Why Are the Rhinelander Paper Smokestacks Missing the Letter "G" in Glassine?

Jul 10, 2019

This week's A Northwoods Moment in History comes from a Curious North question.

Bob Nussbaum from Rhinelander asks: Why, and when, did the famous smokestacks of Rhinelander Paper, get shortened, so that the word "Glassine," the description of the butcher paper that changed the world, lost its "G"?

To answer Bob's question, here's Gary Entz.

The Rhinelander Paper Mill has two old smokestacks that stand out as landmarks in the local area.  The southernmost stack has the words “Rhinelander Paper Co.” painted on it, while the northernmost stack has the words “Glassine Greaseproof.”  But as an astute WXPR listener has noted, the letter “G” in Glassine has been cut off.  Perhaps just as important a question is why the word “Glassine” was up there in the first place?  What made this paper so important that it was singled out and painted on a smokestack as a point of pride for all to see?

Glassine paper did not originate in the United States, and for a time most experts thought it wasn’t possible to manufacture here largely because the right kind of pulp wood was not available.  Glassine paper, a nearly transparent, air-tight, greaseproof paper, was developed in Germany, and in the early 20th century a German immigrant helped the Hartford City Paper Company in Connecticut to develop a process that would work with the wood pulp available the United States.

When it first opened, the Rhinelander Paper Company manufactured newsprint, but the price of newsprint soon declined so the company began looking for an alternative.  The initial answer was a white, all-sulphite butcher’s wrapping that came to be known as King William, which was a great success.  However, the versatility of glassine greaseproof paper was far superior.  Demand for glassine greaseproof rose tremendously during World War I, and in 1916 the Rhinelander Paper Company adopted the new process and installed its first glassine paper machine.  The Rhinelander mill operated at peak capacity for the duration of the war, but demand slipped when hostilities ended and by 1922 the market began to collapse.

Still, the company was committed to glassine paper, and in 1925 Folke Becker, a Swedish immigrant, arrived as a technical consultant and soon became manager.  Becker oversaw a complete rebuilding and modernization of the plant.  He brought in manufacturing experts and made certain that the Rhinelander Paper Company had a world-class technical and research laboratory as well as a quality control department.  New and larger glassine paper machines were installed in 1937, 1941, 1948, and 1951.  Production at the mill tripled during the World War II years.  The Rhinelander mill became the largest paper mill in Wisconsin and the number one producer of glassine paper in the entire world.  For this reason, the words “Glassine Greaseproof” were put on the smokestack.

So why was the letter “G” cut off?  In the late 1980s the structural integrity of the masonry at the top of the smokestack began to fail.  Metal bands were placed around the stack to stabilize the structure, but it wasn’t enough.  In the early 1990s the loosening bricks at the top were removed, the smokestack was shortened, and the letter “G” was lost.

This story was written by Gary Entz and produced for radio by Mackenzie Martin. Some music for this commentary came Podington Bear. Other music came from Blue Dot Sessions: Coronea by Blue Dot Sessions (www.sessions.blue).

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