Lumber Grade-Marking History: 1925


1925 has no doubt gone down in history as one of the most prevailing years in the entirety of the 20th century – it’s just that a lot of people don’t necessarily realize it. It was the year that gave us “The Great Gatsby,” F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel about class, wealth and the American dream. Mount Rushmore was first dedicated in October of that year, although the actual carving of the mountain wouldn’t begin until a few years later. In January, Benito Mussolini declared that Italy was now a dictatorship and that he was putting an end to free and fair elections in that country – an action that would create a ripple effect that lasted for decades.

It was also the year where plans for real, tangible progress in terms of grade-marking lumber became public – something that we’re still enjoying the benefits from all these years later.

The building industry, represented by key stakeholders like architects, contractors, dealers, realtors, and public officials declared itself overwhelmingly in favor of this critical movement, culminating in the establishment of the grading rules for southern pine upon American Lumber Standards. In this section, you will learn about the Department of Commerce’s widely distributed pamphlet titled “Grade-Marks on the Lumber are the Customer’s Guarantee.” You will learn about how personal contacts and communications further emphasized these standards and their intent. We hope that it is not only insightful but that you will find it easy to see how many of the benefits we’re still experiencing can be traced directly back to this pivotal moment in time.


Lumber standardization and grade-marking was a fact. Plans for the actual process of grade-marking lumber and introducing the idea to the public, and the establishment of the grading rules for southern pine upon American Lumber Standards have culminated. The building industry represented by architects, contractors, retail dealers, wholesalers, engineers, realtors, building and loan, and public officials declared themselves unanimously in favor of the movement as definitely in the interest of producers, distributors and the lumber-using public.

Secretary Hoover of the Department of Commerce published and widely distributed a pamphlet entitled “Grade-Marks on Lumber are the Customer’s Guarantee.” He stated:

There is no reason why conscientious grade-marking of lumber should not be as successful as the grade-marking of other products manufactured on the basis of different qualities.

The grade-marking of lumber seems to be particularly important because unlike any other article, the quality of which can be analyzed, the grading of lumber largely depends on judgment founded upon long experience. It is therefore evident that the consumer often is at a loss to know whether he is actually receiving the quality for which he has paid and which he wants. Without grade-marks on lumber, it is easily seen that grades may be mixed unintentionally. The plain indication of grade on each piece of lumber protects consumers as well as distributors.

Grade-marking will also reduce waste. Correctly grade-marked lumber can be bought and sold without necessitating actual inspection. In other words, if the grade-marking is carried out in a conscientious manner, lumber will be bought and sold unseen, as wheat or any other commodity, the various qualities of which have been definitely determined. This will reduce the cost of distribution and stabilize lumber conditions.

Through grade-marking practices, the public will be educated in the various grades of lumber and in their correct and most economical uses. This will encourage certain consuming industries to increase their purchases of low-grade material, and thereby extend the uses for these qualities, which are now often a drug on the market.

In the execution of the program for standardization of lumber sizes and grades, grade-marking practices will be of primary importance.

Wherever grade-marking of lumber has been practiced, it has been received with favor by consumers, distributors, and manufacturers. It has been one of the most important factors in raising the ethics of the lumber trade where it has been in vogue.

Grade-marking has been universal in Europe for many years. In consequence, our export manufacturers who have generally not followed this practice are at a disadvantage in competition there.

Axel H. Oxhelm, Chief of the Lumber Division, U. S. Department of Commerce, said that:

Grade-marking of lumber, although originating with the manufacturers, will perhaps benefit the public to the greatest extent. If carried out in accordance with the plan being followed by the subscribers to the Southern Pine Association, the grade-marking of lumber will mean that any buyer of southern pine grade-marked lumber will have the assurance that he is receiving that quality of lumber for which he is paying. The grade-marking practice will furthermore stimulate the correct and most economical use of wood. The consumer of grade-marked lumber will now definitely know how to make up his specifications intelligently, and an inspection of the marks on the end of each piece in the pile will enable him to determine whether he is receiving what he is paying for. Distributors will find that grade-marked lumber will sell more readily. The mark appearing at the end of each piece will be the most powerful advertising medium, and the guarantee offered in regard to integrity and uniformity of grades will eliminate the percentage of risk which it is often customary to include in dealings with unidentified mills.

