Mass. Made: The Paper Trail

For generations, North Adams-based Crane and Company has produced some of the world’s finest stationery.

Striking hand-engraved koi grace a Crane note card. (All photos by Pat Piasecki)

In 1770, Stephen Crane founded the provocatively named Liberty Paper Mill in Milton to provide the paper for the currency of the American Revolution (with, rumor has it, Paul Revere–engraved plates). Some three decades later, Crane & Company was founded in Dalton by Stephen’s son, Zenas Crane. The business scored a contract to produce the paper for all the currency printed in the U.S. in 1879, and has continued to do so ever since. Most people, however, know Crane for its stationery, the choice of luminaries everywhere. Its anti-British origins haven’t even deterred Queen Elizabeth II from entrusting her personal dispatches to the company, nor did it stop Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt from penning their own notes on Crane’s thick monogrammed paper.

Dignitaries, monarchs, and new parents alike start their custom stationery journey by shopping the company’s dozen or so 5-pound binders in search of the perfect paper, font, color, and letterpress options. Once a design is approved by the customer, it’s sent digitally to North Adams, where Crane has printed its stationery since 1959.

Here, each custom order takes a unique journey across the factory floor. If an invitation calls for engraving (as opposed to thermo-graphy or lithography), the various curlicued fonts and monograms are printed in mirror image on film and transferred onto a sensitized copper plate before being put through an acid bath, which reveals the lettering. Outside the acid room, workers with magnifying glasses pick  the imperfections out of the plate with sharp tools, then send it to the factory floor below, where antique presses drive the staccato rhythm of industry.

Like a Vegas card dealer, a technician continually feeds blank card stock into a 90-year-old ink press. Inside, it’s inked by a roller and then shot out the back onto a beige conveyor belt. Each pigment used for the stationery requires a separate run. Achieving the proper ink viscosity and color is a time-honed skill—those who have mastered it have worked here for decades.

On the day I visit the factory, Karla Cushman, design manager of social stationery, joins me in front of the paint-splotched press, pointing out a growing pile of four-color wedding invitations currently being printed. Because each piece needs to run through the press four times, she says, it could take all day to produce the order.

Elsewhere on the floor, black Heidelberg letterpresses from the 1950s emboss words and images onto thick card stock. Beyond, the mechanical arm of a Kluge machine guides holiday cards through a metallic-foil application, which adds shimmer to the Tree of Life’s snow-laden branches.

After an edge trim, the invitations, note cards, and announcements are paired with envelopes and loaded into boxes, which are carried by a conveyor belt high above the factory floor to the shipping department. They’ll soon arrive perfectly personalized in the hands of the recipient.

Now that email has become ubiquitous, a handwritten note has even greater significance, company historian Peter Hopkins notes. The paper weight, font choice, and design intricacy all set the tone for the contents of the message, and, in a way, create a sense of intimacy between the sender and receiver. Last year, Crane ran 28 million invitations, note cards, and thank-yous—a testament to the lasting power of print.

A technician feeds cards into a printing press.

A printed label is checked against the original copper plate.

An engraving plate for thank-you cards.

Crane’s vibrant hues are mixed from more than 43 base colors.

Crane’s North Adams factory.

A hand-engraved plum-tree design, which requires several runs through the press.

A worker demonstrates how an address plate will print on an envelope.

Stacks of Crane & Company’s signature cotton paper awaits printing.

A technician uses a magnifying glass to ensure that engraving plates are sharp and free of imperfections.

A roller runs against paper to remove excess paint before inking the engraving plate.

Etching acid is dripped onto copper measuring plates to ensure proper calibration.

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