The Gypsum Files

Notes on the Rock Nobody Knows

Melvin H. Baker’s Newcomen Society Address, 1954

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Cover of “National Gypsum: Pattern for Growth”

Melvin H. Baker, one of the founders of the National Gypsum Company, was invited to speak before the Newcomen Society in North America in Buffalo, New York, on May 6, 1954. The American Newcomen Society was a branch of the original Newcomen Society founded in London in 1920, about 200 years after Thomas Newcomen invented the first practical steam engine for pumping water out of mines.  The society was organized to celebrate the industrial achievement kicked off by Newcomen’s revolutionary invention, taking as their motto, actorum memores simul affectamus agenda, “Mindful of things that have taken place, at the same time we strive after things yet to be done.”

In Mr. Baker’s address to the American Newcomeners, he is mindful that, relatively speaking, his twenty-nine year old company does not yet have a long history:

I believe it is customary in these meetings for the speaker to talk about his company, its history, and traditions. National Gypsum Company is too young to have a history, but we believe you will find in the pattern of its growth an interesting story. Time will not permit a graphic account of human emotions other than to say that its conception and the day-to-day struggle for its development is a story of men always with faith in themselves and faith in America.

In tracing the development of National Gypsum from its founding in 1925 to its status in 1954 as a company with “35 plants and 22 offices,” Baker touches on this theme again and again: the struggle of men with faith in themselves and in America — specifically, an America with bountiful natural resources, a lightly regulated capitalist economy, and room to “found a corporation with an unusually strong sense of responsibility to its employees, owners, customers, and neighbors.”

Baker begins by saying, “You will understand when I explain that mine was a firm founded without capital, no customers, no manufacturing facilities, or tangible assets of any kind…What made us found a new company in a highly competitive field in such circumstances? The American idea, the possibility of profit from taking a risk, success that comes through venturesome spirit!” What follows is a rather exciting story of a company that within four years of its founding would be facing a world-wide Great Depression and resulting construction slump. Rather than taking the safe route of riding out the depression, National Gypsum expanded its holdings and product lines during this time: “By the close of 1941, the company was manufacturing and marketing 150 building material products; and it was making a profit as it had in every year of its existence except 1929.”

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World War II brought a virtual halt to new home construction, but National Gypsum was well placed to contribute to the war effort. Baker sent this telegram to Secretary of War Henry Stimson the day after the Pearl Harbor attack:

The management of this corporation believes that business should go all out for quick, decisive victory over Japan, and to this end, this company’s resources, technical knowledge and the production at its twenty-one plants are at your disposal.

By February 1942,  “the share of the company’s production going into war uses had risen to 40 percent,” including a commitment to build the massive Bluebonnet Ordnance Plant in Texas.

In the remainder of his speech, Baker covered the explosion of the post-WWII housing market and continuing expansion of the company into new markets and new product areas, one of which would come back to haunt the construction industry:

We are now in the midst of an extensive exploration program for the location of asbestos deposits. When located, mining operations will be built from which to supply asbestos fibre necessary for lower cost and continuous supply required at manufacturing plants recently acquired.

But those problems lay in the future. On May 6, 1954, Baker ended his speech on an upbeat note:

There, briefly, is the National Gypsum story! As you have seen, we are not a mature company. Growth in the past can be considered only a down payment on the future. Specifically, what the accomplishments will be, no one can say. But as long as the American System rewards initiative, I predict that present levels are mere road signs to the future.

The text of Melvin Baker’s speech was distributed as a pamphlet titled, “National Gypsum: Pattern for Growth.” Oddly, it’s illustrated with woodcut prints of English scenes having nothing to do with the content. The booklet is a fascinating contemporaneous look at a booming “Mad Men” era industry, a paean to capitalism at the height of its glory, and a charmingly old-fashioned piece of printed matter in its own right.

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Written by Elizabeth McCullough

September 17, 2013 at 5:55 pm

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