History of Paper Boats (part 1 Of 2)

Over a hundred years ago a prosperous industry emerged in Troy, New York in the manufacture of rowing boats and canoes from paper. These ranged from simple single-person rowing shells to a 45 foot “pleasure barge” that could seat seventeen in addition to its six oarsmen. This business began in 1867 when Elisha Waters, a Troy NY paper box manufacturer, and his son George Waters, invented and then patented a method for constructing boat hulls from paper and shortly thereafter formed the firm of Waters and Balch, (later to become Waters & Sons.) In 1875 the New York Daily Graphic credited them with having the “largest boat factory in the United States” Today their business and technology are largely forgotten.

Those few today who hear of Waters & Sons, invariably first regard paper boats as an oddity. This was not the case in the 1800′s. To understand this, we need to step briefly back into the 19th century. The last half of the 19th century has more than once been referred to as “The Age of Paper”, recognizing the growth of paper technology and the range of its applications during this period. Two major advances in technology fueled this growth.

Bishop Canoe Paper Boat

First was the invention and widespread use of the Fourdrinier machine, which allowed paper to be made in long continuous sheets. Prior to the Fourdrinier machine, the size of a sheet of paper was limited to the size of a paper making frame that could conveniently be held by the hands of one or two paper-makers. Second was the widespread use of materials other than rags for the manufacture of paper pulp.

Prior to about 1850 almost all paper was manufactured exclusively from rags. The supply of rags simply did not grow as fast as the demand for paper and paper was becoming increasingly scarce and expensive. With the widespread use of wood pulp after the mid-19th century the price of paper decreased sharply. For example, between 1869 and the end of the century the price of newsprint dropped from approximately 14 cents to 2 cents per pound.

New materials & lower prices resulted in new application. Inventions ranged from clothing, (Mr. Howard Paul sang “The Age of Paper” in British music halls attired completely in a suit of paper!,) to boats, observatory domes, flower pots, and coffins. In an age without plastic or composite materials, this “new” paper which could be molded, formed and otherwise manipulated became the “high-tech” construction material of its day. Still, to many of us, now 100 years away from this period, the widespread manufacture of items from molded or compressed paper seems an odd enterprise of which the manufacture of boats might be the most improbable.

In March of 1867 George Waters (then in his teens), was invited to a masquerade party and conceived the idea of attending as a giant. He designed a costume to achieve this effect, an essential feature of which was a suitably “giant-sized” face mask. A temporary setback in this scheme was the fact the price of a suitable mask, (eight dollars,) exceeded his budget. He did, however, manage to arrange to use this mask as a mold from which to construct a replicate mask for himself. Using the resources of his father’s paper box factory he succeeded in making a mask from superposed sheets of paper and paste.

He had acquired some time earlier a used and leaky cedar rowing shell which he proceeded to fix by varnishing and gluing paper to portions of the hull. After contemplating his success, the idea of making an entire boat of paper occurred to him! Assisted by his father, George undertook this in June of 1867. The result was the world’s first paper boat, built by using the hull of a wooden rowing shell as a mold over which paper was formed.

The boat was christened ‘The Experiment”. As was characteristic of all the Waters’ paper boats, the sheets of paper forming the skin extended in an unbroken piece from the stem to stern, leaving no joints, laps, or seams on the hull surface. During the remainder of the year, three more hulls were built to refine the process and to allow the resulting product to be properly tested.

The invention of the paper boat was apparently a turning point for the Waters’ family business, as in 1868 the listing for the firm in the Troy city directory is as a boat, not a box manufacturer. Thus the paper boat business began and the paper rowing shell became the widely used product of the Water’s factory. According to George Waters’ son, “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” The fabrication technique followed by Waters throughout the years, differed but little from that initially tried and presented in their patent.

A full-size convex wooden model was prepared to the exact dimensions of the hull that was desired. The mold was solid, but had grooves cut into it so that a wood strip could be inserted into one of the grooves along the keel line and similar strips along the gunwales. Below the gunwales “tacking strips” were attached which allowed the paper to be stretched over the mold and tightly fastened to it. For light weight boats such as racing shells, the best grade of manila paper was utilized, (which in the 1800′s was made from actual manila hemp) Multiple layers were applied to the mold, each sheet running the full length and breadth of the hull.

The first sheet would be applied slightly damp, tacked down and then coated with an adhesive to accept the next sheet. While the application of a single, uncut sheet to a complex shape like a boat hull may seem impossible, it apparently was achieved. It must be remembered that the paper which was used also had considerable “give” while wet, as it was a relatively “simple” paper, significantly different from paper that we routinely encounter today.

Originally posted 2012-03-27 01:06:02.

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