Illinois Envelope Company, Kalamazoo, MI

Now home to Kalamazoo city government, this building was—until 1998—used by something called the Illinois Envelope Company:

At the turn of the 20th century, Kalamazoo was a large producer of paper products. The Illinois Envelope Company’s major creditor, the Bryant Paper Company, was headquartered in Kalamazoo, and requested the company make the move from Illinois (source).

The founder of the company, Robert Brigham, apprenticed at sewing companies before he “invented an attachment to an envelope machine for placing a string in the envelope and then formed a company to put such an envelope on the market.” (source). That company became the Illinois Envelope Company.

A patent for a seemingly similar innovation was later granted to Levine Harry in 1938.

Kalamazoo, a stop on the Michigan territorial road and along a prominent river, was settled early on in part because it made such a good fit for mills and the paper industry:

“When selecting a possible site for a city, from the vast wilderness that was Michigan Territory, the first question the "investor" would ask was, "What service will my proposed town supply that will attract farmers?" If the town could pull in the farmers, it would attract an urban population who would buy the town lots—and that was where the money was. On the Michigan frontier, the urban services most desired by the agricultural population were: 1) grinding grain and sawing timber, 2) governmental service, and 3) retailing.” (source)

The paper industry in Kalamazoo began in 1867 with the Kalamazoo Paper Company and became a livelihood for the town. As a report by The W. E. Upjohn Institute, “The Position of the Paper Industry in the Economy of Kalamazoo County Michigan” (1954) wrote:

“So deeply is the paper industry embedded in the Kalamazoo area that in 1954 approximately 32 percent of the combined sales of all the manufacturing, distributive, and service industries and 24 percent of total personal incomes in Kalamazoo County came directly or indirectly through its activities.”

The industry was also highly pollutive. As a DNR Report writes:

“Identified as a problem in 1971, PCB discharges into the Kalamazoo River from paper industry de-inking processes created very serious pollution problems. PCBs were released directly to the river from the mid-1950s to the mid-1970s via process discharges, and into groundwater and surface water from landfills where contaminated waste products were disposed…Paper company landfills, river sediments and floodplain sediments…are still heavily contaminated with PCBs, and serve as ongoing sources of contamination to aquatic and terrestrial wildlife. Consumers of fish (i.e., mink) are the most sensitive aquatic species, and fish consumption advisories for humans remain along large stretches of the Kalamazoo River due to the PCB contamination.” (source)

The resulting regulation was a major force in the decline of the regional industry:

“The city directory for 2005 lists only 2 paper manufacturing businesses employing about 400 people.” (source)

One remaining vestige is Western Michigan University’s Department of Paper Engineering which “continues to draw some of the best people in the paper industry to Kalamazoo” (source). The median salary for graduates today is north of $65,000.

Another vestige is this Illinois Envelope Company matchbook set, now selling on eBay for $4.32.

In 1998, the Illinois Envelope Company was purchased by Mail-Well (now Cenevo). Mail-Well closed the plant after only a year because “the banking industry in Michigan continued to consolidate and, as a result, Illinois Envelope lost a couple of very key customers. The net result was that the Kalamazoo facility was operating at a loss" (source).

From the registry: