Tennessee State Museum gains key pieces of Werthan Packaging Co.’s story

Posted on: August 31st, 2017 by tgregory

Omar Abuaita, president and chief operating officer at Gateway Packaging Co., stands in front of the original horse-drawn, wooden wagon that once belonged to the Werthan family. PHOTOGRAPH FURNISHED BY TENNESSEE STATE MUSEUM

Pieces of the history of a longtime Nashville manufacturing business, Werthan Packaging Co., now are housed with the Tennessee State Museum, following donations from Gateway Packaging Co. and Saw Mill Capital Partners as well as from a Werthan family member. The state museum announced in a news release that it had been given the artifacts.

Werthan Packaging was one of the longest-running, family-owned manufacturing companies in Tennessee. The manufacturer had been run by members of Nashville’s Werthan family since the late 1860s, when German-born Meier Werthan began as a rag dealer working from a wagon in downtown Nashville. 

The items given to the state museum include an original horse-drawn, wooden wagon used when Werthan Bag operated from Second Avenue in downtown Nashville. These artifacts were obtained by Illinois-based Gateway through the purchase of assets from the former Werthan Packaging Co. of Nashville in January 2017. Gateway Packaging continues to manufacture flexible packaging products in the Nashville area.  In addition to the wagon, Gateway donated artifacts including samples of manufactured bags, early business ledgers, and an industrial sewing machine.

“Gateway Packaging Co. is committed to education and to supporting our local communities,” stated Omar Abuaita, president and chief operating officer at Gateway Packaging Company.  “The donation of these important artifacts and archives puts them in the hands of historians who can interpret the evolution of an important business industry and its development over time.”

In conjunction with the Gateway donation, additional artifacts were provided to the State Museum by Tony Werthan, a fifth-generation family member who was chairman of Werthan Packaging until the Gateway acquisition.  This Werthan collection includes important documentary photographs, sample bags, a portrait of Meier Werthan, historic company documents, employee newsletters, and a company history tapestry commissioned in the 1970s by Mary Jane Werthan.  “Documenting our company’s history was always important to our family,” Tony Werthan noted at the time of the donation.

“We are very grateful to both Gateway Packaging Company and the Werthan family for these very generous donations,” said Ashley Howell, the museum’s executive director. “The new Tennessee State Museum opens next year and is located just a few blocks away from the old manufacturing plant, now known as the Werthan Lofts. The State Museum takes great pride in being the caretaker of Tennessee’s historic collections for future generations.” 

The story of Werthan Packaging spans decades and diverse businesses.  From peddling rags to creating bags, Meier Werthan developed the company into an important manufacturer in the late 1800s. He and his partner, Sigmund Godhelp, opened a produce store in downtown Nashville on Market Street, now 2nd Avenue, in 1868. 

The business changed over the years from selling produce to selling reconditioned cotton and burlap bags. In 1895, after the death of Godhelp, the business became an exclusively family-run company, and Meier passed on the management to his sons, Morris and Joe. 

In 1928, Werthan Bag Company merged with Morgan and Hamilton Co., and the merger resulted in operations being moved to Eighth Avenue North in Nashville. Over the decades Werthan Bag made and sold various types of related products, including burlap and cotton bags, as well as sandbags for use during World War I and World War II.

In the 1960s, Werthan diversified into new areas, including plastic bags, auto parts and printed checks, although its primary business remained sophisticated printed paper bags for consumer products. As the decades passed, the company became known as Werthan Packaging Inc., and its markets became increasingly focused on the steadily growing pet products industry. After 2000, the company relocated from the Germantown neighborhood in North Nashville to a manufacturing facility in White House, Tenn. 

More information about the Tennessee State Museum and its extensive collections can be found at www.tnmuseum.org. •