As of part preserving New York’s heritage, State Parks recently unrolled a bit of history in the story of a former 20th century paper factory complex in Albany once owned by a New York native who invented modern toilet paper.
Today, the 222,120 square-foot red brick structure on Erie Boulevard, visible to thousands of passing motorists daily on Interstate-787, is a warehouse furniture and home goods retail store. It is now being reimagined as urban apartments with space for a smaller store, with its rebirth fueled in part by state and federal historic rehabilitation tax credits.
Such credits are available to commercial properties once a site is added to the state and federal Registers of Historic Places, which is coordinated by the Historic Preservation Office within State Parks. In March 2022, the former Albany Perforated Wrapping Paper Company manufacturing building was recommended by the state Board of Historic Preservation for addition to the registers, opening the door for millions of dollars in rehabilitation tax credits to support the transformation of this historic structure.
Setting the stage for such credits is a critical way that State Parks helps protect and preserve New York’s heritage, by making it more attractive for developers to preserve and reuse historic structures, rather than bypassing such valuable assets to build new elsewhere.
According to recent reporting in the Albany Times Union, developers recently obtained city approval to start a $65 million rehabilitation project that will build up to 260 apartments in the building. Other planned upgrades include a gym, a pool, a beach volleyball court, gardens and a dog park.
But back in 1918, when the first section of this paper goods mill opened in Albany, the factory represented the vision of a Columbia County native, Seth Wheeler, who several decades earlier had made his fortune by inventing a new way to make and dispense toilet paper and paper towels that is essentially unchanged to this day.
Wheeler’s simple yet profound innovation was making paper into a long continuous sheet with perforations that could be easily torn and then putting a perforated sheet on a roll to be easily dispensed. Up to that point, what was then called “wrapping paper” was sold and packaged in pre-cut flat sheets bundled and tied together, which made it more expensive to produce and more difficult for consumers to use.
How could Wheeler have known, when he in 1871 patented a machine to make rolled and perorated toilet paper and later the toilet paper dispenser in 1884 and other related improvements afterward, that he was starting a bathroom debate that continues to this day as to how to hang the paper from the roll _ with the first sheet from the front or the back?
The story of Wheeler and the Albany Perforated Wrapping Paper Company, which he founded in 1877, represents a time when the city of Albany, with its docks on the Hudson River, had easy access to lumber and later paper pulp to make paper goods. His company flourished, with branches in major U.S. cities, as well as in London and Paris. The company held a pulp mill and forests in Nova Scotia and a plant in England.
Wheeler’s new factory in Albany represented the company’s increasing success, which had grown so much that by 1925, the facility employed 1,000 workers to make up to 30,000 miles of toilet paper and paper towels each day for sale to customers around the world. By that point, the company had become the first in America to mass advertise toilet paper, pointing out that the “W” in its initials also stood for “welfare,” given that its product promoted public health and public sanitation.
Seth Wheeler died in 1925, and his business was taken over by his two sons. In 1930, the company was sold to Roger W. Babson, an eccentric financial analyst, investor, and Massachusetts native who oversaw several expansions of the plant. In 1950, Babson sold an interest in the company to a New York City industrialist, who shortly afterward merged it with a larger Chicago rival. That led to a series of financial setbacks, and the shrinking company was sold again in 1957, after which it focused on commercial-grade towels and tissues. The final blow came in 1964, after the plant lost its largest customer and was forced to close.
The massive brick plant, constructed to be fire-resistant, was used for storage until 1985, when the current business of home furniture and other goods opened.
And that brings the story back to March 2022, when the State Historic Preservation Board recommended adding the former Albany Perforated Wrapping Paper Company and 20 other properties to the State and National Registers of Historic Places. Also recommended were other examples of New York State history including early automobile manufacturing and sales sites in Buffalo and Syracuse, a cemetery in the Mohawk Valley that includes the author of the Pledge of Allegiance, and the only remaining 19th-century textile mill in the Lansingburgh neighborhood of Troy, once known as the “Collar City.”
The State and National Registers are the official lists of buildings, structures, districts, landscapes, objects, and sites significant in the history, architecture, archaeology, and culture of New York State and the nation. There are more than 120,000 historic properties throughout the state listed on the National Register of Historic Places, individually or as components of historic districts. Property owners, municipalities, and organizations from communities throughout the state sponsored the nominations.
Once recommendations are approved by the Commissioner, who serves as the State Historic Preservation Officer, the properties are listed on the New York State Register of Historic Places and nominated to the National Register of Historic Places, where they are reviewed and, once approved, entered on the National Register.
The next time someone questions how to hang the toilet paper roll, remember: That debate was started a long time ago in Albany, New York.
Cover shot – Toilet paper rolls from the Albany Perforated Wrapping Paper Company from 1935. (Photo credit – Albany Institute of History and Art) All images NYS Parks unless otherwise noted.
Post by Brian Nearing, Deputy Public Information Officer, NYS Parks