Updated 08-XII-2019

Bridgeville Glass Plant

General Electric's Bridgeville Glass Plant was one of the companys's principal manufacturers of lighting glass, which remained in production for an impressive 99 years. It achieved several notable firsts, such as being the first factory in the world to produce machine-drawn glass tubing, an essential component on which the modern lamp industry was built. Several times during its history the site was closed down and then re-opened as its situation changed, but production finally came to a close in 2017 following the gradual obsolescence of the lamps requring the kinds of glass made at Bridgeville.

Aerial View of GE Bridgeville Glass Plant just after closure, 2018

Address GE Bridgveville Glass Plant #7644, 540 Mayer Street, Bridgeville, Allegheny, Pennsylvania 15017, U.S.A.
Location 40.3645°N, -80.1036°E.
Opened December 1918.
Closed August 2017.
Floorspace Unknown
Products Glass Tubing

Start of Operations
The origins of glassmaking at this site can be traced back to its founding by Orlando J. W. Higbee and R.G. West, who founded the J. B. Higbee company in June 1907. The company was named after Orlando's father, who had died the preceding December but had been involved in the planning of the new company. This was one of five firms that were convinced to build their plants on a tract of land that was owned by C. P. Mayer's Bridgeville Land Improvement Company, along the Pennsylvania Railroad just north of Bridgeville. The glassworks occupied an area of 8.5 acres in Collier Township, Allegheny County.

The Bridgeville plant was the successor of an earlier enterprise, the Homestead Glassworks, which had been opened in 1879 by Bryce, Higbee & Company to manufacture pressed glass tableware in the nearby town of Homestead. Following extensive flood damage in March 1907 that company was dissolved, and the moveable parts were transferred to establish the new venture in Bridgeville. The old site was sold in 1908 to Carnegie Steel.

Although at this time the present-day technique of continous glassmaking in large tank furnaces had already been pioneered, that sometimes suffered quality defects in the early days. As a result Higbee opted to build the new factory around the traditional pot furnace techique. The first glass was fused in October 1907, and the company resumed production of glass tableware.

A year later the company introduced its famous Higbee logo, consisting of the letters H I G inscribed on a bumblebee. The quality of its tableware quickly rose to acclaim and even today this so-called 'bee-marked' glassware remains highly desirable among collectors.

The company soon grew, and in 1909 two additional pot furnaces were built, which provided employment for an extra 100 employees and doubled the size of the workforce.

By 1912 significant further expansion had been achieved, then running 22 pots served by 12 furnaces, and operating around the clock in three shifts. This sudden growth was in a large part achieved thanks to the invention of the Higbee Sanitary Vacuum Thermos Bottle, for which the company was granted many patents.

Operations came to a sudden halt in 1918 when the factory was closed down, following financial difficulties that had been encountered during World War I. The founder, Orlando Higbee, died aged just 44 years in 1919.

Acquisition by General Electric
In December 1918 the factory was sold to the Lamp Department of General Electric, which had been searching for a new glass production site for some time. This was due to the drying up of natural gas supplies in Fostoria, Ohio, which had previously been home to the bulk of GE's glass tube production. Bridgeville meanwhile was said to possess 'unlimited' reserves of natural gas.

At the time of re-opening the plant was established with two 12-pot furnaces, to take over the production of Fostoria Glass. The glass was ladled from the pots to the working area where it was drawn into tubing entirely by hand.

History was made that same year, when GE installed the worlds first Danner Machines for the automatic drawing of glass tubing. This new process not only slashed the cost of glass tubing by eliminating a large part of the human labour required in its production, it also delivered an enormous improvement in the consistency of the glass diameter and wall thickness. This innovation meant that the machine-drawn tubing could be processed into lamp sub-assemblies on other automated machines with constant fire settings - the variability of the earlier hand-drawn tubing had required constant attention and changes in lampmaking processes. This innovation is one of the key developments that reduced the cost of electric lamps and allowed the production capacity and efficiency of the lamp factories to be tremendously increased.

For many years Bridgeville was GE's sole glass plant for the production of machine-drawn tubing, and demand grew rapidly. In particular during the later 1920s glass tubing was not only required in large volumes for the lamp industry, but for the recently emerging radio tube business. Already by 1928 there were an estimated 12 million radio sets in the United States, each of which contained on average 7 tubes and a third of those requiring annual replacement. As the radio industry boomed even the nation's principal glassmaker, Corning, could not keep up with demand and for a time GE's Bridgeville Glass Plant was filled to its own capacity by producing additional tubing for Corning. The lamp industry was also growing rapidly and in the 1930s GE built additional glass plants to meet demand. However when the Great Depression then struck, the company was quickly left with overcapacity which required a sudden scaling back in production. This led to the closure of Bridgeville in 1935, with its production being absorbed by GE's Niles Glass Plant.

The Fluorescent Era
Bridgeville was saved from a premature death thanks to one of GE's principal inventions of the later 1930s - the fluorescent lamp. Until that time glass tubing had only been required in relatively small volumes, for small tubular internal lamp components and electronic tubes. Of course some incandescent lamps also employed tubular bulbs, but they were primarily for niche applications and the demand was not great.

The fluorescent lamp changed this situation completely, because the main body of the lamp itself is fabricated from glass tubing. Moreover, the tube is of much larger diameter than the glass tubing that was generally available up to that point.

