Continued from last week’s Crier..
How WWII Led to the Kraft Board Wet Strength Development
Atlanta Paper Company was primarily manufacturing corrugated shipping containers, folding boxes, and paper bags when Arthur L. Harris began working there. As the United States entered World War II, the company was doing a lot of business for the war effort. What Harris did next would help the soldiers, but would also save the family business, struggling as it emerged from The Great Depression.
“Upon my entry into the Atlanta Paper Company, a reorganization in this old established concern was necessary. Obsolete machinery and equipment had to be replaced with many thousands of dollars of new equipment and buildings.” Harris wrote this as part of a letter to the United States government, offering his services. Harris continues, “On the basis of the above experiences and training, should my services be of more value to the United States Government at this time than in my present capacity, I should be very happy to go further into this matter at the request of Mr. Nelson.”
At the end of the letter, Harris lists his references, including Senator Walter F. George, Executive Vice President of Rich’s Frank H. Neely, Congressman Robert Ramspeck, and Rabbi David Marx, who led The Temple in Atlanta for fifty-one years.
The U. S. government took Harris up on his offer, making him Assistant Chief of the War Production Board Bureau of Priorities. His first assignment was to travel the U. S. and set up regional offices. This work began in 1942. Harris discovered that C-rations and other packages, including those with ammunition, were getting wet and falling apart before they got to the soldiers. Another issue was that packaging should not reflect light, since light reflection helped enemy snipers.
Atlanta Paper Company came up with the solutions to these issues, including wet strength technology. Arthur Harris was recognized for his impact during the war, receiving the Legion of Merit Award. The award was presented to him in 1946 by Major General Edward H. Brooks.
The citation read, “Major Arthur L. Harris, Army of the United States, was eminently successful in overcoming extremely difficult problems and providing urgent military needs for packaging and paper materials while serving in the Production Division, Army Service Forces, from January 1943 to August 1945. His vigor, resourcefulness and initiative in directing this important phase of the military supply program contributed outstandingly to the accomplishment of the Army Service Forces’ mission.” His parents and his sister, Mrs. Henry Ogden were present when he received the award. Harris’ compensation for his war time service was exactly one dollar.
Using the technology that helped get food and other supplies to the troops during World War II, Harris returned to Atlanta Paper Company and began production of wet-strength paper products, including the six-pack bottle carrier. The paper carrier, which began with paper made from the pulp of Georgia pine trees, was developed to be strong enough to carry six bottles of soda or beer, but also to remain strong when wet. This is the everyday item that we pick up at the store, not knowing or thinking about how it came about. Homer Forrer came up with the design of the six-pack carrier.
In 1950, Atlanta Paper Company opened a new plant on Marietta Street at a cost of $1.5 million. A railroad spur and railroad and truck sidings on either side of the building accommodated deliveries. The company was doing $14 to $15 million of business a year at the time, with seven hundred employees. To ensure the new wet strength technology was working, a Board Laboratory was established at Atlanta Paper Company.
It was during these years that Richard Adams began working at Atlanta Paper Company. “I went to work at Atlanta Paper Company in 1953 and was fortunate to work for Bill Connor, who had broad technical knowledge of the entire operation. I became manager of the Board Laboratory, gaining technical understanding from Bill about the whole operation. He was a chemist and was part of the events which led to wet strength development.”
“Specifications for the physical issues were established and given to the mills,” explains Adams. The mills were in Macon, Rome and Brunswick, Georgia. An additional mill in Alabama began producing the Kraft sheet later and continues today. Adams continues, “Because of potential personal liability due to package failure, Arthur Harris was conscientious of package quality and what it would do to his promise to the industry. We sampled each gluer daily soaking them in a water bath to assure we had adequate glue strength overall.”
Adams explains further, “The Kraft sheet had these specifications when produced and was consistently tested for compliance.” There were five tests, including basic weight, caliper (thickness), wet and dry tear, stiffness and smoothness.
One story Richard Adams shared from his days at Atlanta Paper Company was one that Art Harris had also heard. “He was a hands-on CEO, and often strolled through the factory to check on production runs, cheer on the workers and supervisors,” recalls Art Harris. Richard Adams adds, “When Mr. Harris was about to conduct an inspection of the plant, his secretary would let the employees kno so they could be on their toes.” However, one time he walked into the loading dock area and saw a man laying on corrugated board asleep. Art Harris shares how his father reacted, “What the hell are you doing? We’re running a business and have no place for slackers.” Then he reached into his pocket, handed him two hundred dollars as severance and said, “Now get out of here.”
