplied by the fact that much of the older processes which supplied jobs have been automated in order to compete with foreign markets. Each machine once had an individual operator. A mold would open, the operator would have to open this gate, she would go and physically take the pieces off the mold, put it on a table, then she would have to close the gate, and it would start its next cycle. Nowadays, with the injection molding machine, a robot replaces the job of the operators who once had to work at each machine. However it should be noted that Tupperware chooses to employ thousands of workers in their factories around the world instead of making them domestically for export to the European and Asian markets. Would it be possible to bring those factories to the United States and why was that never considered? At the same time we can consider the robots and molds are made of parts that could be manufactured in the United States instead of overseas if we still had the machine capability. Regardless of the reason the fact remains that good paying jobs that were once plentiful and available to a community don’t exist anymore.
Union Products (1946–2006)
If your parents owned a plastic holiday decoration in the last century, it was probably made by this iconic company. There was once an amazing company called Union Products, and they were an icon of New England novelty items sold around the country and world. Founded in 1946 by James Sullivan and George Progin on Union Street. They were really the first company to pioneer mass production of plastic decorations from art students.
They started out making plastic children’s toys, plants, plastic fountain and ball pens, and novelty home decorations. This was at a time period when the ideas surrounding this new world of plastic was unlimited. This was completely uncharted territory and why this business took off. In just the first two years of production they already had a customer base large enough to expand to four new buildings on Lancaster Street covering two acres. The company even had a showroom floor with salesmen to convince shoppers.
Jobs at the original factory included “male molders”, “vacuum forming operators”, “floorboys”, “general help”, “male artists”, “women assemblers”, and “women sprayers”. At their peak in the 1960’s they employed over 100 workers with paid holidays, paid vacation, and healthcare. They even sponsored the local softball team. The year 1956 was a special year when they hired graduate out of Worcester Art Museum Don Featherstone to design a novelty product which would be able to sell by the millions. That product turned into what would go on to be known as the “pink flamingo”, that would flood every front lawn in the suburbs across mid century America.
Don Featherstone would go on to be President of the company for four decades. During his ownership despite competition from overseas and factories closing around them, the company continued to operate successfully in Leominster for 60 years. However in the summer of 2006 Union Products announced they would be stopping production of their best selling plastic pink flamingos after the 20 millionth was produced and sold. Five months later the company announced the closure of its doors for good laying off 35 workers that remained at the plant after the state raised electricity rates.
“Mass. Electric’s bills skyrocketed. It’s killing me. Think of your electric bill going from $47,000 to $90,000.” — UP President Dennis Plante (9/22/06 Worcester Telegram)
This was a great example of how higher electricity costs have driven out businesses. In 2010 the original molds were sold to Cado Manufacturing, the last major plastic company operating in Massachusetts. The original Lancaster buildings were torn down and turned into high rise condos and apartment complexes. One of the original buildings sits abandoned covered in graffiti. This marked the second to last plastics company in the Bay State closing, and today only one major plastics company remains in the city of Fitchburg.