Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Vanished Makers: Snell-Jones Manufacturing Company, Brockton, Massachusetts & New York City

I have a drawer-full of small containers in my shop that I can dig through when I need to store some small tool or part.  Last week I re-discovered this plastic bottle:


In faint white letters, the bottle also proclaims, "Snell-Jones Mfg. Co."

I can't find out any information on the history of the company, other than it was out of Brockton, Massachusetts and New York City, New York.  (Below, from the web):





In the absence of any other information, I am left to surmise that it was started by two people named Snell and Jones. The "Presto" trademark was first registered in 1940. The company's trademarks were assigned to the American Tack Co., Inc. around 1965, apparently as a result of a merger.  The American Tack Company itself dates back to 1937, eventually becoming one of the largest supplier of thumb tacks and decorative furniture nails in the U.S.  It eventually morphed into the American Tack & Hardware Company, headquartered in the Flatiron Building in New York City.  In 2004, it became AmerTac, repositioned as a "decorative home accent company" out of Saddle River, New Jersey. Somewhere along the line, the Snell-Jones identity and Presto trademark disappeared.

I was curious about the meaning of the phrase "sterilized tacks" on the bottle, and a google search led me to the website of the D.B. Gurney Company.  

This company bills itself as the oldest manufacturer of speciality cut tacks and nails in the world.  Founded by David Gurney in Abington, Massachusetts in 1825, the company used both horse- and water-power to make tacks by hand and by a machine that Gurney had invented in 1821.  Back in the day, a tackmaker could make about 5,000 tacks a day by hand.  In 1865, the company moved to what is now Whitman, Mass., and adopted the then new technology of steam power.  The company made hobnails for boots during the American Civil War, produced tacks for Fisher Body, Hudston Motor Car, Ford Motor Company and General Motors (a full pound of tacks were used in each early automobile), provided Admiral Byrd with products during his antarctic expeditions, and tacks for the moon boots of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin during the 1969 lunar landing.  The company remains in family hands, still making the same product and in many cases using the same machines.  Their website states:
"Beware of Imitators.  
Long ago there were many well-known tack factories across the United States.  Over the past several decades we  have watched them all, one by one, close their doors.  Looking on the World Wide Web you would not know this.  Atlas Tack Company formerly of Fairhaven, MA stopped producing cut tacks and nails in the 1960s.  W.W. Cross Company formerly of Jaffrey, NH stopped production in 1993.  Holland Manufacturing formerly of Baltimore, MD closed in approximately 2002.  If you are purchasing tacks from these companies they are either really old or imported tacks repacked and passed off as domestic.  D. B. Gurney Company is the only remaining cut tack and nail manufacturer in the United States still producing products for a variety of specialty trades such as Upholstery, Shoe Repair, Canoe Builders, Basketry, etc."  
"D.B. Gurney Company’s tacks and nails are made predominantly for such specialized crafts as the upholstery trade, restoration, shoemaking and repair, basket manufacturing, trunk manufacturing, as well as boat and canoe construction – all skilled trades fight extinction."

Their history page is worth a visit.  Among other things, I learned that the now ubiquitous thumb tack was not invented until 1900! Also, tacks are measured in 1/16" (so a 1/2" tack is officially 8/16"), whereas nails are measured in 1/8".  Tack sizes are listed in ounces, which refers not to the weight of the box, but to the thickness of the leather that the tack is designed to cinch.  

Oh, as for "sterilized tacks, they state:  "The term “sterilized” is exactly what it says; the heat treatment uses such a high temperature that it burns off any residue from processing, leaving a clean product." 

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