When Paper Boats Were King
In the mid 19th century, paper was used in ways that anticipated composites and fiberglass
In the years following the Civil War, few towns across the United States matched Troy, New York, in prosperity, owing to the industry of its citizens and its access to great water highways.
Several miles north of Albany, the town faces the eastern terminus of the Erie Canal on the farther bank of the Hudson. Earlier in the 19th century, Adirondack charcoal and iron ore came in by water and fueled a lucrative local steel industry, its products shipped easily to New York City and from there around the world. Other businesses flowered here in the shadows of the Berkshires: the W. & L. E. Gurley Company built precision equipment including theodolites, instruments that would soon be used by U.S. Army surveyors mapping the West. Across the river in West Troy, the Meneely Bell Company forged church bells, while the Watervliet arsenal hammered out cannon and other armaments for the Union armies.
Troy acquired a special fame as the originator and nationwide supplier of detachable linen collars and paper cuffs, cheap elegances for the expanding Victorian petite bourgeoisie. Elisha Waters ran a particularly successful paper box manufacturing company.
One early March day in 1867, the paper box baron’s teenage son, George, received an invitation to a masquerade party. He decided to attend as a giant. In short order, he designed a costume and found a giant-sized face mask in a local store. But the eight-dollar mask exceeded his budget. Undaunted, he borrowed the mask and layered paper and paste over it at his father’s factory to create a serviceable copy. History does not record whether George’s costume became the hit of the party; but, if following events are any indication, the overall experiment proved a quite startling success.
This new kind of paper work prompted George to reexamine the used rowing shell he often took out on the Hudson. The boat leaked badly and required frequent patching, which he did by gluing pieces of thick paper to the hull and then coating it with varnish. Now he wondered whether an entire boat made of paper and varnish might work. In June, George and his father set to work, using the hull of another wooden rowing shell as a mold to create an altogether new type of craft whose skin was formed of continuously adhered sheets of paper extending unbroken from stem to stern, leaving no joints, laps, or seams on the surface. It proved light and strong. The father-son team had created the first paper boat, which they christened the Experiment , that could successfully carry a human being. (In 1619 eccentric Thames waterman and self-styled poet John Taylor is reported to have paddled 40 miles from London to Queensborough in a paper boat. He nearly drowned when it sank.)
During the remainder of 1867, George and Elisha built three more hulls and refined the process. The family team patented the process and shortly thereafter formed the firm of Waters and Balch (later to become Waters & Sons). Their invention marked a turning point for the family business, which the 1868 Troy city directory no longer listed as a box manufacturer but as a boat maker. In 1932 George Water’s son, Charles Vinton Waters, told the trade journal Superior Facts that “after the victory of Cornell, rowing a paper six-oared shell, over twelve other colleges in wooden boats at Saratoga Lake in 1875, followed by a clean sweep of all events at the Centennial Regatta in 1876, they were in general use in this country for more than thirty years.” Their paper armada ranged from simple single-person rowing shells to a 45-foot “pleasure barge,” which could comfortably seat 17, not counting six toiling oarsmen. In 1875 the New York Daily Graphic could confidently assert that this family, which eight years earlier had only built the likes of hatboxes, now operated the “largest boat factory in the United States.”
More than a few historians have dubbed the latter half of the 19th century, when a broad front of improved technology spilled its goods into an industrializing society, as the “Age of Paper.” The Fourdrinier brothers’ new, phenomenally productive machine was flooding out the product in long, continuous rolls. This device, patented in France by Nicolas-Louis Robert in 1799, had found its development slowed by the turmoil following the French Revolution. Two London stationers, Henry and Sealy Fourdrinier, acquired patents for this technology and, although they themselves went bankrupt in the process of commercializing and promoting the machine, got the attention of the developing world.
Before their machine, paper was made by hand on a large frame, containing a screen dipped into a large vat of water and paper pulp, its size limited by a mold that could only be handled by one or two papermakers. The Fourdrinier machine overcame this bottleneck by using a rotating screen belt upon which the pulp solution was deposited. America’s first Fourdrinier machine cranked up in 1827.
This accelerated production quickly consumed the industry’s original limited supply of raw materials. Virtually all paper is cellulose-based; in the early 1800s most quality paper was produced from linen or cotton rags, cleaned and mechanically pulped in a wet environment. The beating process frayed the ends of the fibers and split them lengthwise into fibrils. The shortage of rags became increasingly acute during the early 1800s. While wood was a potentially attractive and abundant source of cellulose, converting it presented a problem because a substance known as lignin binds to the cellulose fibers and hardens the cell walls. Initial attempts to use ground wood pulp produced a crude, stiff material that yellowed quickly. By 1854 chemists had developed processes to free the cellulose from the lignin, providing a plentiful and inexpensive alternative to rag for most applications. Between 1869 and the end of the century, the price of newsprint dropped from approximately 14 to 2 cents per pound.
In an age without plastic or composite materials, this new paper, which could be molded, formed, and otherwise manipulated, became the high- tech construction substance of its day. Inventions ranged from clothing—entertainer Howard Paul sang “The Age of Paper” in British music halls, clad head to toe in his subject material— to boats, observatory domes, flowerpots, and even coffins.
The fabrication technique followed by Waters & Sons throughout these years differed little from that presented in the original patent. A full-size convex wooden model was prepared to the exact desired dimensions. The mold was solid, but it had grooves cut into it so that a wood strip could be inserted along the keel line and similar strips along the gunwales. Below the gunwales, “tacking strips” were attached that enabled the paper to be stretched over and tightly fastened to the mold.
