Rose M. Knox
Information compiled by ECSHA member Betty Cleary
The City of Johnstown, New York is very fortunate to count among its noted citizens a gracious and generous lady named, Rose Markward Knox. Numerous artifacts in Johnstown attest to the lasting influence of the Knox family, including the city’s Junior High School, Knox Field for sporting events, memorial chimes at the Presbyterian Church, and elderly care at the Willing Helpers Home. To say that Rose Knox left a meaningful and lasting legacy to Johnstown is an understatement and explains why she is often referred to as the “Grand Old Lady of Johnstown”.
Born November 18, 1857 in Mansfield, Ohio, Rose came to Gloversville in the late 1870’s. She worked in the local glove industry placing silk stitches on the backs of gloves from her home. She met the very dashing Charles Knox at a local dance. The couple was married on February 15, 1883 and left for a wedding trip to New York City. After the ceremony, Mrs. Knox commented that “the reason we went to New York was to get some expense money, for all Mr. Knox had in his pockets when we were married was $11.00 and our train tickets.”
The young couple settled in Newark, New Jersey where Mr. Knox became one of the highest paid salesmen and was known as one of the “Big Four”, a moniker given to the four leading commercial salesmen plying their line of knit goods in the country. The marriage was a partnership right from the start as Mr. Knox would always discuss business affairs with his wife. Rose was given a fixed allowance to run the household and as he prospered, the amount increased. Anything she saved was hers and if Mr. Knox borrowed from this fund, it was treated as a business transaction which would have to be repaid. With systematic frugality, Rose was able to accumulate $5,000.
Wanting financial independence, the Knox family decided to take Rose’s savings and strike out for themselves by purchasing a discontinued gelatine business in Johnstown. At this time housewives would make their own gelatine by cooking the shinbones of cows for long hours until they fell apart, then straining the liquid, recooking it and finally clarifying it with egg whites. Only special occasions such as weddings justified such effort when a large shimmering mold of colored, sweetened jelly was produced. Knox seized upon the plan to create a product that was granulated and convenient for easy mixing thus becoming the world’s leading manufacturer of unflavored gelatine.
Until their new home at 104 Second Avenue in Johnstown was built in 1898, the couple lived at 120 South Melcher Street. The Knox home, “Rose Hill”, was one of the most elegant homes in the city. A huge neo-classic yellow clapboard house with massive pillars which supported a heavy orange tile roof. Adjacent to the main house was a well-appointed carriage barn and stables appointed to resemble the main residence.
Mr. & Mrs. Knox had three children: a daughter, Helen, who died in infancy, a son, Charles M. Knox who died after reaching manhood and another son, James E. Knox, who after completing his education, joined the Knox staff at the plant in 1913.
Rose was an avid cook and developed many recipes in her own kitchen using gelatine. Ever determined to help the fledgling business, she elected to promote the family business by writing a cookbook. During an interview for the New York Herald Tribune in 1937, Mrs. Knox said, “I spent all that first summer writing out my own favorite gelatine recipes for him (her husband). I thought I had a tremendous number of them, but when the book came out, it was so tiny I almost shed tears. I still remember that awful moment.”
In the ensuing years, Rose did create more gelatine recipes and in 1896 her recipe book, “Dainty Desserts for Dainty People” was printed. Her recipe books were a staple give away item in grocery stores and the use of gelatine became very popular. Many of her recipes appeared in newspapers and magazines under the heading “Mrs. Knox says….”
By 1908 Charles Knox had amassed a very profitable business collective which included the manufacture of Spim Soap, Ointment and Tonic, a small hardware store and a power company, plus being known as the largest manufacturer of unflavored gelatine in the world. Thus he contemplated retirement and thought that the purchase of a local newspaper, The Morning Herald, would be a good hobby. First he decided to take his two sons on a fishing trip to his club,” Laurentian on Lac la Peche” in Canada. As they started for home, he did not feel well and the rough roads to Montreal exhausted him. When he arrived in Montreal, he put the boys on a train to Saratoga and arranged for them to be met. Meanwhile, he went to the Royal Victoria Hospital where a heart condition was discovered. He died on June 17, 1908.