We may expect excellent results for all concerned should grade-marking be generally adopted by the lumber industry in the United States. … Grade-marking stands for honest practices.

Extensively advertised and publicized, the intent of grade-marking was further emphasized by personal contacts and communications. Expressed in the American Lumber Standards and adopted bythe lumber industry, the entire movement carried forward by the Southern Pine Association was conducted in cooperation with those who participated in the approval of the American Lumber Standards, particularly, the retail-lumber dealers. Meetings were held under the auspices of local dealers in nearly all of the principal cities of the U. S. – wherever southern pine was marketed. These were well attended and every gathering efficiently endorsed the standardization and grade-marking program and pledged their assistance in urging all lumber manufacturers in America to grade-mark their product, as well as to establish its use in their communities. Other regional lumber associations prepared to grade-mark their lumber and to conduct pertinent educational campaigns.

The General Lumber Conference on Standardization recommended that all lumber be grade- marked. By reason of this and the increasing interest shown in the subject, the Southern Pine Association subscribers approved the following resolution at their 1925 mid-summer meeting.

…the general lumber conference on standardization has gone on record in favor of the grade-marking of lumber, and

…to be really effective, grade-marking should be practiced generally by manufacturers of all species of lumber, and

…the subscribers to the Southern Pine Association have actually started grade-marking their product after years of experimentation and the expenditure of thousands of dollars,

…by the Directors of and the subscribers to the Southern Pine Association that the benefit of the experience thus gained be offered to the entire lumber industry through Secretary of Commerce Hoover and the Central Committee on Lumber Standards.

…that in the interest of protection to the public, we earnestly recommend that such groups of manufacturers maintain an efficient Inspection Department rendering regular and periodical inspections at the plants of their respective members, it being the experience of the Southern Pine Association that shipments by subscribers contain only half as much below grade stock as shipments of non-subscribers, this undoubtedly being attributable to the close check-up given to the mill graders each month, causing them to be constantly on their guard and to exert every effort to have their grades as nearly perfect as possible.

Technical bulletins were made possible through lumber standardization and grade-marking. Future advertising and trade extension activities acquired a more substantial basis by the movement; and the lumber industry, as a whole, was in line for a higher degree of knowledge and efficiency.

The Ohio Retail Lumber Dealers Association accepted the grade-marking feature as a certificate and guarantee of benefit to them as lumber merchants, and the public as their customers.

The grade-marking principle was endorsed by practically all of the larger organizations interested in the manufacture and use of lumber. Among them:

  • The National Lumber Manufacturers Association
  • National-American Wholesale Lumber Association
  • National Retail Lumber Dealers Association
  • American Institute of Architects
  • American Railway Engineering Association
  • American Railway Bridge and Building Association
  • The Association of General Contractors of America
  • The United States League of Local Builders and Loan Asn
  • National Association of Builders Exchanges
  • Association of Wood Using Industries
  • Automobile Body Builders Association
  • National Association of Wood Turners, Inc.


Architects approved and were generous in their commendations, saying that the grade-marking and trade-marking of lumber lead definitely to better construction. “Grade-marking,” said and Albany, N. Y. architect, “helps the architect to discharge the great responsibility resting upon them to give their clients what they should have. I know of no better way to assist architects to learn the classification and proper use of the various grades to the most economical advantage that by marking the grades on the lumber.” A Texas architect said, “When we find that the architect of today may consistently specify and insist upon receiving lumber which has been classified by experts, under a standard classification, with the grade and guarantee thereof branded on each piece of material, and that this is being done by the better class of lumber manufacturers in an effort to protect themselves and the consumer from the evils which all have suffered, the architect must gladly welcome this forward movement. It is not presuming too far to expect that the architects generally will lend to it their hearty endorsement.” A prominent Boston architect said, “There has been no guarantee of, or responsibility placed for, the quality of lumber. It is obvious, in connection with the grade-marking of lumber, that certification and guarantee must be made by qualified associations of unqualified integrity and financial responsibility. The Southern Pine Association already has this reputation and the action of its subscribers in grade-marking their product is one that deserves universal support, and the reason for it is so axiomatic that it is difficult to conceive or object.” A Birmingham architect said, “The architect acts in a judicial capacity to see that his client gets a square deal and that the contractor or material dealer is not imposed upon by unjust demands. The reliable grade-marking of lumber will aid the architect in his capacity as a judge of materials – a step forward in ethical business practices.”