For lightweight boats such as racing shells, Waters & Sons used the best grade of manila paper, which in the 19th century was taken directly from manila hemp. Multiple layers were applied, each sheet running the full length and breadth of the molding hull. The first sheet was applied slightly damp, then tacked down and coated with an adhesive to accept the next sheet. Waters & Sons employed a paper that possessed considerable give while wet, enabling it to conform snugly to complex shapes. Unlike most paper today, this kind came from largely unadulterated paper pulp, relatively free from the various fillers, sizing, and surface treatments that improve modern papers for their specific applications.
After time in a heated drying room, the paper shell—keel and gunwales attached—was removed from the mold for finishing. The boat builders completed a proprietary waterproofing process, added sealed air chambers for flotation, installed a paper deck, and fitted the hull with the proper hardware, ribs, and woodwork. When finished, one observer noted, the racing shells were like “polished steel-12 inches wide and finished as beautifully as a piano body.”
For a rowboat or canoe, the basic hull manufacturing technique was nearly identical, except that only one sheet of thick linen paper from the Crane Mill in Dalton, Massachusetts, was used, still damp and in roll form. When dried, the hull still measured no more than 1/8 to 1/10 inch thick.
Waters & Sons’ imposing 400-page Annual Illustrated Catalogue and Oarsman’s Manual for 1871 contained not only listings of the company’s boats and the races they had won, but also helpful articles on training, proper rowing techniques, racing club organization, and boathouse construction. The list of 1868 had already reviewed a total of 14 races, several with its products placing among the winners. By 1869 the list had grown to 26 events in cities as distant as Savannah, Pittsburgh, Boston, and Toronto. By 1875 the catalog offered 45 different racing shells, rowboats, and canoes for sale.
Two canoe adventurers of the day brought even greater fame to Waters products. A young reporter for the New York Herald , Julius J. Chambers, went to Troy to order a canoe, intending to explore the Mississippi headwaters and then continue to New Orleans. The canoe reached him by rail at St. Paul in May 1872, enabling him to set off from the White Earth Indian Reservation in central Minnesota. By June 9 he had arrived at Lake Itasca and explored its tributaries to the great interest of his paper’s readers. He grew weary of the summer heat, however, and aborted his trip just short of St. Louis, rather anticlimactically proceeding to New Orleans by steamboat.
Two years later, Nathaniel Holmes Bishop and an assistant pressed south from Quebec in an 18- foot, decked wooden canoe, propelled alternatively by two sets of oars and a single sail. Arriving in Troy, he learned about paper canoes, whereupon “a feeling of buoyancy and independence came over me . . . with the consciousness that I now possessed the right boat for the enterprise.” He fired his assistant and continued alone aboard the Maria Theresa , eventually arriving at Cedar Key on the Gulf Coast of Florida. He chronicled his trip in the Voyage of the Paper Canoe , which sold well both in the United States and Europe.
In 1878 Waters & Sons built a 29-foot paper dome for the newly erected Williams Proudfit Astronomical Observatory at Troy’s Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI), laying thick linen paper over a section of a dome that contained a wooden framework. Once dried and removed, the paper sections were bolted together and the joints weatherproofed with cotton cloth saturated with white lead. The 16-sectioned dome, weighing 4,000 pounds, survived wholly without decay for 20 years, until RPI took it down to convert the building to other uses. In 1881 a dome 30 feet 8 inches in diameter, the largest Waters & Sons ever built, covered the U.S. Military Academy observatory at West Point, New York. The firm also supplied domes for Beloit College, a Taunton, Massachusetts, high school, Columbia College in New York City, and Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute.
The Waters & Sons business apparently remained active through the end of the century, although its boat- building factory seems to have contracted as the years went by and the Waters’ patents expired, others began building paper boats, such as Crane and Company and Jos. Bergman in Troy, New York. The end came suddenly and violently in 1901, when George Waters accidentally started a fire while applying finishing touches with a blowtorch to a shell destined for Syracuse University. George and his father, Elisha, died soon after closing their shop, in 1902 and 1904 respectively.
The techniques they employed can arguably be called the 19th century’s version of composite construction. The similarities seem evident between using a mold to form sheets of cellulose fiber (paper) saturated with a resin (such as shellac or varnish) and modern techniques that combine more sophisticated fibers and resins. Yet no evidence suggests that modern composite technology evolved directly from those of the Waters family, whose techniques died with them, with the exception of the occasional amateur boat builder or experimenter.
Waters & Sons products appear to have been supplanted by advances in traditional boat building that produced more durable products, which competed well with paper. Longer- lasting copper observatory domes replaced paper ones by century’s end. The many other Waters & Sons patents—notably for paper bicycle guards, paper life preservers, and paper cans for petroleum—appear to have existed only as patents.
But the overall technology roared ahead. The Fourdrinier machines that can be seen at large paper mills today retain the basic elements of their 19th- century ancestors, but they run at speeds and produce paper in widths unimaginable at that time. This has made paper into the inexpensive and often disposable material used today. Wood pulp remains the material of choice for low-cost lines, while linen and cotton pulps are used for the high- quality components of currency and elegant writing papers. The material and techniques used to create the papers available in some craft stores and boutiques differ little from those used in the early 1800s.
Human-carrying paper boats are rarely seen, although six years ago British comedian Tim FitzHigham broke John Taylor’s nearly 400-year record for longest distance traveled on the Thames in a paper boat. On March 12, 2003, after eight days traversing 160 miles on the river, FitzHigham glided under the Tower Bridge to a warm welcome by the Royal Navy and the BBC. It’s likely that such an accomplishment would not have surprised George and Elisha Waters.