Rural Albany County: Knox Pillbox Industry

From Knox, NY - a Helderberg Hilltown
Jump to navigation Jump to search
Go to History

Rural Albany County: Its Romance and Industry

Relics of Wooden Pillbox Industry Still Exist in Knox Township; Former Workers Describe Intricate Process

Equipment Used for Home Manufacture Found on Farm

In this and succeeding articles of the series, the writer is to make an effort to portray each of the 10 towns of the county from a variety of angles—its people, its crops, its industries, its history, and the part each plays in that "'unit of highly cultured and civilized America we know as Albany County.


Why, of course, I remember the little oval wooden pillboxes," said a representative of the veteran wholesale druggists, J. L. Thompson & Sons Co., Inc. of Troy, but I never knew they made them in Knox.

We had a lot of them around the place until about a year ago when we sold them along with a lot of other obsolete goods to a broker in New York City. I never knew much about the wooden pillbox business.. But we have a Mr. Smythe here who probably does. He's been with us 40 years. And there's Mr. Water¬bury—he's been here 60 years—I'll ask him."

A quick canvass of the older druggists in Albany failed to unearth a single basswood pillbox. It began to look as though all that remained of Knox's once great industry was the memory of the town's older inhabitants when suddenly samples of the boxes came to light in a perfectly natural but nevertheless unexpected place—the Albany College of Pharmacy.

One large college room is being given over wholly to the installation of century-old equipment from the antique Throup drug store in Schoharie.

In its ancient stock of herbs and medicaments are to be found pills bearing the labels of long-forgotten makers contained in the little bass¬wood boxes which were turned out by 10,000 times 10,000 in the deft fingers of Knox's men, women and children.

"Why there must be some families living around here yet that have the equipment they used to use to make the boxes," said D. W. Stevens as he described the methods em¬ployed in making the boxes. "Call around at Elmer Quay's farm when you go over to see George Zeh. They're neighbors. The Quays must have some of the old tools lying around the house or the garage."

Mr. Zeh was not at home but the Quays were and it was the work of only a few minutes for then to assemble all the things required to make the wooden boxes except the tops for the covers and the bottom ovals. Even the gluepot, made like a double-boiler of today was available to the Albany Evening News photographer.

'The first essential to the manufacture of the little articles which were shipped from Knox to the civilized quarters of the globe were special planes. The plane knives were set to shave the basswood in strips of standard and required thickness while at the same time cutting the broad shaving into strips of equal width. These strips were to form the sides of the boxes.

To get the proper length, the basswood blocks were cut to the right dimensions before the planes came into play. Strips from the sides of the bottom sections of the boxes were a trifle wider than those for the tops so that when matched together the lower edge of the cover did not come quite to the bottom of the box.

Most of the Knox women, many of its men and some of the children became so adept at putting together the boxes, that the average daily product of one pair of hands was from 1,600 to 1,800. The pay was standardized at 12 1/2cents for each 400. The unit of manufacture was a tierce-10,000 boxes.

A step in preparation for manufacture of the boxes simultaneous with that of planning the side strips was the use of the oval dies for rutting out the tops and bottoms, the former a trifle larger than the latter, of course, to permit the top of the box to it snuggling down upon its lower counterpart.

The dies were of metal and thousands of the oval basswood pieces could be stamped out of the sheets of thin basswood in a day. The stamping was done by placing the die on the wood and hitting it sharply with a mallet.

Pieces of lathed wood, about the shape and size of a modern package of cigarettes were used to fashion the wooden strips into the sides of the boxes.

Deft fingers could handle as many as five of the strips at once, winding them once around the wooden moulds, flicking the ends with a single quick touch of the wooden glue paddle. Then, with a small implement like a paring knife, the glued ends were pressed down and the mould encircled with the five strips glued separately and enclosing its oval sides was popped into a block of wood notched to hold the moulds tightly until the glue was dry. These blocks of notched wood were known as "gripes" to the pillbox industry.

Once the glue was dried enough to hold the strips, now in oval form, were stripped rapidly from the moulds and either tops or bot¬toms glued flush with one edge of each strip.

This whole operation had to be completed twice for each box, the tops and the bottoms, the latter, as pointed out, a trifle smaller than the former to permit one to fit upon the other.

Specially constructed tables were built for pillbox workers, two of which still remain in the Quay's cellar where Mrs. Carrie Quay gave a demonstration of the lost art for the newspaper chronicler and his cameraman.

"I saw all this stuff lying around the other day." said Elmer Quay, her husband. "And I thinks to my¬self, pshaw, I've got a good mind to burn it up. We won't ever have any use for it again. But I didn't and now I'm glad I didn't."

"Yes, I'm glad, too," spoke up Millard Quay, his son. "I think Henry Ford might like these tools for his museum."

He was assured that if Ford didn't want them the State Museum un¬questionably would like them to pre¬serve as optical concrete proof that New York State once nurtured an industry which has completely dis¬appeared from ken of man.

"We couldn't get the basswood any more," said several Knox residents in explaining the decline of the industry. "I remember," added Mr. Stevens, "that towards the last we had to go way over beyond Reidsville to get any wood at all and then it had to be seasoned right or it wasn't any good."

Mr. Stevens agreed that the industry might be revived under properly efficient management if bass¬wood could be shipped in to the Knox area where the surviving pill-box makers live. Metal boxes are used now for exporting pills, and for domestic uses the cardboard boxes do. But they tell me the pills exported in metal draw damp on the way and stick together. The wooden boxes would absorb the moisture and keep the pills in the same form in which they were shipped. I believe there still is a market for the wooden boxes but the pillmakers have given up trying to get them."

Tomorrow, you and I will take an intimate glimpse or two of New Scotland township, the only Helderberg town remaining to be explored for this series.

Tomorrow: New Scotland. ALBANY, N. Y., FRIDAY, OCTOBER 16, 1936 Above, the planes used to produce shavings of basswood. On the right are some of the shavings, along the moulds or "gripes." Extreme right, the dye for cutting out the oval tops and bottoms of the boxes.

Implements and materials used in the making of wooden pill boxes at Knox. Now a lost art, the tools probably will be given to some museum.

Mrs. Carrie Quay sits at the special table she once used in making wooden pill boxes and demonstrates for the camera how the now lost art and industry was carried on.

Elmer Quay, left, and his son, Millard M. Quay displaying the glue pot and a plane used in pill box' manufacture at Knox.

Albany Evening News Photos