The roll spins. A pile of toilet paper grows in billowy folds on the bathroom floor.
For a kid, there’s something satisfying about the cascade, the chaos. For Nicholas Marcalus, rewinding provided the rewards.
Marcalus, the founder of Marcal Paper Mills, racked up roughly 50 patents — the last one at age 80 — including an automatic web roller that could cut and rewind tons of toilet paper from a mother roll.
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Born Dominico Macaluso in 1893, Marcalus emigrated from Sicily to Paterson, where he took a new name, in 1905. He got his start in machine tooling and mechanical design there, and became a gifted innovator.
By the age of 20, Marcalus was a manager at Hunt and McCree Electric Machinery Co. in New York City. The company soon manufactured his first invention, an automated device that removes the outer skin of black pepper.
Marcalus had found early success. He was nonetheless keen on making new machines his own way. He left Hunt and McCree in 1915 and opened a small business making wireless telegraph equipment. The Nicholas Electric Company was short-lived, however. The government banned sales of amateur telegraph devices to prevent espionage when it entered World War I.
Marcalus returned to the workforce at Sperry Gyroscope Company. He worked under Dr. Elmer Sperry, who in 1908 had patented a gyrocompass system that was adopted by the U.S. Navy in 1911; Marcalus helped apply the technology to aviation. He also went to night school to get a formal education.
His ideas grew. In 1925, he started another business: Cut-Rite Waxed Paper. Sold in 1931, it introduced the concept of rolling waxed paper around a central cylinder and placing it in a box with a serrated metal edge for consumers. Previously, waxed paper came in stacked sheets. The Cut-Rite brand remains today, a testament to the efficacy of Marcalus’ invention. Still, the innovator had bigger and better ideas ahead.
In September 1931, Marcalus filed a patent for an automated winding machine, one that could take paper from a parent roll and automatically rewind it into smaller rolls. Months later, the Marcal brand was born.
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The Marcalus Manufacturing Company found a home along the Passaic River in January 1940. Marcalus purchased the 100,000-square-foot Crew Silk Dyeing Company plant on 10 acres in Elmwood Park, then called East Paterson, for $100,000. He then spent the same amount to outfit the 350-worker plant for turning pulp into paper.
In its first five years, the factory survived a strike, a lawsuit and a paper shortage.
After World War II, Marcalus’s son Robert returned with an idea to place an illuminated Marcal logo on the factory roof. The beaming red landmark set the exterior and the brand apart.
Inside, Marcal developed industry-leading technologies — most notably in the 1950s, when it started recycling waste paper into pulp for reuse. Today, it offers bath tissue, paper towels, napkins and facial tissue made from 100% recycled materials.
Marcalus, a Wyckoff resident, died in 1979 at age 86. His company remained strong, employing more than 1,000 at times. However, overseas competition eventually upended the market.
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In 2006, Marcal filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. Two years later, a Dallas-based investment management firm, Highland Capital Management, bought the beleaguered company. Further workforce reductions were made in an attempt to make Marcal profitable. The trademark neon sign was turned off.
Four years later, the plant found new life under new ownership. On Jan. 31, 2014, Soundview Paper Co. proclaimed the brand’s return by restoring the iconic Marcal sign with red LED lights.
The sign tumbled and the factory burned in a massive fire that shocked the region in 2019. The plant reopened from the ashes one year later, in January 2020, with plans to make 88,000 tons of tissue over the next 12 months.
David Zimmer is a local reporter for NorthJersey.com. For unlimited access to the most important news from your local community, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.