Updated 28-III-2020

St.Louis Olive Street

The Olive Street works was the first location of lamp manufacturing in the city of St.Louis. It was founded in 1899 by the Columbia Incandescent Lamp Company, which was taken over by the National Electric Lamp Company in 1901. In 1902 the new owners relocated production to the considerably larger Locust Street Works. In 1911 National was fully absorbed into General Electric, which once again moved production to the still larger Etzel Street Works, where lampmaking was to remain for a further 96 years until 2007.

Columbia Incandescent Lamp Co. Building, viewed in 2019 11

Address Columbia Incandescent Lamp Co., 1912-1914 Olive Street, St.Louis, Missouri, U.S.A.
Location 38.63156°N, -90.20774°E
Opened 1899.
Closed 1902.
Products Miniature incandescent lamps.

Company Origins
The Columbia Incandescent Lamp Company was founded in St.Louis in 1889, initially to specialise in the manufacture of miniature incandescent lamps. At the time such lamps were very labour intensive to produce and sold at a dollar each, but following improvements in the manufacturing process, Columbia was able to sell them at 16 or 18 cents a piece. They found applications in medical and surgical lighting, as well as decorative home use.

Various documents dated between 1890 and 1894 cite the company address as 1912-1914 Olive Street in St.Louis. The present building at that site and pictured above is rather small, however the amount of floorspace required for miniature lamp production is not great. As detailed below it is known that production relocated in 1902, and although it is presumed that the Olive Street works was therefore in production during the period 1889-1902, no documentary evidence has been found to confirm this for the period 1894-1902.

The company was owned half by J. H. Rhotehamel, and half by the Garrisons.

The Edison Litigation
The Columbia Incandescent Lampworks survived a very difficult period at the beginning of the 1890s, when the newly-formed General Electric began rigorously enforcing its patents on the Edison incandescent lamp. The resulting litigation put a large number of its competitors out of business, but the Columbia lampworks just managed to survive.

In its defence the company argued that the Edison patents had been anticipated by the German scientist Heinrich Goebel, who claimed to have produced incandescent lamps to illuminate the window of his New York shop as early as 1857. However Goebel did not further exploit his idea, and his lamps were certainly plagued by numerous technical problems. The Goebel defence had been tried without success by other lamp manufacturers, but remarkably in the Columbia case, the judge refused to grant an injunction. Columbia was given time to build its defence and prove prior art, and during the course of that period the basic Edison patents expired. By default Columbia thereby escaped further action.

Absorption into National Lamp Company
Despite having escaped closure under the Edison litigation, life continued to become increasingly difficult for the small and independent lamp manufacturers. GE held a near-monopoly over the American lamps business, and its enormous investments in lamp research along with the development of improved production machines allowed it to make a better lamp and undercut its competitors on costs.

The struggles of the independents was a frequent topic of discussion among the leaders of these companies. Many had invested in the lamp industry at a time when the market was booming, selling prices were high, and the technology was so rudimentary that almost anyone could easily set up in the business of lampmaking. That scenario was fast disappearing as new and better lamps came on the market, which delivered better performance but also required a sound understanding of their scientific principles along with major investments in research. As such many individuals were considering an exit from the industry, to focus on other areas where it was easier to earn a profit.

Two men took a different approach - Franklin Terry of Chicago's Sunbeam Lamp Company, and Burton Tremaine of Ohio's Fostoria Lamp Company. Together they considered that if many of the small competitors would join forces, they could centralise all research into a single central laboratory, and provide that service far more cost-effectively than any one company could afford on its own. As such these two men formed the National Electric Lamp Company in 1901 to amalgamate their businesses, and join forces with six others. One of those that sold out to the new National holding company was the Columbia Incandescent Lamp Company of St.Louis.

The relatively early absorption of Columbia by National can perhaps be better understood by considering the ownership of the company at the time. Originally the enterprise was owned jointly by J.H. Rhotehamel and the Garrisons. When Rhotahamel died his share was acquired by his widow, Ann E. Rhotehamel, on 10th December 1898. Some time later, she sold a number of shares to her brother, William E. Rex, who had been executor of the will of J. H. Rhotehamel. Their older brother also owned one or two shares and served as secretary of the company. It appears that J. H. Rhotehamel was the driving force of the company and perhaps also its founder - he published extensive articles concerning the company's business and its lamps in the electrical trade magazines. The Garrisons meanwhile appear to have taken more of a financial role - much to the disgust of Ann Rhotehamel and William Rex who later discovered that the Garrisons were drawing handsome salaries for themselves as sole remaining officers of the company. Ann Rhotehamel pleaded to take a position on the board such that she might also draw similar benefits from her shareholding, which was resisted and resulted in conflict and a lawsuit. It is clear that following J. H. Rhotehamel's death the company was no longer under a harmonious leadership.

Prior to the closing of the December 1901 lawsuit to settle these outstanding matters, Columbia had already been acquired by the National holding company. Mr. William Garrison remained in the employ of the company as its President until his death in 1904. Following the investments made by National and the return of the factory to a stronger position, in 1902 it relocated to improved new premises a few blocks away, at the Locust Street Lamp Works.

References & Bibliography
  1. The Incandescent Electric Lamp 1880-1925, E.J. Covington, NELA Press, 1998 p.33.
  2. Decision of the Columbia Incandescent Lamp Suit, Electrical World, Vol.21 No.17, April 9 1893, pp.311-313.
  3. J.H. Rhotehamel, President of the Columbia Incandescent Lamp Co., Electrical World, Vol.21 No.17, April 9 1893, pp.313-314.
  4. Envelope of Columbia Incandescent Lamp Co., citing address at 1912-1914 Olive Street, St.Louis, 1893.
  5. Advertisement of Columbia Incandescent Lamp Co., The Electrical Worker, Vol.1 No.5, p.2, May 1893, citing address at 1912-1914 Olive Street.
  6. Advertisement of Columbia Incandescent Lamp Co., The Electrical Worker, Vol.1 No.6, p.2, June 1893, citing address at 1912-1914 Olive Street.
  7. Advertisement of Columbia Incandescent Lamp Co., The Western Electrician Vol.XIII No.4 29th July 1893, p.xi.
  8. Letterhead of Columbia Incandescent Lamp Co., 13th January 1894, citing address at 1912-1914 Olive Street, St.Louis.
  9. Joseph V. Vastine vs William S. Rex et al., St. Louis Court of Appeals, 17th December 1901.
  10. Death of Mr. W. O. Garrison, The St.Louis Repulic, 18th January 1894.
  11. Google Earth Streetview image, 2019.