Pinehill Paper Mill Fire of 1899

Runner-Up 2020 EOA April Fools' Day Contest

When a thick bundle of letters, written in the early 1900s, came to light during a house renovation near Waldron (Scott County), city officials expressed dismay. State and county archives had long since reached capacity as the number of these discoveries mounted. Rather than serving as a valuable historical resource, the new-found bale was seen for what it was: evidence of hoarding, brought about by a lifestyle-altering fire that occurred in 1899.

According to historians, in much the same way Civil War–era deprivations prompted families to reuse the salt-saturated soil in their smokehouses, after 1899 scrap paper was repurposed for a new, highly personal use. These precious pages, bundled together, were often secreted inside walls until needed in the family’s outhouse, at a time when paper had become an unobtainable commodity. According to historian Michael Dougan, “At no other time in the state’s history has paper been more valuable—and certainly more useful in an intensely personal, yet practical, way—than gold.”

It wasn’t always thus. In 1893 Scott County’s Pinehill Paper Mill purchased the machinery needed to produce high-quality stationery. However, a semi-literate sign painter misread the instructions to letter “Escritoire Products” on factory signage and, instead, painted “Excretory Products” in ten-foot-tall gilded italics. Rather than repaint, the factory simply retooled and began producing a wholly new product, eventually known as toilet paper but which, at the time, went by the more genteel appellation “boudoir serviettes.”

These paper squares were an immediate hit with everyone except corn farmers, who feared a loss of revenue from the sale of corn cobs, previously used in outhouses for the same purpose. A more serious threat to the new industry came from organized religion. Ministers of the Gospel cited Hezekiah 4:11 (“For what profiteth a man that he esteem cleanliness above righteousness?”) and Deuteronomy 23:12-14 (which gives instructions on burying human waste, “For the Lord thy God walketh in the midst of thy camp”) to make the case that, because the Bible does not specifically mention toilet paper, its use was an abomination. Aroused by such inflammatory rhetoric, on March 17, 1899, an angry mob surrounded and burned down the factory and its commodious warehouses.

In the ensuing panic, the public overwhelmed local general stores, buying up whatever serviettes remained on the shelves. With this source exhausted, people began hoarding all available letters, almanacs, and string for personal reuse. The situation was not fully remedied until the advent of Sears, Roebuck and Company’s mass mailings of catalogues to rural communities starting around 1908.

Despite the economic downturn that resulted from the fire, in some ways the churches were right. The widespread popularity of toilet paper had created a voracious market for wood pulp, which resulted in the deforestation of Ozark hillsides. This, in turn, led to devastating mudslides in the 1920s.

Today, almost nothing is known about the appearance of the original boudoir serviettes, as no examples can be found in museums or private collections. However, because the paper’s “quilted” pattern was copied by women when stitching actual bedcovers, such coverlets are now highly prized for the glimpse they provide of this early product’s decorative patterning.

For additional information:
Arbuthknott, Ingersoll K. How Clean Was My Valley: A Socio-Ethnic Study of 19th Century Hygiene Trends In the Rural South. Little Rock, Arkansas: Butler Center Books, 2018.

Woolf, Tom. From Bauhaus to Outhouse. New York: Four-Ply Press, 1989.

Abby Burnett
Kingston, Arkansas

Last Updated: 04/01/2020

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