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The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 14, Issue 3 (June 1, 1939)


It is the custom of scientists who explore the misty past to divide the periods of man's development into ages—the Stone Age, the Bronze Age, the Iron Age, and so on. It might be competent for an antiquarian, a thousand years hence, to call our age the Tin Age.

If a visitor from Mars, for instance, dropped in, he would discover articles of tin everywhere from kitchens to best rooms in the houses, scattered everywhere throughout the shops, industrial edifices, and even in the halls of learning.

It is a commonplace for travellers in Australia to remark on the ubiquity of the kerosene or petrol tin. It is put to a picturesque variety of uses which range from the half tin milk bucket, with the improvised handles, to the vegetable carry-all, or for roofing material. The benzine tin was a gift from the gods for the resourceful outback pioneer who soon “made it do.”

I think readers will be as astonished as I was, to find that here in New Zealand, we make tins, containers of every kind and sort, from the exquisitely coloured face-powder box to the milk can, from the four gallon petrol tin to the gay toy watering can. The industry is of the first magnitude, employing more than a four-figure total. It is, in its present New Zealand form, a modern enterprise conducted on up-to-date lines.

A positive world revolution was brought about by the method of packing goods in tin containers. Tin is remarkable for its extraordinary power of resisting corrosion. It was known to the early Romans, and was one of the reasons for their interest in Britain. It was a constituent part of all the early bronzes, and altogether is one of the most useful metals known to mankind. Then, when it was found practicable to coat thin sheets of iron with tin, the “Age of Tin” began.

To-day, therefore, nearly every one of the myriads of things we have learned to need for our well-being, are packed in tins, or as the Americans call them, cans.

An idea is current in some quarters that articles packed in tins, especially food articles, in some way suffer a fall in use values. However, the tin-packing method is so universal that proper investigation upon this point became necessary, and all countries have participated in the movement. As the sets of conclusions evince—conclusions that were reached some years ago in England by a committee of eminent medical men, acting for the New Health Society—the results have been remarkable. They found as scientific fact that: canned apples were equal in vitamin C to the
Fixing tops and bottoms for petrol tins. Adriance machine at Gadsden's, Petone.

Fixing tops and bottoms for petrol tins. Adriance machine at Gadsden's, Petone.

fresh fruit; that canned peas were richer in vitamins than orange juice; canned spinach was found to be the richest food in vitamin A with the exception of cod-liver oil; and that properly canned fruit gave practically all the dietetic advantages of the fresh fruit, and was superior in all respects to kitchen-cooked juice.

The present day scene of the use of this new transport medium is as fascinating as a fairy tale. Face powder from France, caviare from Russia, salmon from Alaska, tobacco from Turkey or Virginia, tamales from Mexico, toheroas from New Zealand, paint from Belgium, sardines from Norway, and mustard from England, cross the wide oceans in tins, to reach customers thousands of miles away.

I am looking forward to the day when New Zealand tinned asparagus or peaches will be a prized delicacy in Florida and will reach there in tins of our own making.

Packing has become one of the world's greatest industries, and its most used medium is the container made of tin plate.

The development of tin-making and tin-printing has been on a spectacular scale. For reasons of space, I can only deal with the two leading major units of this great industry. In them, however, is a fine panorama of New Zealand enterprise, soundly based, and as is always the case with anything rightly founded, it furnishes an example of sound, logical and steady growth.

Something over seventy years ago, in 1866 to be exact, a strolling visitor might have seen outside a shop in Durham Street, Auckland, a modest sign, reading, “Alex Harvey, Tinsmith.”

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Conveyer Bench Staff at work at Gadsden's, Wellington.

Conveyer Bench Staff at work at Gadsden's, Wellington.

Inside were four employees, who were busy making cans for farmers, for there was an idea abroad that dairying might grow into something worthwhile.

From this unpretentious beginning grew the giant organisations of Alex. Harvey & Sons Ltd., and New Zealand Canisters Ltd., employing well over 600 New Zealanders, and producing every type of tin container, as well as a wide range of other articles, including commercial refrigerating plants, strainers, and for good measure—all the varieties of porcelain enamelling.

I say at once, with a sense of responsibility and after due enquiry, that this New Zealand institution has a plant and equipment equal to anything in the world. In one respect, I have it on the word of a prominent Australian, who as usual is not deficient in patriotism, that “Harvey's tin-printing has no equal anywhere in the world.”

It is, moreover, true that the Harvey 25-gallon seamless milk can is the only one of its kind in the world.

