The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 14, Issue 7 (October 2, 1939)
New Zealand Industries Series
New Zealand Industries Series
No. 8. Home Utilities.
The coming arrival of our hundredth birthday has focussed attention on the past. One aspect of our story is often overlooked, and it is perhaps the one most worth recalling. Very few of our forebears lacked the ability to write, and they filled lengthy letters with all the intimate details of the daily round. We have a clearer picture of the pioneering life of New Zealand in its first two or three decades than has endured from any colonisation in history.
The housewife of those far-off days had to be an inventor in her own way, for the make-shifts, expedients, and things to “make do,” were numbered by the hundred.
The home-made broom of manuka or rope-ends, boot-blacking of tallow and soot, candles made in moulds from farm-produced tallow, wooden bowls and containers hastily hacked out of the rough, and countless other ingenious substitutes, gave the woman of the house plenty of scope for activity from day to day. The flint and steel were still in use.
To-day, huge modern factory plants, manned by New Zealanders, are making brushes, brooms, matches, earthenware, and such articles as boot and furniture polish in vast quantities. The following article describes, briefly, four establishments of which any highly industrialised country in the Northern Hemisphere could be proud.
The high tower of Bryant and May's match factory, in Wellington, is a familiar sight from all parts of the capital city. In fine weather passers-by can see from Tory Street the gay crowds playing tennis, or sitting in the sun in the big playground. Virginia creeper, with the usual speed of New Zealand growth, has invested the office building with an air of age. The industry, in any case, has been established for many years. The British firm of R. Bell and Co., came to New Zealand in 1894, and the worldwide amalgamation with Bryant and May took place in 1910. After various changes of situation, the noble building in Tory Street was erected, to hold place for many years as the most up-to-date industrial unit of its kind in New Zealand.
It is strange to learn that the first “Lucifer,” sold about 1830 in England, had a similar composition to our present safety match, chlorate of potash mixed with a little inflammable material. The name was apt, for they were evil-smelling, wayward articles, the foundations of hundreds of platform jokes bearing a family resemblance to the ones about the patent petrol lighter in “Alf's Button.”
The “strike anywhere” match, made from phosphorus, came a little later. It lasted until early in the 20th century, and its awful reputation was well earned. The factory workers were exposed to “fossy jaw” and other forms of phosphorus poisoning, and the matches themselves ignited so easily that a busy rat could burn down a warehouse, and a careless small boy lose his life by sampling them.
The modern wax vesta is practically as safe as the wooden variety. The heads are now made of sesqui-sulphide of phosphorus, non-poisonous and just as efficient as the original element.
Match-making machinery is the most imposing that I have encountered. I understand that its intricacy, size, and huge cost account for the fact that the industry is in few hands the world over.
Wooden matches were first manufactured in New Zealand in 1933. The floor devoted to this branch is full of romantic sights after the H. G. Wells model. I first looked at the “skillets” which come from Lithuania in flat, round bundles, rather like large sponge cakes.
The tree of “the trembling leaf,” the aspen, is the only satisfactory timber for the making of matches, being light, white and easily lit. An endeavour is being made to grow the aspen in New Zealand, and Scotland is also being tried out.
This blanket machine stretches nearly the full width of the great building and at the “end of the road” an operative stands, watching with bright eyes, for “duds” which are deftly removed from the slow-moving blanket wall.
On the wax vesta floor, the story is rather different. Here, the whole width of the spacious floor is flanked at one end by what appear to be two stupendous cotton reels, and in between them are floating hundreds of white threads. These are immersed in the wax (which comes out as “stearine”), and thereupon the wax vesta thread, looking like snow-white string, is ready for heading.
Roller knives cut the long threads into the right lengths, and the process then becomes similar to that of the wooden safety. The steel network handles and heads the little white wax sticks in the same way as it manages the wooden skillets. However, the most interesting entertainment in this vast room is the making of “plaids.”
Long white, blue, and plaid ribbons of paper, wind in over an angle. Their surfaces are all gummed, and as they join up, the plaid cylinder emerges complete in a long never-ending tube, soon to be neatly chopped into the familiar size. The topping process is also ingenious, and the making of “slides” is a small industry by itself.
Bryant and May also make their own tins, carry their own precision toolmakers, and in fact “do the whole job.”
