Book Review: Shredding Paper: The Rise and Fall of Maine’s Mighty Paper Industry by Michael G. Hillard
In Shredded paper: the rise and fall of Maine’s powerful paper industry, Michael G. Hillard offers a new history of papermaking in the United States, focusing on the changing fortunes of the Maine paper industry. Positioning the history of paper mills as a microcosm of rapidly transforming markets and values across the American and international economic landscape, this scientific analysis that turns the pages places papermaking in its rightful place in labor history. american written Jeff roquen.
Shredding paper: The rise and fall of Maine’s powerful paper industry. Michael G. Hillard. Cornell University Press. 2021.
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Since the end of World War II, American historians and historiography have shed light on the myriad causes and consequences of the boom in large-scale production from the Golden Age (1870-1900) until the stagflation of the 1970s. Range of portraits of American tycoons and their respective industries – including Andrew Carnegie and Henry Clay Frick (steel), JP Morgan (finance), Cornelius Vanderbilt and Jay Gould (railroads), John D. Rockefeller (petroleum) and Henry Ford (automobiles) – range from hagiographic to hypercritical. Was the monopoly era the triumph of American ingenuity and expanded prosperity, or did the United States abandon their ideals and ultimately create mass misery through highly exploitative working conditions? for the sole benefit of a new class of plutocrats?
Despite the voluminous literature examining the inner workings of American capitalism, papermaking, which became the tenth largest industry in the United States in the 1930s, has received relatively little attention. In Shredded paper: the rise and fall of Maine’s powerful paper industry, Michael G. Hillard, professor of economics at the University of Southern Maine, has not only provided a linear chronicle of neglected labor history. He also brilliantly demonstrated how the plight of Maine’s paper mills has served as a microcosm of rapidly changing markets and values in the US and international economic landscape.
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In the first two chapters, Hillard traces the nascent but meteoric growth of papermaking in Maine and explores both the attractions and the detrimental effects of factories. As a result of innovations in the creation of wood pulp – including the sulphite method devised by Benjamin Tilghman – paper production has grown exponentially to meet the growing demand for paper products (19-20). Three decades after Samuel Dennis Warren (1817-1888) founded his eponymous mill in the mid-1850s, he subsequently employed around 1,000 workers at his peak – a perfect case study for Hillard.
In addition to offering the allure of above-average wages, the paternalistic Warren built a fiefdom with “high quality housing. […] churches and gymnasiums […and] electricity ”(24). Rather than a distant figure separated from the day-to-day operations of the factory, Warren took the initiative to develop relationships with his workers, and his personal brand of corporate well-being extended to approving loans. to employees for housing and education costs (77). Although motivated in part by altruism, his concessions also served to prevent any attempt to organize.
Despite the income earned and the pride of being productive in his trade, the loyalty of the workers remained precarious due to the daily regime of “heat, humidity, noise, danger from chemicals, steam, heavy machinery, labor. shift and long hours, and abuse by co-workers and supervisors for eleven to thirteen hours a day, six days a week. In summer, temperatures in the mill could climb to 130 degrees (68-70). While the company’s paternalistic policies allowed injured employees to keep their jobs in less arduous jobs and reduced prices in the company store, they failed to compensate for the humiliation of working for tyrannical foremen and being denied promotion due to a management culture torn by nepotism and favoritism. (50, 81-82).
In chapter three, Hillard masterfully presents the socio-economic decline of the SD Warren factory and its sale to Scott Paper in 1967. The largesse exhibited by Warren’s management and bestowed on loyal factory workers since the impoverished 1930s until the 1950s in full swing decades of largely harmonious relations between work and property. By the 1960s, however, the hiring of professional managers, who possessed minimal knowledge of the demanding work regime and often insufficient empathy for overworked artisans, alienated the base to a large extent.
Rather than raising wages, expanding benefits, or continuing to invest heavily in research and development, shareholders began to absorb a larger share of the profits. In addition, long-standing resentments regarding the abuse of power, including the aforementioned nepotism and favoritism as well as widespread discrimination and harassment against women, have come to the fore and sparked a fierce campaign of advocacy. organization against the fossilized rulers (98-109).
Despite strong resistance, the workers emerged victorious and addressed many of their grievances. Through the pages of chapter four, “The Madawaska Rebellion,” Hillard details the struggle of the Fraser paper mill workers to defeat draconian management policies and end the nativist-centered mistreatment of French-speaking employees. Americans because of their Catholic identity with unionization and the disruptive strikes in 1971. These completed chapters illustrate the complex socio-economic dynamics of an emerging neoliberal era.
Hillard completes his monograph by devoting the penultimate and final chapters to conveying the good faith attempts by management and workers to navigate an industry transformed by mergers and national competition by seeking the “spouse.” This was intended to overcome competing employer-employee interests through collaboration, compromise, and concessions – a tactic only partially effective in a tumultuous era defined by technological ingenuity and corresponding job losses (181-85).
In all, Shredded paper succeeds in elevating the production of books, magazines, typing, facial tissues and other paper products to its rightful place at the forefront of American industry from the mid-19th century to the present day. It offers a scholarly and rotating analysis of a product at the center of supply, demand and the constantly evolving quest to balance prosperity and dignified work.
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Note: This article gives the author’s point of view, not the position of the USAPP – American Politics and Policy, or the London School of Economics.
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About the Examiner
Jeff Roquen is an independent researcher based in the United States.