There are four main Harvey establishments, three in Auckland, and one in Wellington.

The tin-making and tin-printing factories are apart, and they represent widely different and distinctive processes. In these modern times, the printing precedes the actual formation of the canister or container, and so I went to the printing unit first.

I should point out here that the word “tin” or “can” includes a variety of objects in to-day's commercial practice.

It may mean an oval, ornamental tin box, a plain cylinder, an elaborate edifice with as many angles as the Taj Mahal, or a plain rectangle to carry “the makings.” All of these involve intricate processes in tinging and more or less elaborate lettering or picture-making.

We started off in the designing room where artists are at work, translating business ideas into beauty of form, just as in any colour process printing establishment. This is a well-lit room and here the sketch is first of all drawn on a stone.

Each colour is drawn separately, all, however, fitting into the “Key,” so that when the printing is being carried out, all the colours will fit exactly into the finished picture. A separate printing plate is made for each colour, and the actual printing itself is done on the offset principle. The tin sheet itself never touches the plate, and the impress is taken from a rubber blanket carrying the design and colour.

Tin-printing machine in operation at Alex. Harvey's Ltd., Auckland.

Tin-printing machine in operation at Alex. Harvey's Ltd., Auckland.

I found that the most fascinating spectacle in all these great rooms were the automatic tunnel ovens. Only one colour can be printed at a time, and each sheet, carrying the one-tinted design, travels the whole length of this hooded drying journey, with graded temperatures all the way.

A most ingenious rotating conveyer bears the plates along and gathers them up. It looks rather like the spanking machine in the old Annual from Coles’ Book Arcade.

It is attended by young ladies who have leisure for a page or two of a favourite book in between their times of activity.

The glowing colours are all set now, and the next process is that of varnishing. This is again followed by pilgrimages of the plates through the long series of baking and drying ovens. I should explain that one sheet very often carries two or three dozen designs in colour. Of course the most meticulous care has to be taken over measurements. If a colour is a sixty-fourth of an inch out, the result will be deplorable.

Similarly, the outside measurements of the design must be absolutely exact or the horror will befall that the tin will not fit.

I am accustomed to colour process work, and I found it astonishing that here in New Zealand, colour printing was being done on tin, with the same precision and brilliance as on the front page of “The Railways Magazine.”

All sorts of notable illustrations figure on Harvey tins. If I were pressed for a selection, I would choose “Ajax,” which is a colour print of a horse equal to anything on any billiard room wall of a best club.

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Drying ovens for tin colour-printing sheets at Alex. Harvey & Sons Ltd., Auckland.

Drying ovens for tin colour-printing sheets at Alex. Harvey & Sons Ltd., Auckland.

Then there was a Marquise picture, looking as if it were a hand-painted miniature done by one of the superfine artists of the court of Louis XIV. But possibly, brightest and best was a gaily coloured sand bucket with nursery rhyme figures which would send any holiday-making youngster into ecstasy.

My next trip was the lengthy journey through the various floors of the tin-making works. Here the solid part of the task is performed. I went from stage to stage, from die-making in a department filled with precision engineers, to the last quaint die-press which stamps out or presses out the screw top and the screw cap of an oil tin.

Die-making is an art in itself. Here, precision engineering reaches its highest manifestation, and even the “stop and go” gauges are not precise enough. We stroll into a shop and purchase a tin of tobacco, or honey, or a queerly-shaped container of comfits. All these have been stamped out of tin by dies fashioned and perfected by New Zealand precision engineers.

In Harvey's great Auckland works, the presses stand in serried rows, operating dies that are almost countless in their bewildering variety of shape and purpose. A piece of flat tin turns in, guided in some mysterious mechanical fashion.

The operative pulls a lever, and a magic change has taken place. The oblong of tin has taken on features; it has rolled edges, or it has lost its corners, or it has neatly punched locking holes.

The processes become intelligible as one passes down the lines of smiling faces. I would like to say here, that never once, in the course of my casual journeys through this vast establishment, did I see a worried face nor anybody who seemed to be under pressure. Where there is equipment of this degree of modernity, the racking toil and the fatigue are transferred to the shoulders of faithful but inanimate mechanical devices.

However, I was determined, if possible, to understand how a flat piece of this tin-plate became transformed into a honey, or tobacco tin. It was as engrossing as a good picture show.

The sheets of tinplate are first dealt with by two uncanny mechanisms called the First and Second Operation Slitter. These divide the sheet into the exact sizes required, and having done their work, the notching machine nicks the four corners and the rolling machine turns it into an incomplete cylinder. Next comes the lock-seaming, a most ingenious operation which acts almost like the locknit stitch in a fabric, and seals the cylinder absolutely.

