Updated 28-III-2020

St.Louis Etzel Street

The St.Louis Lamp Plant of General Electric was opened in 1911, and quickly grew to become one of GE's most important incandescent lamp production facilities. It came very close to achieving a century of production, but fell just short of this goal and was closed in February 2007 soon after having celebrated its 95th Anniversary.

GE St.Louis Lamp Plant after closure, in 2019 6

Address GE St.Louis Lamp Plant #3442, 6251 Etzel Ave, Wellston, St.Louis, Missouri, MO-63133, U.S.A.
Location 38.6666°N, -90.2968°E
Opened 1911.
Closed 28th February 2007.
Products General service incandescent lamps.

Origins of Lampmaking in St.Louis
The Wellston plant was not the first production facility for electric lamps in St.Louis. That history can be traced back two decades earlier to its predecessor, the Columbia Incandescent Lamp Company, which had been founded in 1889 with a factory on Olive Street. That small independent lampmaker was absorbed in 1901 by the National Electric Lamp Company, which relocated production in 1902 to a new factory on Locust Street.

National had been founded by Franklin Terry and Burton Tremaine to amalgamate a number of the smaller companies, such that they could pool their resources and better compete against the giant General Electric. Remarkably GE held a majority shareholding in National with the option to increase its shareholding to 100%, and favoured absorbing the small competitors into that group so as to in fact exert its control over them, while avoiding the perception that it was acquiring a monopoly position that would cause it to fall foul of antitrust laws.

This guise was continued until 1911, when the US Government took legal action against GE and forced the company to end its anticompetitive practices. GE was ordered to fully take over its National Lamp subsidiary and merge those operations with its own business. The factory was and relocated again into the new St.Louis Lamp Works under the operation of National. The new building was designed by The Austin Company, and bears a striking visiual similarity to other National / GE works of that era.

In that same year the group of National companies were re-named 'National Quality Lamp Divison of General Electric Company', and operated alongside the 'Edison Lamp Division of General Electric Company'. In 1914 it was re-named again to 'National Lamp Works of General Electric Company'. Many of the brand names of the absorbed companies continued during this period, Columbia having remained on the market until around 1923-24. The small brands were finally phased out in 1925 when GE completed the merger of National and Edison to form the 'Incandescent Lamp Department of General Electric Company'.

Survival of the 1980s
Following the absorption of National into GE, the St.Louis Lamp Works was successfully operated for many more decades. It grew to become one of GE's largest incandescent lamp production facilities.

The 1980s marked a painful period in the history of GE's lighting operations. The company had invested heavily in the previous years to create state-of-the-art manufaturing operations, and the new equipment and manufacturing processes left it with considerable overcapacity. In parallel, the American lampmakers were facing increased competition from overseas and lamp prices were falling. Above all, GE cited rising imports of low cost lamps from Taiwan, as well as from the Hungarian state lampmaker which had begun an aggressive attack on the US lighting market via its 'Action Tungsram' brand of low-cost lamps. General Electric's 'Lighting Leadership Plan' was unveiled to resecure the company's position in the north American lighting business, and on the 7th June 1983 it was announced that 10 of the company's 42 lamp plants would close by the first quarter of 1985 - including St.Louis, which was scheduled for closure slightly later in 1986.

At the beginning of the 1980s, St.Louis employed about 750 people and was producing 1.4 million general service incandescent lamps per day. The output per capita was considerably lower than elsewhere and the plant was declining in the face of increased competition. At the time of the announcement the workforce had reduced to about 465, and the remaining crew as well as the managers took it upon themselves to prove to GE that they could turn around the plant's reputation and increase productivity in a bid to survive.

Remarkably the results were sufficiently impressive that GE executives decided to postpone the planned closure, and then in 1987 announced that the employees efforts had been so significant that the plant would remain open. The other nine factories had meanwhile been closed down. St. Louis continued to drive up productivity, and by 1996 the factory was producing 1.9 million lamps per day with just 350 staff.

Final Closure
Just a few years later in 1990, GE took over the former state-run Hungarian company Tungsram, in what then marked the largest ever investment of a Western company in a former Eastern-European country. This marked the first step of GE Lighting's globalisation of its business, and while this succinctly solved the company's exposure to the threat of low-cost imports, it was to drastically change the fortunes of its own American factories. GE poured vast investments into its new Hungarian operations so as to further reduce costs there while also building on the experience of its American facilities to dramatically increase the performance and quality of the low-cost Hungarian lamps.

At first the low-cost Hungarian lamps were primarily sold throughout Europe and helped GE raise its market share in that territory, where it had traditionally been weak. Following a decade of success in Europe, in early 2005 GE began significantly ramping up the import of cheap Hungarian-made lamps into the Americas. This put its original American factories under greatly increased levels of competition, and production had to be regularly scaled back as the local operations declined.

Later in 2005, GE announced that as part of the restructuring of its American lampmaking operations. St.Louis would be closed in 2008. However such was the rate of decline that this was brought forward to 2007.

In September 2006 the factory held an open day celebration of its 95th Anniversary, and employees were given a special commemorative lamp to mark the impressively long history. Production finally ceased on 11th February 2007. Three of the fastest lines were relocated to the surviving Winchester Lamp Plant, and much of the rest of the production was moved to Monterrey Lamp Plant in Mexico which offered the promise of low labour costs that could compete with the Hungarian Tungsram operations.

St.Louis National Mazda Dispensary Factory Closure, 28th Feb 2007 5 Aerial View, 2004 6 Aerial View, 2018 6

References & Bibliography
  1. The Incandescent Electric Lamp 1880-1925, E.J. Covington, NELA Press, 1998 p.33.
  2. GE will close Wellston Light Bulb Plant - its Oldest in US, Gregory Cancelada, St.Louis Post Express, 24th February 2007, p.A43.>
  3. Bright to Work 51 Years on the Job - She's the Queen of Light Bulbs, Theresa Tighe, St.Louis Post-Express, 14th June 1996.
  4. Bright Idea Keeps Lightbulb Plant Open, Margaret Gillerman, St.Louis Post-Dispatch, 23rd January 1988, p.3.
  5. General Electric to Close Oldest Light Bulb Plant in US, UPI News Archive.
  6. Google Earth satellite and street views.