Unconditional endorsement of the grade-marking of lumber was offered by individual retail lumber dealers and many important retail associations. The National Retail Lumber Dealers Association said, “…that we the members of…in reaffirming our position, urge all producers of all species of lumber to grade-mark and ask that in so doing, they adhere to the method prescribed in the American Lumber Standards.” 650 lumber dealers, architects, contractors, and city officials met in Boston and gave unanimous approval to lumber grade-marking. 200 representatives of the leading lumber and building industries in Cleveland; 200 dealers, architects and contractors in Birmingham; 300 dealers and builders in Grand Rapids; a large number of dealers and builders in eastern New York – endorsed grade-marked trade-marked lumber. A Texas dealer declared, “Grade-marking stands for honest practices and it will affect adversely only those whose dealings are not honest. The plan has been endorsed by practically all of the large organizations interested in the use of lumber and the contractors of my city without exception will lend their full support in carrying out the plan.” The President of an Eastern state retail dealers’ association said, “In my opinion grade-marking is a great stride forward in the lumber industry. It goes a long way toward putting the business of merchandising lumber on a sound basis of uniform quality. Grade-marking will correct a great many mistakes and straighten out innumerable misunderstandings.”

Endorsements of grade-marking by men in the building and loan associations were many. The United States League of Local Building and Loan Associations said:

…it is in the interest of all concerned that the building and loan associations assist and protect both the borrowing member and the savings member in the erection of dependable homes and structures; and,

…it is, therefore, necessary that all building material used be of good quality and known value; and,

…Secretary Hoover, of the Department of Commerce, is rendering a very great service to the country in his standardization program, looking to the simplification of building materials, as well as honest practices in their sale and distribution; and,

…the grade-marking of lumber by the manufacturers is a part of his standardization program, therefore, be it

…that the United States League of Local Building and Loan Associations endorse and command the grade-marking of lumber by the subscribers of all lumber associations as a great forward step in the more intelligent merchandising of their product and a great protection to the builders of American homes, and that we commend the action of the Southern Pine Association in this respect.

C. Clinton James, President of the League, personally said, “To my mind, the grade-marking of lumber is another step forward in the business world, because it educates the consumer, and gives him a method whereby he can tell he is receiving the kind of material that is specified in his order.” Frank A. Chase, General Manager, The American Savings, Building, and Loan Institute said, “A campaign of education as to the suitability of certain established grades of building material for the various portions of a given structure will often lead to substantial saving in initial cost and the selection of materials of maximum utility. Grade-marking is an essential step in this progress.”

Purchasing agents responsible for the economical buying of dependable materials universally welcomed the grade-marking activities of the Southern Pine Association. The purchasing agent of a large Ohio Steel corporation said, “Our experience has taught us that material of this kind should be marked and graded on account of some mills trying to make shipments of material which is under grade. The purchasing manager of a large Pittsburgh machine company said, “I am very glad to endorse the grade- marking of all lumber and consider that it will be very great assistance to the manufacturers and consumers of lumber. I hope and believe that this arrangement will go a long way toward eliminating complaints and rejections of shipments of lumber.” The purchasing agent of ten coal mining companies said, “This forward step on the part of the Southern Pine Association will mean a lot to the writer and, of course, to every other purchaser, particularly the coal company buyers.” The purchasing agent of a Pittsburgh manufacturing company said, “Having reference to the Southern Pine Association grade-marking movement, the writer is now and has for some time past been very much interested. It is gratifying to know that there are some producers of southern pine who are willing to stand by their product.” A Chicago forest products engineer said, “Standardization and grade-marking will be of great assistance in the proper use of wood for construction work. Certain grades should be used for specific purposes and the branding will aid in the proper specifying and employing of the correct grades. Lumber as a construction material has been assailed so often by every new substitute that depended upon replacement of wood for its market, that lumber no longer would be used if it did not have inherent qualities of service and economy that no other building material possesses. Lumber is the strongest material for its weight that is known for buildings and it is so easily worked and handled that it is not surprising it has been the most popular construction in America since the beginning of this country.

