The Emergence of the Paper Industry in Independent Mexico

Discover the challenges and triumphs of establishing a paper industry in Mexico during the early years of independence. Find out how this important industry has changed over time, from when Spain had a monopoly to when private people and government agencies tried to help.

The Emergence of the Paper Industry in Independent Mexico
Interior of an old paper mill. AGN, Photographic Archives, Ignacio Avilés, box 41, record number IA-6485.

Paper is one of the most common types of evidence in the National General Archives, so it's important to know how it came to be. Here we tell you about the development of the paper industry during the early years of independent Mexico.

Before the arrival of the Europeans, the original peoples of America already had various writing supports, such as stone stelae and amate paper. But Western cultures exported paper, which the Arabs brought to Europe many hundreds of years ago when they spread out.

At the time of the viceroyalty, paper production was one of the main economic revenues for the Spanish Crown. This medium, which was needed to write down any legal or administrative process, like a petition, will, complaint, title, or any other legal or administrative document, was monopolized for about 300 years.

How the viceroyalty authorities protected the manufacture and sale of paper through the implementation of the stamped paper tax, instituted during the reign of Philip IV to obtain economic funds and the increase in the manufacture of paper with the construction of new paper mills in Spain. Both of these rules made it harder for the paper to be made in New Spain because it was only made in Spanish mills. However, because of the high demand, the paper was bought from other countries like France, Italy, the Netherlands, and England.

Despite the restrictions on the manufacture of paper in New Spain, some paper mills were built. The first one opened in 1575 in Culhuacán, Puebla, but it only made a small amount and was meant to meet the demand for this important product in the area.

The Rise of the Paper Industry in Mexico

After the consummation of independence, it was necessary to promote the paper industry in Mexico to avoid shortages of the product since, in addition to serving as an instrument of communication for the incipient Mexican press and nineteenth-century writers, the nation's administrative processes had to be documented. But the newly independent government decided to keep the tax on stamped paper because tariffs brought in a lot of important money.

To give life to the paper industry, capital was needed to create the corresponding mills and factories, and unfortunately, the government did not have sufficient resources for their production, but some private individuals did, so they took advantage of this situation and sought to obtain permits to establish the first paper mills in independent Mexico. One of these cases was when Diego Barry and Tadeo Ortiz asked José Manuel Herrera, the Secretary of Relations of the Republic, to start a paper mill. This was in 1822.

Both businessmen expressed the great savings that would be obtained with such a factory since they assured that the Mexican nation had had to spend one million pesos to buy imported paper in just one year. In addition, Mexicans could be instructed in papermaking, and, later, the industry could be expanded and exported to other parts of South America. In exchange, Diego and Tadeo requested exclusivity in the manufacture of paper for about seven years.

This request was denied by all Mexican authorities, and after the fall of the first Mexican empire, Congress ended all economic ties with Diego Barry, who was seen as an English moneylender and adventurer who wanted to take advantage of Mexico's bad economic situation by making good deals.

The Pursuit of a Paper Industry in Mexico

The next attempts to establish a paper industry were made with the creation of the Banco de Avío in 1830, an institution destined to provide capital to the national industry for its development. Given the opportunity, various people and authorities began to request resources to promote this industry in Mexico.

One of these requests was made by Laureano de la Torre, a citizen of Minatitlán, Veracruz, who, in 1831, asked for a loan of ten thousand pesos to establish a paper factory in that town. De la Torre claimed to know to make various types of paper from herbs and tree bark, but he needed money to buy the machinery and carry out his business.

The loan would be used to buy four iron sinkers, three copper boilers, an iron cylinder for spinning and another for fixing the material, two piles of lead-soaked wood, two machine looms, a water pump, a continuous motion press, a loom for cutting paper, an axe for shredding the straw, and the pipes needed for the water inlet and steam outlet.

Laureano de la Torre guaranteed to recover the investment in less than two years, as well as reduce paper production costs to offer it at half the price of foreign paper. Also, the money he made would be used to give his ten children a good education so they could become educated citizens who could help the country.

Even though he had an excellent plan, the Banco de Avío turned down his application because it didn't fit with the bank's operating principles, which favored the breeding and development of silk as well as the cotton and wool weaving industries. On top of that, the project was high-risk because Laureano had neither experience nor a place to work.

The Development of the Paper Industry in Mexico

Fortunately, other initiatives were presented to the Banco de Avío, this time by governors who sought to promote the national industry in their states. Such was the case of Governor Cosme Furlong, who in 1833 requested the acquisition of mills and machinery to promote the paper industry in Puebla. Unlike Laureano, his request was approved, and the bank released the necessary budget.

Even though this was a good solution for the state of Puebla, it became clear that there weren't enough people to put together and run the machines.

As can be seen, the development of the paper industry presented various problems that were a reflection of the great national backwardness, a product of a colonial system that for years made Mexico a paper consumption market but not a production market. Although the Banco de Avío sought to promote the national industry, internal wars and the lack of experience in this type of industry put the brakes on various projects, making it necessary to continue importing paper.

Source: AGN