The first tubing for fluorescent lamps was in fact drawn at the Niles Glass Plant, but even by 1938 that facility could not keep up with demand. That year Bridgeville was tentatively re-opened with one furnace and a skeleton crew to cover what was expected to be a temporary surge in demand - nobody at GE foresaw the monstrous boom in volume that was triggered in the fluorescent business. Bridgeville was quickly running at full capacity again, and such was the rate of growth in fluorescent that GE had to open three additional glass tubing plants at Jackson (MI) in 1940, Bucyrus (OH) in 1941, and Logan (OH) in 1948.

Special Glasses
Jackson and Bucyrus were in fact combined glass and fluorescent lamp plants and they produced the high volume standard glass tubes, while Bridgeville gradually became the factory that handled the special fluorescent glass types, such as blacklight and germicidal tubing. Alongside these its other main core business was the drawing of lead-alkali-silicate tubing for lamp components and miniature bulbs. However even this was no small operation. The scale of its production is illustrated by the fact that Bridgeville Glass maintained its own fleet of three railway trains for the supply of raw materials and distribution of the finished products. A stretch of the Pacific & West Virginia and the Pennsylvania Railroad tracks came right into the GE plant along the small 'Chartiers Branch' railroad siding.

A major investment was made in 1972 when GE poured 7,000 into a state of the art new environmental filtering system, which trapped about 96% of the particulate matter arising from the manufacture of lead glass.

Another of Bridgeville's special grades was an aluminosilicate glass tube having a very high softening temperature, and a uniquely low hydroxyl ion concentration. During the 1970s Sylvania discovered a technique to allow tungsten halogen lamps to be manufactured from this glass, which was considerably cheaper than the quartz and Vycor materials then available. It also allowed lampmaking machinery to be driven much faster, achieving a further cost reduction. This glass became especially popular for automotive halogen headlamps, and as those began to grow in popularity during the late 1970s and early 80s Bridgeville became one of the few global suppliers of this glass - along with Corning in the USA, and Schott in Germany. The GE aluminosilicate glass was of particularly stable quality and many lampmakers around the world, even GE's competitors, ran their hardglass halogen production on Bridgeville tubing.

In December 2014 the plant celebrated its 95th Anniversary as a GE production facility. It succeeded to outlive many of GE's later glass plants, and at that time was still producing about 4 million pounds of glass per year, which found its way into just about every single GE glass lamp. The plant maintained a 3 shift system operating every day of the year, with 62 part time and just four full-time employees.

Decline & Closure
Just as it seemed that the Bridgeville Glass Plant would achieve an impressive 100 years operating as a GE plant, major changes in the lighting industry led to the sudden obsolescence of its key products.

The lead glass tubing that used to account for the bulk of its production was outlawed in many countries, and GE's own production of incandescent lamps using this glass was rapidly declining due to competition from imported compact fluorescent lamps. Demand for its aluminosilicate tubing was also dwinding as the automotive industry migrated from halogen to high intensity discharge and LED-based headlights. Similar changes in general lighting witnessed a move away from halogen PAR-type lamps which also used aluminosilicate tubing, these also being replaced by discharge and LED-based lights.

By 2016 the Bridgeville Glass Plant was operating at 80% below its designed capacity. Such a situation can very rapidly lead to the death of a glass plant, whose production cannot simply be turned on and off because the furnaces must run continuously. The resulting drop in capacity but without a parallel drop in operating and labour costs can quickly drive up the price of the resulting glass until it is no longer economically viable to remain open. No level of cost-saving in production could counter this - the only way out for this factory would have been to invest in making a completely different product, which the company of course could not commit to.

At the end of 2016 it was announced that the plant would be closed the following year. Production finally drew to a close on 11th August 2017 shortly before its 99th anniversary, with the loss of the final 60 jobs. GE announced that it would prepare the site for sale, which sprawls over nearly 10 acres and was estimated to have a land value of $ 1.84 million.

J.B. Higbee Factory, 1907 2 Factory staff, early 1900's 7 Glass & Silica behind site, 1977 8 Front Building, 2017 11
Aerial View, 2015 12 Aerial View of Front, 2018 12 Aerial View of Rear, 2018 12

Glass Products
1980 - US
Glass Products
1990 - US
Lead Silicate Tubing
1980 - US
Aluminosilicate Tubing
1979 - US
Aluminosilicate Tubing
1992 - US
Blacklight Tubing & Bulbs
1994 - US

References & Bibliography
  1. Bridgeville Area Historical Society Meeting, John F. Oyler, 10th August 2001.
  2. Images of America : Bridgeville, John F. Oyler, Bridgeville Area Historical Society, publ. Arcadia Publishing, 2010, p.
  3. Glasshouses & Glass Manufacturers of the Pittsburgh Region, J.W. Hawkins, p.263-265.
  4. A Century of Light, James A. Cox, published by The Benjamin Company / Rutgers, 1979, ISBN 0-87502-062-3, pp.138, 140-141.
  5. The Generations of Corning, Davis Dyer & Daniel Gross, publ. Oxford University Press, 2001, pp.134-135.
  6. GE Bridgeville Air Emission Control, Commerce Today, 4th September 1972 p.19.
  7. GE Bridgeville Glass Plant Celebrates 95 Years, Alex Felser, Trib Total Media, 24th December 2014.
  8. Chartiers Railroad Branch Remembered, Kevin Trichtinger.
  9. GE to Close Bridgeville Lighting Glass Plant, Jim Spezialetti, Trib Total Media, 18th August 2016.
  10. GE Lighting Glass Plant to Close, Glass Paint Website, 24th September 2016.
  11. GE selling shuttered lighting plant in Bridgeville area for nearly 100 years, Suzanne Elliott, Trib Total Media, 3rd October 2017.
  12. Google Earth Satellite View.