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How 3M went from a failed mining operation on the North Shore to an international manufacturing powerhouse

photo of 3M's headquarters
3M headquarters in Maplewood

From its early beginnings on Lake Superior’s North Shore to its legacy of innovative manufacturing in St. Paul, 3M—formerly known as the Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company — has introduced both consumer and industrial products that have been successfully marketed worldwide.

3M was founded in 1902 in Two Harbors, Minnesota. Prospectors were attracted to the reported wealth of minerals in northern Minnesota due to the rich deposits of iron ore found in the region. 3M’s founders sought to mine corundum, a material used in sandpaper. However, they found that their deposit contained the mineral anorthosite rather than corundum, and the mining plans were abandoned. After this setback, the company moved to nearby Duluth, where it sought to manufacture abrasive products. Lucius Ordway Jr. made huge investments in 3M and eventually encouraged the company to move its factory to St. Paul.

While Ordway’s constant “angel” investments rescued 3M from financial failure, new personnel were hired to invigorate the company and build relationships with customers. William McKnight, a bookkeeper at the company who later became president in 1929, spearheaded efforts to emphasize quality control. He also hired Archibald Bush to lead sales of 3M’s products. In 1916, 3M turned its first profit after creating its first unique product: Three-M-ite abrasive cloth. Following this long-awaited success, the company returned its first dividend to its shareholders.

In St. Paul, 3M management fostered a culture of innovation and scientific discovery. To encourage employees to develop new products, the company instituted a “15 percent rule,” which allowed scientists to spend 15 percent of their working hours on independent projects. Many of 3M’s most recognizable products were developed through independent study at 3M’s facilities. These include Sasheen ribbon, a decorating ribbon, and Tartan Track and Turf, the first artificial running track and turf ever developed. Another innovative 3M institution was the 3M Technical Forum, created in 1951. The forum was designed to allow technical employees of the company to collaborate, educate, and learn from other employees who often worked on wildly different products.

While the two most notable 3M consumer products are likely Scotch Tape and Post-it Notes, there are many other products that 3M has pioneered — some even by accident. In 1953, lab technicians Patsy Sherman and Joan Mullen were working on fluorochemical rubber particles when Mullen accidentally dropped a beaker of the fluid on her shoes. Finding it impossible to get the fluid off of Mullen’s shoes, Sherman found that this was an opportunity she could develop further. A few years later, Scotchgard fabric protector was introduced, and Sherman continued to improve the still-popular product throughout her career.

As 3M expanded into more industries, the company sought to enter the global market in the 1950s. 3M and its competitors created a joint corporation that could compete with foreign corporations, but this venture was soon dismantled due to anti-trust laws. 3M used components left over from that operation to streamline their own international network, and throughout the 1950s, 3M opened operations in twelve different countries. In the next decade, 3M opened operations in twenty-three more countries—at least one on every continent except Antarctica. This early and sustained expansion allowed 3M to strengthen its footing in a global market, and it helped make 3M one of America’s largest corporations.

While Scotch Tape and Post-it Notes might be 3M’s most recognizable products, the company has developed solutions for many different purposes and industries. Reflective street signs, specialized stoplights, Thinsulate thermal insulation, and Scotch-Brite cleaning pads are just a few of the many more innovations that have helped turn this fledgling mining company into a Fortune 500 global corporation.

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Comments (3)

  1. Submitted by William Duncan on 02/17/2020 - 09:34 am.

    If 3M had to pay to clean up the pollution they create, particularly concerning PFAS “forever chemicals”, it would likely go bankrupt.

    • Submitted by Pat Berg since 2011 on 02/17/2020 - 10:42 am.

      And how is that any different than the situation of many, many other companies in that respect? Do you wish them all to go bankrupt? What would that accomplish?

      If companies are demonstrating efforts to improve their awareness of impacts they created sometimes even before anyone knew the materials were harmful and take corrective actions in the present, isn’t that better than putting them all out of business and the financial impact that would create? (I’m talking BIG companies here).

      Really – what’s the realistic solution you propose?

      • Submitted by William Duncan on 02/17/2020 - 03:13 pm.

        Many of these corporations are not paying taxes. The average corporation taxes are much less than what working people pay relative to income. Why do we tax income for people making less than $60,000, but we do not tax pollution?

        Oftentimes a corporation pollutes, and then if the State goes after them about it, the corporation declares bankruptcy, or, in the case of 3M polluting groundwater in the east metro, the State gives them a one-off fine probably not enough to clean it up, and certainly not enough to disturb profits and shareholder returns.

        More often than not, if pollution is cleaned up, the taxes of working people pay for it. Generally however, pollution is not cleaned up or prevented, as in the case of industrial agriculture, the pollution simply builds up over time.

        If economics 101 says you tax what you want to get rid of, again, why are we taking income and not pollution? Not taxing pollution, corporations have every incentive to push the absolute limits of pollution – In many cases, to the point of direct harm to people, well after executives are aware of the problem. So I say, tax pollution out of existence, and hold executives criminally liable for evading that system.

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