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Papermaking Moves to the United States

The First Mill in America

The first paper mill in America was established in 1690 by William Rittenhouse near Germantown, Pennsylvania. In 1688, Rittenhouse left Holland, where he had been an apprentice papermaker, and settled in Philadelphia, near the print shop of William Bradford. The Rittenhouse mill remained the only mill in America until 1710, when William DeWees, brother-in-law to William Rittenhouse's son Nicholas, established his own mill.

Most early mills in the American colonies were started by transplanted papermakers, like Rittenhouse, who modeled their operations on European mills of the day. These mills had to be located near populated areas that could provide a reliable supply of rags, the main raw material at that time. A generous supply of fresh water was also a requirement, both for washing the fibers and turning the mill machinery.

Paper for Printing in the Colonies

Many colonial paper mills, such as the Rittenhouse mill, were also located near print shops. Even before they had a reliable supply of paper, however, the colonies had begun to publish newspapers. The first newspaper in the colonies was the Boston News Letter, which appeared in 1705; the second was the Boston Gazette, first published in 1719. The third, also dating from 1719, was Bradford's Mercury, which was published by Andrew Bradford, the son of printer William Bradford. To supply paper for the New York Gazette, William Bradford started a paper mill in New Jersey around 1726.

With the Stamp Act of 1765, Great Britain tried to raise revenue by taxing all colonial commercial and legal papers, newspapers, and pamphlets. Because of the export trade in paper, Britain attempted to restrict papermaking in the colonies, but due to the shortage of paper in America, these restrictions were not rigorously applied. It was only when colonial printers began to express their discontent with British rule that Britain really tried to control the production of paper.

Mold Making in the Colonies

Although some of the machinery used in early mills was imported from Europe, much of the machinery was constructed in the colonies. A high degree of craftsmanship was also required to create a paper mold; however, the lack of skilled mold makers in the colonies meant that many paper molds were imported from England.

Nathan Sellers of Pennsylvania was a skilled wire drawer who applied his craft to the manufacture of paper molds. Between 1776 and 1820, he supplied the molds for hundreds of American papermakers. This ability was so rare that, when Sellers joined the American army in the fall of 1776, he was soon discharged by a special resolution of the Contiental Congress, which sent him home to create the molds that were so desparately needed to make the paper used for powder wrappers and written orders during the Revolutionary War.

Paper Mill Construction After the Revolutionary War

Ream Wrapper By 1810, there were some 185 paper mills in the new United States. Ream wrappers were used to identify a mill's products, and they were often printed with a picture of the mill. As existing mills expanded and new mills began production, rags for making paper became scarce, and the search for more plentiful raw materials began.

American papermakers began experimenting with alternative raw materials as early as the 1790's, and many mills tested local sources of fiber as substitutes for rag pulp, including tree bark, bagasse (sugarcane waste), straw, and cornstalks. Wood pulp became a viable option thanks to the work of Mathias Koops in England and the increasing availability of mechanical wood grinders. The first US newspaper to be printed on paper made from ground wood pulp was the edition of the Boston Weekly Journal that appeared on January 14, 1863.

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Institute of Paper Science and Technology at Georgia Tech - Atlanta, Georgia
Last updated - June 13, 2006