The late 1960s fad for disposable paper clothing resulted in some mad, mod dresses in flower power prints, but this was the second time paper clothing was a fad. The first time was 80 years earlier, and it all began when there was a change in how paper was made.
Historically, paper had been made from recycled rags, usually cotton garments that were mechanically pulped into a slurry and dried into sheets. In 1843, wood pulp was used for the first time, and although the resulting paper was not as good quality as rag paper it was cheaper to produce because the raw material was abundant. By the 1870s, mechanical pulping was being displaced by chemical pulping that used sulphites to break down the wood pulp, resulting in a better quality paper.
The insulating qualities of paper were well known – it was a common practice to tuck newspapers inside a winter coat to keep the wind from cutting through the weave of the cloth. American entrepreneur R.C. Mudge and his business partner, Edgar Wasson thought the idea of using the new sulphite paper for making clothing for winter insulation had commercial possibilities. Mudge and Wasson applied for a patent for a paper vest in 1888, and in February 1889, the R. C. Mudge Paper Clothing Company began manufacturing paper vests in Detroit, Michigan. They hired John C. McLaughlin, who would go on to apply for Canadian and American patents for the process he developed to make sulphite wood pulp paper pliable by dampening it with a gelatin solution and rolling it between sets of corrugated rollers and then rubbing it by hand. This softening process allowed for the paper to be sewn, like a textile, but still retain its strength.
The new company displayed their goods at the Detroit International Exposition and Fair in 1889. A newspaper report in the Detroit Tribute extolled the virtues of Mudge’s products: “The men’s vest cost 50 cents, the ladies’ 75 cents and other goods come at corresponding prices. These paper garments cannot be compared with inferior woolen garments. Wind will blow through wool. It simply can’t get through this paper, which, besides being warm is tough, standing a pull of 98 pounds to the inch without tearing.”
To promote his venture, Mudge commissioned J.E. Fancher to create a piece of music titled “The Paper Vest Gallop”, printed on the sulphite paper he used to make his paper garments. Mudge also promoted his goods by donating paper blankets to hospitals and paper vests to postmen.
Mudge didn’t have enough financial backing to support his fledgling business that he expanded too rapidly. Despite all the promotion and accolades, his venture failed. Mudge’s business and stock were sold under a mortgage to Henry McMorran and Wilbur Davidson of the Sulfite Fibre Works of Port Huron Michigan for $75,000. The new owners hired Mudge and McLaughlin to oversee the transition and continue to improve the manufacturing process. They also changed the name of their company to the Port Huron Fibre-Garment Manufacturing Company. In July 1890, McLaughlin made suggestions on how to improve the quality of the paper with the addition of spring-loaded pounding machines, but left the company shortly afterwards. In 1891 Mudge also left the company and moved to Brooklyn where he became a Vaudeville stage manager.
The Port Huron Fibre-Garment Manufacturing Company eventually failed sometime in 1893 and leased their property to the American Fibre-Chamois Company. By 1894, ladies’ dresses had taken on full balloon-shaped sleeves, and the American Fibre-Chamois Company found a new, viable market selling their paper as an interlining to give sleeves their desired fullness. In 1896, McLaughlin sued for patent infringement by the American Fibre-Chamois Company over their use of his process for making the paper pliable. The court found that McLaughlin had not been specific enough in his patent over details, like the strength of the gelatin solution used to dampen the paper, and his case was dismissed.
Concurrent with Mudge’s business was the New York Paper Clothing Manufacturing Company, founded by Charles G. Barrett at 290 Pearl Street in New York. Their ‘Zero’ vest for men and women was a paper interlined cloth vest that they advertised as being “…just the thing for cold weather. It is light, comfortable, soft and pliable and fits perfectly.” The Watertown Daily Times reported on October 27, 1890 that: “Anyone that is troubled with weak lungs can readily find relief by wearing a good chest protector. These goods… can be had at the W. H. Drug Store. We have… a line of paper vests, which are made by the New York Paper Clothing Company, which are used by many who are continually exposed to this cold climate and have given the greatest satisfaction.” However, like Mudge and the Port Huron Fibre-Garment Manufacturing Co., this company also failed and was dissolved in 1893.
With thanks to Lynne Ranieri and other members of the VFG who uncovered this story.