It turned out the man was a delivery driver who didn’t work for Atlanta Paper Company. The driver was quite happy as he left and waved to the security guard saying, “Mr. Harris just gave me two hundred dollars and told me to get out.”
Richard Adams enjoyed relaying this story to his fellow employees, until he was called in and asked to stop going around repeating what happened-or else he might get fired!
Mead Paper and Atlanta Paper Companies merged in 1956, at which time Arthur L. Harris became president of the Mead Paper Company Packaging Division. Mead Packaging International was founded by Harris during the next few years, including Mead Emballage-France. Today, Mead Paper is part of a more recent merger, the WestRock Corporation.
The same type of testing so crucial to the paper and packaging business when Richard Adams worked there still happens today. Today it is handled by businesses such as Applied Paper Technology. Vann Parker, owner and president of Applied Paper Technology, and Richard Adams worked together in the 1990’s. Vann Parker gave us a tour of their testing laboratory, where some of the same tests are still being implemented. Tests for the strength of the carton handle, both wet and dry, test for rips, and porosity (air passing through) are just some of the assessments performed on the paper cartons and other packages.
Significance to the Arts
Arthur L. Harris commissioned artist George Beatty to do an original painting in 1954, which could be reproduced and distributed to customers. The following year he decided to hold an art competition for local artists. This became the “Painting of the Year” competition and continued for several years. One aspect of the competition that artists preferred was that the judges were people involved in the arts.
Harris acknowledged the importance of art in packaging, noting “Art, along with package designing, is the keystone to the successful production of our cartons and containers of today. The welfare of the industry is dependent to a great extent on art.”
In 1968, Arthur L. Harris, president of Mead Paper and honorary French Consul in Atlanta, received the Legion of Honor Medal from France. Charles de Gaulle selected Harris for this honor for continuing to bring business to France. It was Jan, 27, 1968, the same day an Auguste Rodin sculpture was given to the city of Atlanta in memory of the 106 Atlanta art patrons who died at Orly Airport in 1962. They were returning from a three-week European tour; the returning plane never left the runway and exploded. There were 122 passengers total who perished in the crash.
M. Jacques Leprette presented the sculpture, which was given the name L’Ombre, or The Shade. According to Art Harris, his father was friends with many of those on the Orly flight and he would have been on it himself except for a last-minute change to his business schedule. He suggested the sculpture would be a fitting tribute to those who died at Orly. The Atlanta Memorial Center, now known as Woodruff Arts Center was built in their honor.
An invaluable resource for history to me for many years, Richard Adams has shared several stories with me from his youth and his memories of working at Atlanta Paper Company under the leadership of Arthur L. Harris. Known to his friends as Gene, he was born along what is now Dunwoody Club Drive, in the type of farm house that could be found along the dirt roads of 1930’s Dunwoody. He attended Morgan Falls School until his family moved to Roswell when he was thirteen years old.
Richard Adams is also a descendant of Salathiel and Sarah Adams, 1830’s settlers on land that includes Murphey Candler Park. The family cemetery is still located on Oconee Pass and Gene has long hoped that the cemetery could be cleaned up and identified with a sign.
Art Harris, son of Arthur L. and Helen Eisenman Harris, shared newspaper articles and stories of his father when he joined Richard Adams and me at the Atlanta History Center. The three of us searched the Arthur L. Harris file at the Kenan Research Center. Harris’ resume includes The Atlanta Constitution, Atlanta Bureau Chief for the Washington Post, and CNN Investigative Correspondent. He covered the O. J. Simpson trial, Oklahoma City bombing, Atlanta Centennial Olympic Park bombing, and the death of Princess Diana-just to name a few. He also was embedded with troops in Iraq. For more on Art Harris, visit artharris.com.
Other sources cited include:
Atlanta History Center collections, Arthur L. Harris file; Library.gatech.edu/fulton_bag/history; The Atlanta Constitution, Jan. 31, 1950; Atlanta Journal Constitution March 12, 1996; The Atlanta Constitution, April 12, 1954; The Atlanta Constitution, Feb.1, 1948; Atlanta and Environs: Volume I by Franklin Garrett.