CCA 2019 – Paper Infrastructure: The Bowater Papers 1950–58

Paper presentation (with Rafico Ruiz) on the Bowater Papers archive, as part of the Materials and Media of Infrastructure panels:

The Bowater Papers is a trade magazine that was published periodically by the Bowater Paper Corporation, based in London, running from 1950 to 1958. As the magazine’s inaugural editorial, “Thoughts on Paper,” begins: “Paper is the raw material of human communication; it binds together continents; history would be lost without it; [sic] for it is the link between the past and the future. But paper, the commodity, is not only for the chronicler.” This “large paper-manufacturing organization,” in the mid-1950s the largest producer of newsprint in the world, launched the magazine with a view to both creating and cataloguing its enterprise as a consolidating infrastructural network of paper producers and consumers. The series of four issues were intended to embody and materially contain the entire array of papers, paper products, and paper derivatives that the Bowater Paper Corporation’s global manufacturing system produced and promoted. Each issue is an “exposition of paper in use,” with inserts and individual pages displaying Bowater’s capacity to produce a wide array of paper-based materials. The issues also offer extensive reflections on the historical, political, and cultural registers of paper across a variety of temporal and geographic contexts; for example, an article on the role paper played in the discovery of the British colony of Newfoundland, or another on the development of coated paper that enabled the success of Life magazine as a colour-based print publication.

This paper’s close reading of the trade magazine’s four issues exposes the material microcosm of the entire Bowater paper production infrastructure. Operating in the 1950s at the time of what many historians and print culture scholars think of as ‘peak paper’ (and, incidentally, the decade that saw the publication of Harold Innis’ The Bias of Communication), Bowater deployed a broad understanding of industrial production that made of ‘paper making’ a case of ‘infrastructure making,’ with this latter work including the deployment of their paper products in a single artifact that could articulate what the company saw as the central tenets of liberal, Western values of civilizational advance: “The promotion of the service which Bowaters offer to mankind is then the chief purpose of our magazine; we want our friends to find it useful and interesting, and above all pertinent to their problems and their lives.” This reading of The Bowater Papers leads onto a reconsideration of a paper-based infrastructure, as contained in each individual issue of the magazine, that could account for and articulate its corporate identity over the course of the 1950s. We trace and circumscribe the design, emergence, and consolidation of this paper infrastructure and examine how it is anchored in contemporaneous understandings of paper’s privileged place as a storage medium. In turn, we situate and contextualize this understanding of paper infrastructure across broader scholarly and historical narratives surrounding the decline of pulp and paper production, the environmental costs of material storage, and the rise of digital inscription, storage, and circulation as a privileged cultural form of media and memory that functions in counterpoint to mid twentieth century narratives of “peak paper.”

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