Things men have made
On the floor with a small manufacturer in America today.
Editor’s Note: Author Mary Collins received a grant from the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) chapter at Central Connecticut State University to research and write an essay about her mother’s family’s paper company. Following is an edited excerpt of her essay, which weaves together family memories, observations from a visit to the plant and the author’s views on the U.S. economy.
For five decades I walked past American stores and never paid much attention to the soft blue hue of Tiffany jewelry boxes or the special shine on Russell Stover candy boxes.
I did not know that I was seeing my Uncle Richard’s handiwork.
And that of his brothers Tommy, Roger and Terry or, to reach even farther back, my grandparents George and Elizabeth Sullivan, who started the Sullivan Paper Company in West Springfield, Mass., in 1941. Today the company provides the paper that covers boxes for a host of classic American products as well as the Sally Foster and Genevieve’s gift wrap rolls that PTAs across the country sell for school fund-raisers.
Growing up in Connecticut, I knew my mother’s family had a paper factory, because every Christmas season she’d return from a visit with her brothers laden with huge boxes of gift wrap. I’d trot out my mundane collection of gifts and transform it into a splendiferous pile, the packages covered with images of playful waddling penguins, or wrapped in silver paper embossed with a square design that bent like soft metal and reflected light like the Irish Steuben my mother laid out for holiday dinner. Once we opened all our presents, the living room filled with what I now know is some of the finest paper in the world; it creaked and crinkled when we moved through it.
We were the family with the 60-pound paper holiday.
But the Sullivans are a huge clan; my grandparents had nine children who in turn had another 47, so beyond the dozens of rolls of gift wrap in the basement, I never really registered much about the Sullivan Company. My grandparents felt it was inappropriate for their three daughters to work in the mill, so Shirley, Connie and Sylvia moved on, married, lived in other states and built lives in the service economy, where lawyers, teachers, and doctors roam and no one makes anything that you can hold in your hand.
When my grandfather was a boy at the turn of the 20th century, Americans manufactured more than 80% of all that they consumed, according to the New York Times (“Is Anything Made in the U.S.A. Anymore?” by -Stephen Manning, Feb. 20, 2009). Today just 14% of our GNP comes from manufacturing.
Even more striking is the laissez-faire attitude that the business elite and U.S. government have taken toward this trend. The prevailing view, as former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan quipped, is that manufacturing is “so 19th- and 20th-century,” and our country has moved beyond that (Alan Tonekson, “Up from Globalism,” Harper’s, January 2010). Well, as our current economic problems mount in today’s service-oriented economy, it’s time to rethink the role of manufacturing in our country. I’m referring not to the automotive industry that taxpayers bailed out, but to the small to mid-sized, privately run manufacturers that get little attention from either the national business press or the government and form the economic backbone of many communities.
I am not an economist. But I am a professional writer who often studies larger cultural trends, and no trend right now seems more relevant to the economy than the closing of thousands of American manufacturers over the last 70 years. The Sullivan Paper Company has bucked the trend and continues to remain a viable business while most other U.S. manufacturing operations have moved to China.
In the summer of 2009, I drove north from Connecticut to West Springfield thinking I would record stories from my aging uncles about the end of their era. What I found instead was a model for a smaller, more nimble future in American manufacturing. I discovered how important it is that the Sally Foster paper roll your third-grader brings home as part of a school fund-raiser is made in America and designed, right down to the sticky closure tab, by an American. There’s a hands-on cleverness involved in the entire process that we simply cannot afford to lose as a culture.
Take U.S. Route 20 West off I-91 North
I’m embarrassed to say I needed directions to the mill, even though it’s located just 30 miles north of where I grew up. Like so many former New England manufacturing towns, the Springfield area remains a blend of the lovely and the worn. I was astounded to learn that the region once supported hundreds of thousands of people who produced clocks, textiles, metal and guns. In the late 19th century, 60% of all goods made in America were made in New England, according to The History of New England, by Candace Floyd (Portland House, 1990). Even more relevant to my story: As late as 1920, nearly half of the shoes made in the U.S. were made in Massachusetts. My grandfather took advantage of that market by making the paper that covered the shoeboxes for trademark brands like Thom McAn Shoes.
Most of the local manufacturers have gone now, except the Sullivan Paper Company, which sits off the West Springfield town green on a side street in a set of nondescript buildings. The only telltale sign that anything interesting is going on: the classic 1950s-style factory logo, designed by my grandmother, on the white sign. The other giveaway: several cars in the lot have plates that read Paper 2, PaperR, Paper 7.
The no-frills approach on the outside continues on the inside, where my Uncle Richard, the company chairman, sits behind a simple desk shaped like a boat. Everything around him has a spare quality, though he himself has a lot of flash. Even though he is 80 years old, his energy dominates the room and the conversation.
He explains how by the 1950s the four brothers—Richard, Roger, Tommy and Terry—had finished school and military service and worked full-time at the mill for their father. Serendipitously, each brother had a particular skill that the mill needed: Richard, the master salesman; Roger, the engineer and floor manager for the men working the machines; Tommy, another master personnel manager and marketer; Terry, the accountant.
With the light buzz of my video camera as background noise, Richard recounts how he traveled the U.S. in his 1953 Chevy in search of new clients.
“I drove and slept in the car. I’d go and try to talk them into doing business with us. One time I went to Texas and sat down with Lou Ward, who wanted to take over a business but his friend wanted to talk him out of it. He brought us over to this great old house that said ‘Russell Stover’ across the top. Ward said he wanted to make candy not only in Texas but two states.”
Richard smiles at this point as a ripple of playfulness moves across his normally intense face. Russell Stover now does more than $300 million worth of business worldwide in all 50 states and 20 countries.