The factory itself is a model in every way, the interior living up in every way to the impressive exterior. One of our pictures shows the lunch-room which really is a superb hall with provision for concert and club work.
The main surprise to me was the airy and roomy nature of the departmental floors. Everything is spotless, there are no crowded work-benches, and there seem to be acres of space. To avoid monotony in the daily round, many of the girls have half-hour changes of occupation. Any preconceived ideas about “match factories” are destroyed by the first glance at this place of lofty roofs, pleasant conditions and homely atmosphere. The New Zealander is the best match consumer in the world, and the habit is a good one, amounting to striking hard for a really worth-while New Zealand industry.
Long years ago, I remember a bread crock which had been my grandmother's prize possession for many a decade. It had no duplicate for many miles round.
On the small sailing ships of those days, earthenware represented a bulky and risky article of transport. The potter's wheel is, of course, almost as old as time, and we can go behind even Omar Khayyam to find verse about this form of craftsmanship. In Colombo Street, Christchurch, the wheel has been turning for far more than half a century. It can still be found at work there, in the midst of a maze of modern machinery. New Zealand has a wide range of the best clays, and, for once, any criticism that raw materials have to be imported falls down completely. “Luke Adams, Pottery Manufacturer,” is the modest sign showing the site of an industrial unit that has been in active operation for nearly sixty years. The founder learned the art in England, and with three sons, set up in business in New Zealand in 1881. The display room is well worth a visit; every conceivable type of stone and earthen ware is here in all the colours of the rainbow; butter jars, cream crocks, fancy table vases, bird baths, fountains, garden vases, jam jars, and so on in bewildering varieties of designs that vary from the severity of modern outlines to forms of decorative complexity.
The modern portion of the Luke Adams establishment deals mostly with elements for electric stoves and other mechanisms. The output of these annually runs into large figures. The porcelain fire-clay of which these are made is the result of long research and experiment, and “Perfeclay” has established a splendid reputation.
Hours could be spent in this New Zealand pottery where the whole unit amounts to a pictorial history of modern industrial progress, and points the moral that, in manufacturing, many simple basic principles are still in force. In 1886, the firm of Luke Adams gained a handsome certificate of merit at the Indian and Colonial Exhibition, and also a silver medal presented by His Majesty King Edward VII.
Here everything coming from clay, from the familiar red flower-pot to the intricate electrical element, is made by New Zealand craftsmen from New Zealand ingredients. By the way, the hot-plates, coil holders, radiator cones and other electrical requisites, are stamped out by die-presses, exactly as if the material were metal instead of clay.
But one motto remains: “You Can't Hurry Clay.”
Lastly, the firm of Luke Adams is a notable instance of the second generation of skill, scientific knowledge and unswerving devotion to “making the best.”
While in the South Island, I had a half day at the “Nugget” factory. The picturesque place is a well-known landmark on the main road to Sumner, and the building has an air of its own. There are tennis courts and other recreational facilities for the employees, for the history of this company shows that it has had a tradition of social service from its very early beginnings in old England. On the walls of the Christchurch manager's office are pictures of the offices at Chiswick, looking more like a handsome Spanish dwelling, and even the tall chimneys are masked as clock towers of delightfully harmonious designs, chiming with the town and country-side architecture.
More interesting still was Boston House, an old-world mansion now used as the club house for the women workers. In addition, there are playing fields, dental rooms, gymnasiums, rest rooms, and club rooms. The house magazine is a de luxe publication of thirty-two pages covering a wide range of activities, and it reads rather like the monthly paper of a good provincial capital.
The Christchurch establishment is full of news. Who knows, for instance, that there are about twenty ingredients in shoe polish, or that wax is the foundation of “Nugget”?
I have left Bunting's brushware factory to the last. It is one of the most impressive modern establishments in New Zealand, and a journey through it is an exciting and heartwarming experience.
Away back in 1875, a brushmaker, Mr. James Miller, trained in Aberdeen, left his homeland to find out what New Zealand had to offer. In 1879 he was making and selling brushes, and this was the beginning of the great undertaking that now keeps more than two hundred New Zealanders in useful work, and produces goods of world parity in quality and cost. To-day there are about thirty employees who have more than twenty years’ service, and Mr. Woolf has over half a century to his credit.