The campaign conducted regarding grade-marked lumber developed the following resolution unanimously adopted by the subscribers of the Southern Pine Association in office meeting:

…at the meeting of the subscribers at Memphis, Tenn., in June 1925, it was the consensus of opinion that the list of mills which are grade-marking should be printed and distributed by October 1, 1925, but,

…the General Counsel of the Association advised that the Association was within its legal rights to issue such a list, but that as a matter of policy, the subject should be discussed fully by the Board of Directors, and,

…the Board of Directors are of the opinion that in view of the insistent demand by the retailers and consumers generally throughout the country for such a list of mills from whom they could secure grade- marked lumber; therefore,

…that the Secretary-Manager of the Association be instructed to prepare such a list of grade-marking mills, which now includes 72% of the Associations production, and issue a list generally through pamphlets and paid advertisements, the expense of same to be paid from the special grade-marking fund; and,

…that this list should be published as of May 1, 1926, in order that those mills which are not now grade-marking may have ample opportunity to arrange their plans, and notify the Secretary-Manager in order that their names may be included in this list.

Lumber generally had been sold without any identification marks as to the grade or source of origin. This practice led to much misunderstanding and dissatisfaction on the part of the public. Buyers frequently thought that they were not getting the grade of lumber paid for, and in some cases, this was a fact.

To correct the situation and make lumber buying simple and safe, a group of manufacturers comprising the Southern Pine Association undertook in accordance with recommendations of Herbert Hoover, Secretary of Commerce, to mark the grade on the end of each piece of lumber shipped from their mills. In addition to the grade, the mark also shows the number of the mill which produced the lumber, and the official SPA label, which indicates that the lumber was manufactured in accordance with the American Lumber Standards, and that it was graded by inspectors whose efficiency was subject to frequent test and examination by official inspectors of the Southern Pine Association.

The action of the Southern Pine Association in approving the practice of grade-marking turned the “searchlight of truth” on lumber. It met with widespread approval of the building professions. Founded a decade ago to render service to the consumers of southern pine products and members, better production standards, inspections, grading, and conservation were enhanced when member mills began stamping the mark of the expert grader on their products.

The average consumer can rarely tell one species of wood from another observed in the sawn board. Experts who have the knowledge and understanding of grading rules, enabling them to distinguish one grade of lumber from the other, are essential. Anyone can see that there is a wide range in grades, quality, and price. Through the introduction of SPA certified guaranteed lumber, the guesswork is removed from lumber buying – stamped on the end of each piece will be the mark of the expert grader, endorsed with the initials of SPA also stamped thereon, with a reference number designating the mill of its origin, and collectively indicating a guaranteed grade under American Lumber Standards.

Members of the Southern Pine Association were the first organization of lumber manufacturers to affect the grade-marking of lumber. These same manufacturers had for many years met trade requirements by producing lumber of uniform grade, but without a means of identification, there wasn’t any assurance that the lumber would reach the consumer as graded at the mill. By grade-marking and trade-marking, the manufacturer maintained some control over this product – his shipments were not subject to re-grade – once grade, stamped and shipped, the order could not be tampered with and remain unobserved.

Conforming to the recommendations of the National Standardization conference, the SPA grade-marking and trade-marking plan were considered a marked improvement over grade-marking as practiced in foreign countries. The European lumber manufacturer branded his own lumber according to his own idea of standards. Two manufacturers differing in ideas or intent would not have uniform products. No authoritative inspection service was used. Under the SPA plan, control is effected by an official inspection service backing up in the integrity of the manufacturer’s grade and the association’s symbol. The result is the double assurance of correct grading to the lumber buyer – as compared to no assurance at all in the case of foreign grade-marking practice.

The injunction suit of the United States vs. the Southern Pine Association, pending since 1921, was dismissed.