Rose was devastated by the loss of her husband of 25 years, and had to deal with the grief of her children plus consider the pressing problems of the Knox businesses. Friends advised her to “sell everything or find a manager, etc.” Reflecting on her decision to retain the business, Rose said, “I either had to run the business myself or employ a manager. If I did the latter, I figured that by the time my boys came of age the business would belong to the manager.” After considerable thought she decided to take over the reins of the gelatine firm.
The first day that Rose sat behind her husband’s desk she issued a statement that the back door to the plant would be closed permanently. “We are all ladies and gentlemen working together here,” she announced, and we’ll all come in through the front door.” Before the first day was over, she had also politely “requested” the resignation of one of her husband’s top administrative executives who admitted to her that he absolutely would not work for a woman. This was the only complaint she ever had about being “bossed” by a woman.
It was unthinkable in 1908 for a woman to be active in business, so Rose sent black-bordered cards to all her husband’s customers and associates announcing his death and stating that their son, Charles, would takeover the business. In truth, Charles was still in school and fifty year old Rose ran the business. One of the first things Mrs. Knox did when she stepped into her husband’s shoes was to order the brass plate on the steam boiler to be polished. As she stated “There’s nothing here too small to be clean.”
Rose completely revamped her husband’s sales campaign emphasizing high nutrition at a low cost, sanitary production conditions and new recipes for convenient, appealing dishes. To invent and test these new recipes, she established experimental kitchens to find new uses for gelatine in business and medicine. In the 1920’s the Knox Company produced the first pharmaceutical gelatine, used mainly to encapsulate vitamins and medication. These were the first “gel caps”. Likewise a “plasma extender” was used in an intravenous solution as a blood plasma substitute during World War II.
Labor relations were a primary concern for Mrs. Knox and in 1913 she instituted a five-day work week along with two weeks’ paid vacation a year and paid sick leave. This was a pioneering move, but one that helped her garner the support and loyalty of her employees. Throughout the Great Depression, she cut costs and achieved her goal of not having to lay off any employees. During the years of the Great Depression, Knox Gelatine grew at a rate of five percent per year which was no easy feat in those desperate years. Many of the “old timers” retired on pensions with eighty five of these employees having been with the company for 25 years or longer.
In 1915 Mrs. Knox incorporated her business for $300,000, which was raised to $1,000,000 in 1925. Rose’s son, Charles entered the business when he finished school, but he died within a few years. Mrs. Knox remained President until she was compelled by illness to make her other son, James, President of the company in 1947.
Johnstown was always uppermost in the thoughts of Rose Knox, and she is remembered as the “City’s leading benefactor” as evidenced by her many acts of generosity. In 1907 Mr. & Mrs. Knox purchased the old Livingston Mansion at 226 West Madison Avenue and presented it to the “Willing Helpers’ Missionary Society” of the First Presbyterian Church to be used as a home for aged women. Mrs. Knox served as President of the Board of Managers for the rest of her life.
In 1913 Rose Knox gave $3,000 to the Johnstown YMCA for their swimming pool and also made a gift to the congregation of the African Methodist Episcopal Church for their Sunday school room. In 1914 she donated the bells which are in the bell tower of St. Anthony’s Church in Johnstown. Memorial chimes were presented to the First Presbyterian Church in memory of Charles B. Knox and his son Charles M. Knox at a very impressive Easter morning service, March 27, 1921.
Restoration of the baronial mansion of Sir William Johnson, Superintendent of Indian Affairs in colonial times was inspired by Mrs. Knox. After many years of hard work and with the assistance of outside friends - the ladies of the Aldine Society, the handsome statue of Sir William Johnson was presented to the City at the entrance to the park leading to Johnson’s Baronial Home
Perhaps her most generous gift to the community was Knox Athletic Field. This large tract of land comprised three city Blocks, about 15 acres in all, was purchased for $18,000 by the Board of Education in the name of the City of Johnstown on October 15, 1927. Mrs. Knox donated over $200,000 to construct and completely equip the field with a clubhouse, stadium and playground for the young children. At the formal dedication on October 1, 1930, Mrs. Knox was presented with a black leather bound autograph album containing the signatures of every school child in the city, plus all teachers and officials totaling over 2,000 names.