It would take a week to make the full tour of this great place with its wide range of diversified operations and its fascinating batteries of machines with varying attributes and uncanny efficiency, many of them originals, planned and made by New Zealand precision engineers.
For the layman, brush-making is charged with astonishing discoveries. The bristles of which most good brushes are made come from two countries, China and Russia. When the bristles are shed, they are gathered by hand and sorted into bunches of similar lengths. The longest are, of course, the most valuable, and at Bunting's I was shown quite a small box of the best bristles worth hundreds of pounds. There is real trouble just now, owing to the introduction of European pigs into both countries for fattening strains, reducing the bristlegrowing to a side line. Pigs never suffer from anthrax, so bristles are wholly safe. Buntings use twelve tons in one year.
Another surprise was to discover that camel hair has nothing to do with the ship of the desert; it comes from one species of Russian squirrel. There are three bristle colours, white, black, and grey. Nearly every country in the world contributes its quota of other materials for brush-making at Bunting's. Fibres of various types come from India, Mexico, the South American countries, Egypt, and elsewhere. One third of the horsehair used is obtained in New Zealand.
I watched the ordinary paint brush being made. Here the bristle is doubled over, stapled with an effective device, fast into the wood, on the locknit principle, and then vulcanised in rubber, making the seating absolutely rigid and safely set. I have never realised how many different sorts of paint brushes there were, from the paperhanger's brush to the almost square stippling brush, the flat varnish brush to the short-handled tar-brush.
Uncanny selecting mechanisms mix the hard and soft bristles, and another set with gauzy cylinders pick out the hairs, blunt end first, which have come the wrong way round. The homely scrubbing brush depends on Mexico whence the “white fibre” comes. It is the product of the “istle” palm, and is treated very like our native flax. The principle of making is the same–the fibre is looped double and securely clamped into the wooden frame. Plump cousins of the everyday “scrubber” are the “ship's clamp” and the “butcher's block.”
The coarser brooms and brushes are made from “bass” or “bassine,” which comes from the Palmyra palm leaf of Ceylon. Then there are Bahia Bass and African Bass which are of better quality. Buntings also make feather dusters, which consist of ostrich feathers, ingeniously fixed into holders. There is a fascinating room where yardbrooms are made by hand, by craftsmen of long standing. I should mention that the whole factory is clear of dust, extractors being at work everywhere.
Naturally, a large department is devoted to making the wooden parts of brushes, from the utilitarian handle of a stable broom to the satinwood polished back of a lady's hair-brush. A great area is devoted to wood-turning crammed with every species of machinery for handling and fashioning shapes from timber. The beech or page 14 birch tree is the standard producer, and our New Zealand bush enters into the picture. In Canterbury also, Buntings bought a whole plantation of English trees, but, of course, there naturally are many precious woods such as cocobolo, ebony and satinwood. I was impressed by the number of processes required to make a shaving brush, at which Buntings are masters. Here, timber is deserted for aluminium, or bone sockets. The fact that timber is the mainstay, however, of brushmaking, brings in such side-lines as rolling-pins and bellows.
The show-room at Bunting's is a liberal education in the complex needs of modern usage. There seem to be as many brushes as there are stars in the sky, and Buntings make all of them. Here, I found, as in so many New Zealand factories, that the “heads” are continually going abroad to note the latest improvements in methods of manufacturing and the last developments in machinery designs. Numerous trips have been made by Messrs. Bunting and Woolf, West and Connall, and this Christchurch unit is abreast of the world in the modernity of its plant and production systems.
There are ample provisions for the comfort of employees, and I was once more encouraged to real warmth of admiration at the numerous instances of special New Zealand initiative and adaptability in the creation of special mechanical devices to meet special New Zealand conditions.
Throughout New Zealand manufacturing industries, there is ample evidence that the qualities developed in the difficult days of yore are still in full strength.
An imposing array of home utilities comes from these four great New Zealand institutions. They meet the distinctive requirements of New Zealand citizens with full local knowledge.
It is good to think that you can brush your New Zealand-made shoes with a New Zealand-made brush, using New Zealand-made boot-polish. You light your New Zealand-made cigarette with a Wellington-made match and put the dead match into an earthenware ash-tray, made in Christchurch.
This quartette of factories forms one more proof that New Zealand industry is on the march.