pillboxes put knox on the 19th century map
By Alice Begley
The story about a little-known and unique industry in one of our neighboring communities took place two centuries ago. The most important industry for the town of Knox was pillbox manufacturing.
In 1806, Nathan Crary invented and organized the art of pillbox making, and Knox and basswood pillboxes became synonymous.
A small booklet with an article by the late Arthur Quay describes the process of making the smooth and shiny boxes by hand. It was absolutely necessary to have an excellent quality of basswood trees to make Crary's product. Knox's countryside was affluent in them.
There were six modest factories in the town and many individual homes that carried on different phases of the pillbox design. Much of the work was done by town women and girls. Sometimes whole families had some part of the operation for which they were paid from three to seven cents per hundred.
The outdoor work of splitting the special basswoods was performed by the men. After the wood was split, it was sawed by hand into blocks and cured.
Shavings, 'knows as "windings", formed the sides of the boxes and heavier shavings called "stamps" were used to make the tops and bottoms of the boxes. These were all cut by hand by the men.
Later, horsepower intervened with a horse-drawn "sweep" attached to a circular framework on which heavy gears were fastened. A young boy, perhaps 10 or 12 years old, received 25 cents to keep the horse going steadily around for one half-day.
Completed boxes were packed in "tierces" that held 10,000 boxes, which sold for $3.50 The average produced by one pair of hands in a day was 1,600 to 1,800 boxes.
Workers were paid a shilling for 400 boxes. One boy could stamp 30,000 box tops or bottoms in a day and be paid $1.50.
The pillboxes were used for various "cure-alls." Different medicinal remedies held in the small Knox treasures were: Sherman's Cathartic Lozenges, Doctor Ingoldby's vegetable extract, Jones's vegetable pills, Dr. Newton's jaundice bitters or Elixir of Health.
Quay's article continues, "To realize how primitive life was then, imagine the town of Knox 100 years ago, heavily wooded with narrow dirt roads filled with stones over which wagon wheels would slide down steep ascents and declines. Squeaky brakes would be applied and you would step aside to let a hay-rick rumble by, piled to the ridge pole with tierces filled with wooden pill boxes on their way to the ferry boat in Rensselaer and down to the Hudson. It was pioneer days and a pioneer industry."
The invention of machinery that turns out glass vials and tin boxes, and the increasing scarcity of basswood trees were the causes for the decline of this historic industry. Today, we give little thought to the decorated plastic, glass, and tin containers in which we carry our aspirin, vitamins and other assorted prescribed medications.
But our neighboring town of Knox can be applauded for pioneering the beginning of today's receptacles that hold the pills that keep us well and healthy.
Image from Sesquicentennial booklet of the Knox Historical Society
Image fromSesquicentennial booklet of the Knox Historical Society
Image from Sesquicentennial booklet of the Knox Historical Society Nathan Crary was born in 1784. When he was 22, in 1806, he founded the pillbox industry in Knox. He died in 1866, at the age of 82.