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paper industry in Wisconsin | Wisconsin Historical Society

Historical Essay

Paper Industry in Wisconsin

paper industry in Wisconsin | Wisconsin Historical Society
Dictionary of Wisconsin History.


The paper industry achieved great success in Wisconsin and was the state's third largest industry by the 1940s. Paper made from primarily rags, straw, and waste paper was first manufactured in Milwaukee in 1848 to supply newsprint to publishers around the state and in Chicago.  When newsprint became increasingly scarce during the Civil War, several Milwaukee printers created the Wisconsin Paper Company but it was destroyed by fire (a common occurence) in 1867. The closing of another mill in 1875 ended Milwaukee's early papermaking industry. 

Besides Milwaukee, the paper industry also took hold in the Beloit area in the 1850s. Beloit's major contribution to the industry, however, was in the manufacture of papermaking machinery.  From its early start in the southeast, the paper industry quickly moved north to the Fox River Valley, an ideal location for industrial operations due to its proximity to water power, transportation routes, and rich reserves of northern Wisconsin forests. The dramatic shift to wood pulp in the late 19th century was the main cause of the industry's decline in the southeast where natural wood supplies were not as readily available in sufficient quantities.  Appleton was the first community to begin manufacturing paper in the Fox Valley. The success of the early mills in the area enticed skilled laborers from the east to move to Wisconsin which assured a supply of trained craftsmen. The Neenah Paper Mill opened in Neenah in 1865 and became the most successful and profitable of the early mills; it was eventually purchased by Kimberly, Clark and Company that became one of Wisconsin's largest producers. Paper manufacturing remained a secondary industry to flour and lumber in the Fox River Valley until 1870 when wood pulp technology began to change the industry, wheat flour production moved west, and lumber operations went further north.  Kimberly Clark rose to prominence early and helped to make the Fox Valley the Midwestern center for paper.

Paper manufacturing also began in Kaukauna where one firm, Thilmany Pulp and Paper Company became the first to manufacture tissue paper in Wisconsin. Mounting market demands led to the expansion of mills across the Wisconsin and Chippewa River Valleys in the late 19th century.  Demand also placed increasing pressure on the state's limited reserves of wood and firms began extensive harvesting operations in the west.  At the same time, many companies began experimenting with reforestation plans to provide future raw materials.  The Forest Products Laboratory was created as a result of increasing economic pressures resulting from decreased forest supplies at the turn of the 20th century.  Prior to WWI, most paper mills were turning out newsprint but increasing competition from Canada led to a major shift to specialty production--lightweight paper, tissue papers, toilet paper, napkins, crepe, blueprint paper, etc. Wisconsin remains one of the nation's leaders in the production of these papers.

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