Monday, January 23, 2006

The Maine Mummy Market

During the Civil War, the owner of a Gardiner paper mill, dangerously short on linen, got creative.

Augustus Stanwood, of Stanwood & Tower paper mill on Dam. No. 5, began importing Egyptian mummies to convert their wrappings to pulp.
So begins Michelle Pronovost's article, "Necessity of paper was the 'mummy' of invention," published last March in Capital Weekly.

Provonost looked into the story, and discovered that the Gardiner Public Library has a "vertical 'Mummy' file." The original source, it turns out, was Stanwood's own son, who further stated that the linens were not disinfected at first, leading to an outbreak of cholera among the mill workers.

The Straight Dope dismisses all of this as a myth. Provonost concludes only that "if I want to prove it, I better start digging."

An old article in the Maine Antique Digest, citing an even older Maine Times article, includes the following passage:
Records of the Portland Sunday Telegram show that the mummies arrived by ship at the Portland harbor and large cases of them were then hauled by horse cart to Gardiner. There they were opened, the woven linen bindings unwound and put into vats to be reduced to pulp and made into heavy brown wrapping paper. The gums and oils used in embalming were an added value to the papermaking process. The mummies' remains were burned.
Looks like the Portland (newspaper) morgue would be a good place to start digging.


Michelle Souliere said...

Holy cow! You know, I had read about the use of mummies in various Industrial Age capacities mentioned in Ray Bradbury's From the Dust Returned and was fascinated, but hadn't found any other information offhand, and hadn't had time to dig. I'll see if I can pull the quote out!

But this...!!!

Certainly the gums used as mentioned would be a bonus, serving as a size for the paper instead of the customary animal hide glue.

I'm not sure how the oil would have contributed. Usually oil is an enemy of paper's archivality, which is why paper and canvas are primed with gesso or another acrylic medium before painting with oil paints or other oil-based media is attempted. However, if Stanwood was indeed just making "coarse brown wrapping paper which was used by butchers and grocers," I suppose archivality was the least of his concerns. *grin* And in that case the oil might have made the paper more impervious to the juices of whatever was being wrapped up in it.

The "rag paper" that artists use today has a high cotton fiber content, and garners its name from the ragmen that used to supply papermakers in bygone days. When civilians had used a piece of cloth to the end of its usefulness, they would give it to the ragman, out collecting his sustenance door to door.

The ragman in turn would sell his booty to the papermakers, who would boil the fibers into a vile smelling pulp soup which would in turn be beaten and then cast as sheets of paper.

Mmmm... cholera!

For years an ad ran in Uncle Henry's advertising a mummy for sale. I think it was probably the same as the one spoken of in this Maine Antique Digest article.

Michelle Souliere said...

Okay, I looked up the passage in From the Dust Returned by Ray Bradbury.

"...Victoria's locomotives crossed Egypt, using tomb-filchings and the asphalt linen-wrapped dead for fuel. These packets of bones and flammable tar churned the stacks in what was called the Nefertiti-Tut Express. The black smokes firing the Egyptian air were haunted by Cleopatra's cousins who blew off, flaking the wind until the Express reached Alexandria, where the still unburned cats and their Empress Queen shipped out for the States, bundled in great spools of papyrus bound for a paper-mashing plant in Boston where, unwound, the cats fled as cargo on wagon trains while the papyrus, unleafed among innocent stationery printers, murdered two or three hundred profiteers with terrible miasmal bacteria. The hospitals of New England were chock-full of Egyptian maladies that soon brimmed the graveyards, while the cats, cast off in Memphis, Tennessee, or Cairo, Illinois, walked the rest of the way to the town of the dark tree, the high and most peculiar House."
"The smokes that churned up the chimneys that night recalled the sounds and spectral sights of the Nefertiti-Tut Express thundering the Egyptian sands, scattering mummy linens popped wide as library books, informing the winds as they went."

Michelle Souliere said...

Well look what I found! Ray Bradbury's own account of how he found out about this wild tale:

"I have a friend, Chuck Jones, the cartoonist, who calls me all the time with revelations he finds in dictionaries and all kinds of reference books he is reading. He called me on the phone and said, "Ray," and I said, "What?" He said, "Did you know?" I said, "No, tell me." He said, "Did you know that when they were building the Trans-Egyptian Railroad across Africa 100 years ago and they ran out of fuel, they would stop the locomotive, run into the nearest graveyard, steal mummies out of the tombs, bring them back, shove them into the firebox of the locomotive, [59] and use them as fuel to go across Egypt late at night?!" I said, "That's great!" I threw down the phone, ran to my typewriter, and wrote a poem called "The Nefertiti-Tut Express"! Well, there's a metaphor of survival, isn't it? If a mummy works, you burn it. And all the Egyptian gods and goddesses haunt you across the desert forever after that. This metaphor reminds me of Nietzsche's old saying, "We have art that we do not die of the truth."

Chris Jart said...

The thought of grocers wrapping meat and food products in butcher paper made from uncontaminated mummy wrappings that caused an outbreak of cholera among mill workers is mind boggling!

Chris said...

Of course, with sanitary conditions being what they were in the 1860s, you were probably safer eating a mummy whole than eating what the butcher served up...

Michelle Souliere said...

Chris D-- It is of interest that the mummy wrappings were preferred in part because rag sellers had become notorious for selling unsanitized garments worn by lepers and other victims of disease. With mummy rags, there was little to worry about but sand.

S. J. Wolfe quotes a 1858 visitor to the Great Falls Mill in Gardiner (neighbor to Stanwood's mill):
Millions of pounds of rags piled up in warehouses or spread over acres of ground... the most disagreeable odiferous old clothes... collected from the living and the dead... but the most singular and the cleanest division of the whole filthy mess.. were the plundered wrappings of men, bulls, crocodiles and cats, torn from the respectable defunct members of the same... (my emphasis)

I was poking around in the Maine Historical library on Friday and did find mention of a later scare involving rags and yellow fever (as opposed to cholera) that the S.D. Warren family had to cope with later on. (I think it was in A History of S.D. Warren Company, 1854-1954, Westbrook, Me.: [S.D. Warren Co.], 1954).

I didn't have much luck finding anything at all about Stanwood there, and am proceeding next to the newspaper archives. Wish me luck! However, it must be noted that S.J. Wolfe has done a wonderfully thorough job of researching mummy paper in the U.S. paper industry already, and it is likely that my research will prove redundant in the general theme of things (but boy, is it fun!).

Anonymous said...

As a further followup, yes, mummies were imported for their wrappings to make paper. There is an extant broadside from 1859 printed for the Norwich, Conn. Jubilee which states " This paper is made by the Chelsea Manufacturing Company, Greeneville, Conn., the largest paper manufactory in the world. The material from which it was made , was brought from Egypt. It was taken from the ancient tombs where it had been used in embalming mummies."

Paper Mills in Broadalbin, N.Y.; Marcellus Fall, N.Y.; Windosr Locks, Conn.; Westbrook, Me. (S.D. Warren's Mill); and Gardiner, Me. (S.D. Warren, Stanwood & Towar, Great Falls Mill, Richards Mill, all used mummy wrappings (and maybe even the entire mummy) to make paper during the latter half of the 19th century.

-- S.J. Wolfe--
Chief Librarian
Republic of Boon Island
mailto:perseshen AT