Then the top and the bottom of the tin are turned over, or to use the factory term, they are “flanged.” Then another actor enters—the “double-seamer,” which, in two operations,
Exterior view of J. Gadsden & Co. Ltd., modern factory at Petone, Wellington.

Exterior view of J. Gadsden & Co. Ltd., modern factory at Petone, Wellington.

forces in the top and bottom with the extreme pressure with which the seam is rolled. In addition, a lining compound goes in which is dried out by heat. This filling goes in between the metal surfaces of the seam, practically meaning that a rubber band or gasket filling finally prohibits any possible chance of leakage.

You must remember that all these processes apply with the necessary variations to tin plates which are covered with brightly coloured designs.

Harvey's show window is an exhibition of all the colours of the spectrum. Articles which come from Europe, Asia or America, are actually packed in Harvey's tins; and I am certain that most purchasers think the lovely containers are also art objects fashioned in far-off lands.

It is amazing to find exotic tale powders, a wide variety of tobaccos and all sorts of odd foreign articles, enclosed in Auckland-made canisters. The designs have been drawn, the colour printing done, and the fancy shapes of the tins themselves all made by New Zealanders in a New Zealand factory.

There are other facts in the history of Alex Harvey & Sons which are worth the telling. Here the first seamless milk-can in any British Dominion was made in 1912.

I recommend a visit to this marvellous institution for any New Zealander who still believes in the myth that “New Zealand cannot compete with the marvellous mass production plants of the older lands.”

In the handsome King's Drive factory, there is the last word in modernity of equipment, and features which are not only abreast but ahead of the rest of the world in this particular activity. Here is produced the modern New page 12 page 13 Zealand dairy-milk-can, with a surface as smooth as glass, quite seamless—a masterpiece in cleanliness, durability, and strength.

Associated with this line of work, there developed also the making of vats, strainers, and stainless steel utensils for a wide variety of uses. Moreover, commercial refrigerating plants are being produced, and the intricate processes of porcelain enamelling are carried on. The oven is worth seeing where, at a temperature of 1,500 degrees Fahrenheit, the porcelain is fused into the metal. As I write, the Wellington factory is being enlarged. This great New Zealand firm is going to make the tubes for tooth-paste. This is a new departure altogether for New Zealand industry, and is another step taken by this typical pioneer family in New Zealand industry.

My next visit with my friend of the camera was to the factory of J. Gadsden & Co. Ltd. at Petone. This firm has also large establishments at Christchurch and Auckland.

The Petone unit is one of those modern buildings where the walls seem to be mainly made of glass. There is a general atmosphere of airiness and light. Here again was the universal smile. Here again, also, the place was in the throes of expansion and consequent reconstruction.

One comforting and distinctive feature of Gadsden's factory was the preponderance of male labour. Another distinguishing feature was the mountain of petrol tins.

They were here to the roof in thousands in all their shining silver glory, and I saw them being made. Here were biscuit tins with their characteristic round openings, and I had explained to me facts about the varying sizes of the apertures in oil tins. Fastrunning liquids were accommodated with small holes and slow running with large. An interesting sight was a species of miniature forge where there was carried on a ceaseless tempering of tiny hatches, used for the outpouring of four-gallon petrol tins, and their continual soldering processes.

We took a picture of the Adriance machine which puts the tops and bottoms into petrol tins in such a fashion that leaks are impossible. This mechanical marvel is unique in New Zealand.

Amazing figures are lightly mentioned by the foreman; tins at the rate of 23,000 per day and so on. We also inspected an elongated affair of complex design which makes a tin in one series of operations, and turns out such tins, as those used for tongues, at the rate of seventy-eight per minute.

I need not repeat the general processes which I covered fully before in the works of Alex. Harvey & Sons. Gadsdens Ltd. are growing, and here again I was pleased to see that all the dies for their array of presses are made in New Zealand by a local firm of precision tool-makers.

It is to be remembered that the expansion of these factories is inevitable. Many new goods are being packed in New Zealand, and the majority of this approaching horde of food, medical, toilet and other articles will use the tried and proven medium of the tin container.

Our New Zealand manufacturing plants can match, in every particular, any container made hitherto, overseas. In many cases they can surpass the rest of the world in certain points of construction and appearance. This branch of New Zealand industry, under its present leadership, is one of the vital factors in the onward march of our country's industrial forces.