The humble factory with an atomic secret
Those trays that macarons come in? Plaxall makes them. But since the pandemic, it has pivoted to medical face shields. It’s not the first time the family business has done its patriotic duty
The meeting was later revealed to be a design confab for the Manhattan Project, the governmentled initiative that led to the construction of the world’s first atomic bomb.
It’s rare these days to be a small and successful manufacturer in New York City. And perhaps even rarer for a family-owned business to shift its operations several times in moments of national need — including participating in a mysterious, top-secret military contract that redefined modern warfare.
Plaxall, a family-owned plastics packaging company, has been operating out of a factory in an industrial stretch of Long Island City, Queens, for 70 years. Normally, it produces medical waste-disposal containers, dessert trays and form-fitting packaging for perfume and liquor bottles. But during the shortage of personal protective equipment, Plaxall started producing medical face shields. Since April, 100,000 shields have been made.
“Over the years, we’ve had many people ask us why we keep manufacturing in New York City,” said Matthew Quigley, one of the three cousins who help run Plaxall. When this public health crisis happened, he said that they thought, “Maybe this is the reason we held out for so long. This is our moment, again.”
Mr Quigley was referring to the fact that his grandfather, an engineer named Louis Pfohl and Plaxall’s founder, was known for applying his skills in unique ways, especially during national emergencies, some of them more clandestine than others.
During World War II, Pfohl ran an industrial design firm in Manhattan called Design Center Inc. The federal government approached him about making plastic replicas of American, German, Russian and Japanese planes so civilians and military personnel would have a better chance of identifying them during air raids. He also made plastic globes that fighter pilots would use to plot out flight courses during training.
Family members do not know how many plastic planes their grandfather made, or how widely they were distributed. But many of them recall playing with the planes when they were children in Forest Hills, Queens, according to Tony Pfohl, one of the three Plaxall cousins involved with the company.
The pressure-formed plastic spheres that were used by the pilots likely became a prototype for a Christmas ornament. After the war, gold and silver ornaments that resembled the flight training globes could be spotted on the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree from the 1940s to the 1960s, said Paula Kirby, another cousin and company leader.
Like many of the city’s small companies, Design Center Inc played a big role in the nation’s wartime manufacturing effort, said Kenneth Jackson, a professor of history and social sciences at Columbia University.
Although the Brooklyn Navy Yard and Todd Shipyards in Red Hook constructed and repaired warships, many other goods were made by smaller manufacturers, including Brooks Brothers, whose workers sewed thousands of military uniforms, and Pfizer, which boosted its penicillin production, said Mr Jackson, also the author of the book, WWII & NYC.
“It’s remarkable that a small plastics manufacturer has survived in the city for this long and finds itself having the capability to help out yet again,” Mr Jackson said.
It should be noted that part of Plaxall’s success is its diversified portfolio. Upon his arrival in Long Island City in 1950, Louis Pfohl began to invest in local real estate. His family’s holdings now include close to 92,900 sqm. (The family also stood to make significant financial gains had Amazon decided to build its next headquarters in western Queens.)
Before he died in 1986, Louis Pfohl, who was also a plane spotter, would participate in one final wartime act. And this one, according to the Plaxall cousins, involved a bit of intrigue.
In the summer of 1944, Pfohl got a call from someone in the government, inviting him to come up to Buffalo, New York. There, he gathered around a big table with “army men and scientists,” he told The New York Herald Tribune in August 1945.
The meeting was later revealed to be a design confab for the Manhattan Project, the government-led initiative that led to the construction of the world’s first atomic bomb.
Mr Quigley recalled hearing about “two men in suits” visiting his grandfather, who told the men he couldn’t make what was requested because he didn’t have the proper machinery.
“A few days later, these two, huge lathe machines showed up at the factory door,” Mr Quigley recalled.
Recently, the Plaxall cousins dug up old letters and telegrams from the company archives, which are mostly kept in a dusty old backroom off the catwalk above the factory floor. Some outline the dimensions of the pilot training globe. Many documents are from Fredric Flader Inc, an engineering firm in Buffalo that was contracted to work on the Manhattan Project and which hired Louis Pfohl as a subcontractor.
One letter was accompanied with a sketch of the item Pfohl had been tasked with making for the top-secret project: a five-sided pyramidal cone. A telegram from Fredric Flader later asked for Pfohl’s discretion: “Loose talk and idle speculations by persons now or formerly connected with the project jeopardise the security of the nation and must be controlled.”
The lathe machines that showed up on Pfohl’s doorstep are stored in the basement machine shop, a throwback to another era. Amid the metal shavings on the wood block floor (which absorbs vibration and helps cushion the blow of dropped metal tools), workers continue to find parts and machines, decades old, which help shape modern plastic products today.