150 Years Later: Glatfelter exemplifies the resilience of the dynamic paper making industry

From Abraham Lincoln’s re-election bills to composite fibers used in tea bags and coffee filters, Glatfelter exemplifies the resilience of the dynamic paper making industry

Paper. It’s hard to imagine the world without it.

Long before Philip Henry Glatfelter started his venture in 1864, paper was manufactured for centuries dating back to its invention in the second century in China.

But this isn’t a story of invention. It’s a story of innovation.

Innovation in a rapidly changing, wildly diverse papermaking industry that continues to anticipate and meet the demands of world markets. Innovation during a time when the number of U.S. manufacturers shrank from 50 down to 20 in just two decades. Innovation brought to life by hard-working, creative people devoting themselves to the craft of papermaking throughout the past 150 years.

Some call them dreamers or visionaries. Others call them perfectionists. With an eye on sustainability and environmental stewardship, yesterday’s and today’s paper manufacturers work with the customers they serve and the communities in which they reside to create products that go beyond paper.
This is their story.

From rags to (resource) riches

Odd to think the story starts with rags.

Imagine torn petticoats, discarded handkerchiefs, and threadbare shirts. Early papermakers used raw materials like cotton, linen, and hemp rags to produce stationery. Many consider them some of the earliest industrial recyclers—a tradition that continues to this day.

Rags were so highly prized that some European countries outlawed their export. And it was no different in the United States.

Four years into the Civil War, rags were in such high demand for bandages, uniforms, and other battle necessities that it took Philip Henry Glatfelter six months to get enough spare cloth to make paper in his new mill. The 26-year-old visionary had purchased a mill at auction in what was then Spring Forge (now Spring Grove), Penn., after working (for room and board only) at the Loucks, Hoffman & Company paper mill in nearby Maryland.

“I’m told that one of the first types of paper that we made was for the Lincoln re-election bills,” says Patrick Mudd, national accounts manager for Glatfelter, now a global supplier of specialty papers and engineered products, headquartered in York, Penn.

Young Glatfelter went on to establish a business in newsprint, generating 1,500 pounds a day. By 1880, after relocating the mill farther upriver and investing in major equipment, that number had jumped to 110,000 pounds daily. And, yet, the ongoing rag shortage continued to be a major impediment to progress for Glatfelter and paper manufacturers everywhere.

As a result, Glatfelter took the bold step of converting to a new process that allowed him to make his own pulp from softwoods such as jack pine. It created what is now known in the industry as a vertically integrated plant, where trees (and other raw materials) come in one end and finished paper comes out the other.

“Until then, we could only pulp hardwood. This put an environmental strain on hardwood trees,” explains Heath Frye, marketing manager for Glatfelter’s specialty papers business unit. “Incorporating softwood improved quality, expanded product portfolio, and eased the demand for hardwoods, which take a long time to grow.”

It is the type of forward-thinking decision that would become a hallmark of Glatfelter’s company for generations to come. This new supply, coupled with resource sustainability practices adopted by papermakers, eliminated the bottleneck and enabled manufacturers to mass-produce their products.
By 1892, Glatfelter was no longer producing newsprint, choosing instead to focus on higher-quality paper for books, lithography, and business forms.

Books, envelopes, and forms, OH MY!

The rise in book publishing that resulted from mass production required new types of paper stock.
Glatfelter committed to producing high-end printing stock, developed in 1879, for the publishing industry that wouldn’t yellow or turn brittle with age because it is acid-free and has no lignin to react with light. In fact, one machine from the late 1800s still churns out envelopes and end-leaf paper for books in Glatfelter’s Spring Grove plant.

While some papermaking techniques haven’t changed in more than 100 years, market demands always do. Paper mills everywhere needed to become faster and more flexible.

Take for example Edwards Brothers Malloy of Ann Arbor. Launched in 1893, today it prints professional journals as well as short-to-medium book runs of up to 50,000 copies. According to Bill Upton, the company’s vice president of operations, if a book’s sales unexpectedly take off, the publisher doesn’t have the space to stock enough paper for 20,000 more copies.

“The publisher needs those (papers) right away to keep up with demand,” says Upton. “So, we’re placing an order this morning that we need this afternoon.”

Fortunately, Glatfelter is also home to machines such as “The Chief,” located in its Chillicothe, Ohio, plant. Seven stories tall, two football fields long, and controlled by state-of-the-art computer technology, it’s capable of producing 300-inch-wide paper rolls at an average rate of 3,600 feet per minute.

The Chief

Alongside the demand for books came the need for all sorts of business forms and envelopes. “The early years of forms printing and distribution resulted in partnerships, mostly due to the limited amount of sourcing,” says Mudd.

“Evolution led to many sources, which led to more commoditization for forms and forms papers,” he says. “Now, the industry sees a trend back to more partnerships due to the reduction of paper and forms printing/manufacturing sources…coming full circle in the next decade or so.”

Helping paper manufacturers and related businesses weather these expansions, contractions, challenges, and opportunities of an increasingly dynamic industry are various trade associations, such as The National Paper Trade Association (NPTA), established in 1903, and The Print Services & Distribution Association (PSDA), established in 1946. Most recently, paper trade associations’ largest contributions are in bringing sustainability issues to the forefront, emphasizing the positive relationship between paper manufacturers and environmental education.

At the close of the 20th century, the necessity for paper manufacturers to adapt to the changing needs of the marketplace became greater than ever. It was a time to get bigger, get better, or go bust.

The case for diversity

“The increasing popularity of e-books, the declining circulation of newspapers, soaring energy costs, increased recycling of recovered fibers, aging equipment, foreign competition, uncertain world markets, heightened environmental concerns, and the unending transition to electronic record-keeping were just a few factors contributing to steady reductions in demand,” says Nicholas A. Basbanes, in his 2013 book, On Paper: The Everything of Its Two-Thousand Year History.

“It became increasingly clear that the key to success in the modern economy was to be alert to opportunities as they arose; to rely exclusively on old models was to risk falling by the wayside,” notes Basbanes, at the start of the book’s chapter that highlights Glatfelter’s unique evolution in the paper industry.

According to Scott L. Mingus, Sr., charged with research and development for Glatfelter, as quoted by Basbanes, “In a world where everyone else was shrinking to their core business, we went the opposite way. We diversified.”

Rather than compete in the commodities market, Glatfelter looked for niche markets and aimed to own them. They invested heavily in research and developing new products as well as acquiring companies around the world that served unique markets.

For example, Glatfelter papermakers are manipulating composite fibers to meet the need for papers used in products ranging from laminate flooring and countertops to tea bags and coffee filters. Advanced airlaid materials, which use a combination of biodegradable natural fibers (fluff pulp) and synthetic fiber, create sustainable products for the adult incontinence and feminine hygiene markets.
The importance of research and development is critical as technology puts increasing demands on the performance of paper.

“[For paper manufacturers,] answering the changing print market is constant. Traditional print to digital to inkjet are all different in their needs for output devices,” says Frederick “Fritz” Horak, CEO of The F.P. Horak Company, a comprehensive printing and marketing solutions firm, in Bay City, Mich. “Innovative paper manufacturers are always staying at the forefront of market needs and constantly making changes.”

In the end, though, it always comes back to innovation.
No matter the shifts and changes that lie ahead in the future of paper, the hard-working, creative visionaries toiling throughout the paper industry are perfectly positioned to develop products that continually deliver the best products to market. And that’s a story we can all celebrate…because the possibilities are endless.