100 Years of Ceilings and Walls
The Evolution of Manufacturing and Supply
Mark L. Johnson / September 2017
National Gypsum Company’s first plant and gypsum quarry, Clarence Center, N.Y., began production in 1926.
Courtesy: National Gypsum Company
At first, the 1926 strike of union plasterers in Chicago might seem to be inconsequential in the history of ceilings and walls. It was a long time ago. But, the plasterers wanted a hefty wage increase—$2 more per day for a $16 workday. Builders wouldn’t have it, and substitutes for plaster were available.
“The names of these substitutes are Celotex, Sheetrock, Bestwall, Plastergone and Gypsolite,” said the Chicago Tribune (May 9, 1926). “Since the exorbitant demands of the plasterers first became public,” the Tribune added, “sales of substitutes have increased daily.”
The Celotex company produced 12 million feet of wallboard for the United States and Canada in 1921. By the end of 1926, the company’s wallboard production had reached 230 million feet. United States Gypsum Company added three wallboard lines in the 1920s. National Gypsum Company produced its first board in Clarence Center, N.Y., in 1926 and added a second quarry and plant in National City, Mich., in 1927. (The town, Emery Junction, Mich., was so glad to reclaim jobs it renamed itself National City.)
Plasterers wanted $2 more per hour. But the “substitutes” could reduce the cost of residential construction by about 40 percent. Manufacturers saw it was time to expand. It would be a few decades before wallboard dominated plaster in the field. But the modern wallboard industry, and the decline of plaster as the predominant wall material, had begun.
Lighter Board, Faster Production
How has wallboard manufacturing changed since the 1920s?
“We’re making product faster in our plants, and the board is much lighter,” says William O. White, vice president of advanced technology at USG Corporation.
White says the paper weights came down from the 1920s to the 1960s. Around 1965, most gypsum board manufacturers started using recycled paper, he says. Unfortunately, recycling wasn’t in vogue at the time, so it wasn’t talked about much. In fact, the consumer prized wallboard with virgin paper fiber, viewing recycled product as inferior. Also, gypsum board weights were still heavy, White says. Architects and owners wanted good building acoustics and sound attenuation, and wall mass was a way to achieve those goals.
Eventually, technology enabled wallboard manufacturers to partner with coal-burning energy plants. Wallboard plants started using flue gas desulfurization. Coal-fired energy plants scrub sulfur dioxide from their flue gases. The byproduct of this operation, FGD, is calcium sulfate, the chemical name for gypsum. FGD is washed and used to produce gypsum board. FGD is chemically identical to gypsum rock but has a higher purity.
“National Gypsum experimented with FGD in the 1960s in a joint venture with private investors and Lafarge,” says Nancy H. Spurlock, director of corporate communications at National Gypsum. “Plants were built in France. National Gypsum first used FGD at its Tampa plant in 1991.”
USG Corporation first used FGD at its Galena Park plant in 1986. Today, USG uses synthetic gypsum at eight plants and has partial FGD capacity at four more plants. National Gypsum uses synthetic gypsum at six plants and has partial FGD capacity at one more plant. Georgia-Pacific, CertainTeed, Continental and American Gypsum also use the technology, White says.
By the 2000s, the industry had made remarkable gains in efficiency. White says USG’s wallboard plants, which produced 100 feet of board a minute in the 1960s, now produce 600 feet of board per minute. By 2006, National Gypsum’s newest plant, in Mt. Holly, N.C., was capable of producing 1 billion square feet of board annually—enough to complete 100,000 homes.
Wallboard manufacturers also found ways to produce a lighter board with less energy. Some reduced plant energy consumption through plant lighting changes.
More Products to Supply
In the 1920s, building materials distribution was competitive. A system of approved lumber and building materials dealers existed. But many manufacturers sold to anyone and everyone. You could buy wallboard at a lumberyard. You could buy it at a hardware store or even a local coal yard.
Large plastering contractors handled their own supply needs early in the 20th century. McNulty Bros. Company, a large Chicago plastering firm, set up the Hickory Corporation, its own distribution company. Plaster and wallboard manufacturers sold to Hickory Corp., and in turn Hickory sold to McNulty Bros. (and to no one else), says Joe Feldner, who ran McNulty Bros. for decades.
In general, building materials distributors focused on wallboard and bag goods. But in time, contractors needed many new products. Suspended ceiling grid systems, a new product category, replaced traditional in-fill ceilings. Increasing building sizes in the 1960s and the development of the self-drilling metal screw led to greater use of cold-formed steel framing.
“Many distributors failed to keep up with the changes and distribution suffered,” wrote Robert W. Negwer of Negwer Materials, St. Louis, Mo., in the June 1981 issue of AWCI’s Construction Dimensions.
Negwer says a faulty mindset—“If I can’t haul it in a dump truck or don’t understand it, then I don’t want to have anything to do with it”—held sway among many 1950s and 1960s supply yard managers.
So, supply fell short of demand for a time. Not all wall contractors were large enough to stock their own materials, nor did they have the creditworthiness to do so. Some manufacturers responded by creating their own distribution businesses. U.S. Gypsum formed L&W Supply Corporation in the 1970s. Within 10 years, L&W Supply had 86 supply centers in 31 states. (ABC Supply bought L&W Supply in 2016.)
By the 1980s, distributors had caught up with the demands of the marketplace. Distributors began to take part in the industry. “Distributor membership in AWCI has increased dramatically,” said Negwer in 1981.
But in 1979, the biggest change in supply had arrived. The Home Depot opened two warehouse home centers in Atlanta. The Home Depot, and later Lowe’s Companies, “changed the dynamics of the [distribution] business,” White says. Home Depot and Lowe’s wanted to stock brand name products to bring people into their stores. They added contractor desks, free training classes and all the materials a modest size wall contractor or home building firm would need.
Home centers channeled building materials to small builders, contractors and do-it-yourselfers. That left specialty distributors to concentrate on supplying large, commercial projects.
In 100 years of manufacturing and supply, the great change-maker has been economics. Manufacturers supplied the right products at the right time. And the right time meant the right price: Gypsum wallboard made with synthetic gypsum for less. Ceiling systems that cover the plenum with materials optimized for light reflectance, sound control and plenum accessibility.
In 1926, “substitutes” saved builders 40 percent on costs, just when union labor demanded a 14 percent wage hike. The 1926 Chicago plasterers started a revolution. Just the wrong one from their point of view.
Mark L. Johnson is a historian, researcher and writer. Reach him at linkedin.com/in/markjohnsoncommunications.