So this is how he nailed this huge account for the Sullivan Paper Company—over cheese sandwiches with Lou Ward in Texas in the 1950s.
After the interview we crowd into a tight room full of samplers that contain hundreds of paper patterns. Here, in my hand, is what makes the Sullivan Paper Company one of the best in the world at what it does. I begin to flip through them and scan the variety of colors, textures and sheens with my camera lens. There’s an art-gallery quality to it all because the weight of the paper and intensity of the inks yield a glossy, high-end feel.
An assistant brings in a roll of Sally Foster paper. Richard parks himself in a chair and begins to unwrap the plastic around the roll, which has Santa Clauses on it.
“You can use every inch of this,” from the paper to the brown inner tube to the reusable closing sticker on the outside, he explains. As I watch his eyes, I see the passion of a younger man, the same passion that tracked down Lou Ward in Texas. The cleverness of the product is all part of the game for him, all part of the rush of what keeps him in it even as an octogenerian.
At the end of the day, Richard escorts me to the company product display room, which contains an array of items including candy boxes, Estée Lauder perfume boxes and faux wooden frames coated with laminated paper, a trick Richard helped devise. The end product—handsome frames that look like they’re made from mahogany or cherry—is sold at Wal-Mart.
“As one guy once told me,” Richard says, “there are a lot of people with good taste that have no money. If they want the frame of the picture over their bed to match their side table, they can afford to do that with these frames.”
Buffing the frame with his hand, he explains that his employees mailed it back and forth from his house to the company with little protection about a dozen times to test its durability.
As he talks, I think about the endless cycle of ideas and products the company has developed to stay ahead of the curve: When the shoe companies folded in the 1950s, the idea of gift wrapping started to catch on; when the economy slowed and gift purchases dropped off, the faux frames remained popular.
After the Sally Foster demonstration, we head to one of the warehouses where huge rolls of paper stand upright in row upon row of shelves. I pull one roll out at random and read off the name of the customer. Richard knows who they are, how long they’ve bought paper from the company and what’s unique about this new order. He could tell me the detailed back story of any roll in the warehouse.
The back story
In the beginning, there was just one machine and one man—my grandfather, George Sullivan. He lost his first paper business in the Great Depression and spent the next ten years working for another paper company in Rhode Island to support his family of nine children. He hated working for someone else. He knew that to escape, he needed his own printing press, so for years he worked as a consultant on the side and “earned” parts instead of cash. It took him a decade to build the full press in the basement of his rental house, but in 1941 he launched the Sullivan Paper Company for the second time. He set up in a room in West Springfield where an old business colleague gave him free space in exchange for paper.
My grandmother, Elizabeth O’Neil Sullivan, won many art contests as a young adult and studied art in Boston. While spending most of her time taking care of her huge family, she designed the company logo (still used) and some of the earlier papers, and she put together the first samplers.
My mother, Connie Collins Cain, remembers going into fabric stores with her mother who used to troll for pattern ideas there. My grandmother’s adept handling of a huge household and keen artistic eye proved vital to my grandfather’s success.
The money and the government
What elements were in place to help the Sullivans act on their entrepreneurial spirit? Both of my grandparents were smart and talented, with tremendous energy and drive and a remarkable work ethic, but they also needed short-term loans at low interest rates. Uncle Richard and others recounted how a crucial $300 startup loan here and a $1,500 infusion of cash there proved vital to the survival of the company.
All of my uncles acknowledge that the Sullivan Paper Company has benefited immensely from various government investments or regulations. During World War II, for example, just as George Sullivan’s business was finding some legs, the U.S. State Department commissioned his company to produce passport paper. When the Chinese began breaking into the candy box market, the federal government stepped in, found that the Chinese used toxic inks not suited for food products, and ruled that all candy box paper must be made in the U.S.
To keep the company in the family, each brother picked at least one son or daughter to take his place in the mill. Since Uncle Richard has lasted so long at the helm, he’s had ample time to train his successor—his son George Sullivan—and the other five family members who will work with George. They all acknowledge that they lack the personal contacts Richard has built over six decades in the business; when Richard goes, something irreplaceable will go with him.
But Richard has also been smart enough to never make the company about one man. When the recession affected orders, he kept some idle workers on the payroll, because he wanted them there when things got rolling again. Instead of saving money in the short term with cutbacks, he continued to pursue his long-range vision, and he knows he needs his skilled workers to sustain it.
For now, the Sullivan Paper Company remains a privately held, family-run business—the last U.S. manufacturer of fine paper. In the recent recession some core clients, such as the department stores in New York, cut back on orders—they used last year’s Christmas paper instead of ordering a new design, for example. But the company’s range of products continues to sustain it in this tough economy. Production and profits are down, but the presses continue to run.
I believe that the continued success of the company will not depend only on tax breaks, federal regulations and a third generation of hardworking Sullivans. Richard embodies a zeal for all aspects of the business that his sucessors will have to sustain if they hope to survive in the 21st century. His life is the company. As I peered at the patterns in the samplers and, even more impressive, at the boxes and boxes of past patterns in the Sullivan archive, I thought of one of my favorite poems, “Things Men Have Made” by D.H. Lawrence: “Things men have made with wakened hands, and put soft life into/are awake through the years with transferred touch, and go on glowing/for long years.”
When a roll of paper comes off of the Sullivan Paper Company assembly line, it transfers more than money to the company coffers and community; it represents a work ethic, an idea, an American legacy that generations can touch. My Uncle Richard understands that, and the next generation of Sullivans will have to as well, if they hope to thrive.
Mary Collins (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a tenured professor of writing at Central Connecticut State University. Her most recent book, American Idle: A Journey Through Our Sedentary Culture, won the 2010 Grand Prize for Nonfiction at the Next Generation Indie Book Awards.