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January 1, 2002

3 Min Read
Parting Shots: Pull up a seat

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All-plastic toilet seats were first molded at Bemis facilities in 1964. Here final inspection and trimming are performed in a photo taken for the company's first corporate brochure in 1989.

This time of year it's nice to curl up with a good book to take your mind off work . . . or make you think more about it. While Be Seated by Bemis: A 100-year History of Bemis Manufacturing Company is a light read, it should also make owners of molding firms think about putting their own company history in print. In this chronology of Bemis' successes and the adaptations in its products since 1901, readers will appreciate the flexibility with which the company operated through economic depression, war, and petroleum crises. 

Molders today face many challenges in a dwindling economy. The key is to adapt to these conditions, and Bemis Mfg. Co. had plenty of practice in the last century. 

The Depression forced the first major change in the company's product line, which had gradually moved from a child's wooden wagon to novelty furniture. Recognizing the need to produce more practical items, Albert Bemis, the company's owner, embarked on a new plumbing product line, which included wood toilet seats. 

When World War II made brass a rare and costly item for nonwar-related goods, Bemis took its first foray into plastic with a toilet seat hinge. Then, in the early 1950s, the time-intensive process of fashioning a laminated birch toilet seat gave way to a "newly emerging method" that created a denser, heavier product than wood—sawdust and resin blended through compression molding. 

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The slogan above represented the company's products for decades.

Bemis was not the first to mold an all-plastic toilet seat, but F.K. "Pete" Bemis, son of Albert and at the time president, recognized the need to remain competitive. Initially the company chose to subcontract with another Wisconsin molder to develop the company's first all-plastic seat; however, as the benefits of plastics became increasingly evident, Bemis took a solid step into molding in 1963 with the purchase of a 1000-ton Watson-Stillman machine for $15,000. All molding operations were moved in-house at this point, and a year later Bemis produced its first all-plastic seat, the Model 800, made from HIPS. 

Bemis took part in other stages of the country's history, from electric guitars to gas station giveaways, but what remain today are the toilet seats and other products that resulted from a series of acquisitions: humidifier housings, lawn tractor casings, and outdoor furniture, to name a few. 

Molding sizable products such as these signaled a commitment to large-capacity molding, and in July 2000 a massive 6600-ton coinjection Milacron Maxima—said to be the largest of its kind—was delivered to Bemis' Sheboygan Falls, WI plant. The book describes its footprint as the size of a three-bedroom house with a height of 18 ft. 

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Large-part molding was embraced completely in 2000 when Bemis bought this mammoth 6600-ton coinjection machine.


For Bemis Mfg. Co., adapting paid off. Now run by Richard and Peter Bemis, sons of Pete Bemis, this firm in 2001 employed more than 3000, had 10 operations in five countries, and occupied more than 2.8 million sq ft of manufacturing, distribution, and office space. 

While the book's text is interesting reading, it only tells a portion of the narrative. Old and recent photographs of people, products, and places, as well as newspaper clippings, timelines, and sidebars (such as the love story between Albert and Oleida Bemis) give a personal sense of this family-run business. Historical images, like the one of U.S. soldiers in Vietnam (where thousands of Bemis toilet seats were shipped), underscore the book's message that Bemis' story is inseparable from that of the nation's. 

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