Bangkok Post

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

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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.

 ??  ?? Paula Kirby, left, and Matthew Quigley, cousins and own­ers of Plax­all, at their com­pany’s build­ing in New York.
Paula Kirby, left, and Matthew Quigley, cousins and own­ers of Plax­all, at their com­pany’s build­ing in New York.
 ??  ?? BE­LOW
The Plax­all fac­tory in New York. Nor­mally, the com­pany pro­duces med­i­cal waste dis­posal con­tain­ers, dessert trays and form-fit­ting pack­ag­ing for per­fume and liquor bot­tles.
BE­LOW The Plax­all fac­tory in New York. Nor­mally, the com­pany pro­duces med­i­cal waste dis­posal con­tain­ers, dessert trays and form-fit­ting pack­ag­ing for per­fume and liquor bot­tles.
 ?? PHO­TOS: BEN­JAMIN NOOR­MAN/THE NEW YORK TIMES ?? RIGHT
World War II-era model planes made by Plax­all to help civil­ians spot en­emy air­craft, at the com­pany’s build­ing in New York.
PHO­TOS: BEN­JAMIN NOOR­MAN/THE NEW YORK TIMES RIGHT World War II-era model planes made by Plax­all to help civil­ians spot en­emy air­craft, at the com­pany’s build­ing in New York.
 ??  ?? A tele­gram in­struct­ing Plax­all to not speak about their work pro­duc­ing items dur­ing World War II.
A tele­gram in­struct­ing Plax­all to not speak about their work pro­duc­ing items dur­ing World War II.

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