The new Junior High School, located on the northwest corner of Knox Field, was completed in 1933 and was named in honor of Mrs. Rose M. Knox who made a substantial gift to the new school in the form of a school library comprising almost 2,000 volumes. Starting in June 1934 each graduate from the Junior High School was presented with a rose from Mrs. Knox immediately following receipt of their diploma.
When Mrs. Knox celebrated her 80th birthday, she summed up her philosophy of life, “I don’t suppose I have what you would call a philosophy of life or any special theory of business. I haven’t even one of the new-fashioned religions. I am just an old-fashioned Presbyterian. All I’ve had to guide me is just plain common sense and in dealing with people, I’ve always tried to remember that molasses catches more flies than vinegar.” She also told the reporter during the interview: “Every woman, if forced to, can do more than she ever thought she could. In running my business, I just used common sense - a man would call it “horse sense”. And again, looking back over her mistakes, Mrs. Knox concluded: “He who stumbles twice over the same stone, deserves to break his neck”.
Mrs. Knox received many honors during her lifetime. In 1918 she was named by a prominent national magazine as one of the country’s “most successful business women”. In September 1922, Pictorial Review carried an article which stated that next to Jane Addams, the name of Mrs. Charles B. Knox appeared most frequently on the list of prominent American women. An Award in 1937 listed Mrs. Knox as the woman who had contributed most to American business by the New York State Federation of Business and Professional Women. In 1950 the weekly “Cavalcade of America” broadcast presented a story on her life with screen star, Miss Virginia Bruce, starring in the leading role.
By 1947 Mrs. Knox found it progressively more difficult to continue work at the plant due to her arthritis, and she turned over the Presidency of the company to her son, James. While she retained the title, “Chairman of the Board”, she carried on her duties from her office at home. She signed all the checks, worked on advertising copy and campaigns, and invented new recipes. Both Rose Knox and James Knox were held in high esteem by their employees due to their very personal treatment of employees. They never had a time clock, as they fully believed in their motto: “live and let live”. A bronze tablet hung on the office wall presented by all the employees read “Happiness Headquarters. Presented to Mrs. Charles B. Knox and her son, James E. Knox by their Business associates at Happiness Headquarters where their ever kindly interest in the welfare of others makes life worth living.”
On her 90th birthday, 62 employees at the Charles B. Knox Gelatine Company joined in the birthday celebration by enjoying a “day off”. Their gift to her, as usual, was a large bouquet of roses. At her birthday party that evening, she granted an interview to a representative of the Leader Republican, a hometown newspaper, and again she summed up her personal philosophy. “My life has been made up of sunshine and shadows, but the glory of work in the home and out of the home has had a very interesting side and has helped to keep me young. Age, itself, does not mean so much as the way you take it, particularly as you journey down life’s highway and those great, big milestones loom up ahead of you. It is simply a matter of looking at them from their sunny side. I have always tried to keep in touch with life in general, and I am deeply interested in my own home city and all its civic affairs. In counting my blessings, I have much to be thankful for. I am very proud of the fact that, in addition to being the mother of a dear, good son, I am the grandmother of five and the great-grandmother of four, as well.”
Mrs. Knox passed away quietly on September 28, 1950 at her home on Second Avenue in Johnstown. Her funeral was held on September 30th in the First Presbyterian Church with Rev. Raymond A. Ketchledge officiating and her body was placed in the family mausoleum of the Johnstown Cemetery.
At the time of her death, at the age of 92, she was still serving as Chairman of the Board of Directors. She was succeeded by her son, James E. Knox, as Chairman of the Board and her grandson, John B. Knox who became President.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton Hometown Association
P.O. Box 753
Johnstown, NY 12095-0753