Wellsboro Glass Historical Association

History of Glass Production in Wellsboro PA

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Edison Light Bulb Patent

Thomas Edison (reprinted by the Norris Peters Co.), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The light bulb

Between 1878 and 1880, Thomas Edison and his associates worked on at least three thousand different theories to develop an efficient incandescent bulb for home use. Edison even had a glass blowing shed set up to make all the fragile bulbs needed for these experiments. In January 1879, Edison built his first successful light bulb. However, it only burned for a few hours. Edison and his team continued experimenting with different materials for filaments until 1880, when Edison patented his “New Type Edison Lamp.” This light bulb design has changed very little over 100 years.

Wellsboro’s industrial glass history dates back to at least 1886 when the Wellsboro Glass Company (later Columbia Window Glass Works) operated a local glass making facility on Jackson Street. Glass for window panes was hand blown into large cylinders, which were then scored and unrolled into a large slab. Finally, this flattened glass sheet was cut into individual window panes.

The glass works on Jackson Street was initially successful, but after some management mishaps, the plant was abandoned and sat idle from 1909 to 1916. Recognizing the country’s increasing need for light bulbs, Corning Glass Works’ desire to expand, and the town’s need to fill this empty factory, a group of Wellsboro businessmen led by Claude Bennett approached Corning Glass Works to propose the idea of expanding their production into northern PA. This was the start of the Wellsboro Chamber of Commerce. It was a win-win-win proposition that Corning agreed to. The old factory was refurbished, the furnace reignited, and on November 16, 1916 CGW began producing hand-blown light bulb blanks and glass tubing.

making glass by hand

At this time, the factory centered on a huge furnace filled with molten glass that had 13 openings for teams of glass workers. Twelve were used for creating light bulb blanks, and the thirteenth was used to draw long glass tubes for holding gunpowder. To make a bulb blank, a gather of glass would be pulled out using a giant ladle. Then the head glass worker, called a gaffer, would use a gaffer’s pole to blow air into the glass and begin shaping a light bulb blank.

The factory was almost an overnight success. Between 1916 and 1920, the factory grew from 100 to 650 employees. This was partly due to hugely increased demand for electric light, and partly because of the inability to get glass from Germany since World War I was raging in Europe. Another aspect of the factory’s success was the character of the local people. According to Dr. Eugene C. Sullivan, former Corning president and honorary chairman of the board, “…the helpfulness and general character of the people of Wellsboro and vicinity soon convinced us that our choice of this good borough was no mistake. The production of these ‘boys’ who had no experience with glass was always better than that of experienced glass workers… This was mostly because they had no preconceived notions on why something could not be done.”

Image of Billy Woods blowing a glass light bulb

Photo of “Billy Woods in the CGW hand bulb shop – 1899” from History of Wellsboro Pennsylvania Plant published by Corning Incorporated, 1966

Photo from Life in Wellsboro 1880-1920 by Gale Largey

the ingenious billy woods

William J. “Billy” Woods was hired as the first plant manager for the new Corning Glass Works satellite location in Wellsboro in 1916. Billy quickly proved himself to be a hard worker and quick learner. In less than five years, the plant had expanded to include a second melting tank.

Billy Woods is seen here in the plant (in back, facing the camera) circa 1920 supervising the production of light bulbs on the semi-automated Empire or “E” machines. Twenty such machines were stationed around the tanks. These machines still required 3 workers each and plenty of manual labor to hand gather the glass and monitor the molds and bellows. There was one annealing oven for every two machines. Inspectors at this time were women.

The ever-observant and creative Woods was able to streamline operations and train his workers to maximize their efficiency until they were producing approximately 4,000 bulbs in each 8-hour shift. But Billy Woods was just getting started. He later invented the ribbon machine which revolutionized the glass blowing industry.

the ribbon machine - a mechanical marvel

A local glass working legend tells that Billy Woods had a “lightbulb” moment one day in 1921 when he saw an old shovel with a bit of molten glass dripping through a hole in the middle. (This process is similar to the ancient technique for creating thin strands of glass called “vitrigraph,” which may have actually been Woods’ inspiration.) To Woods, this glass dripping through the metal looked just like a lightbulb blank waiting for a puff of air. He imagined the molten glass laid down on a metal plate, and then sagging through a hole in the plate. The sagging glass could be surrounded by a mold to shape it, and then expanded with a puff of air. Billy further imagined these metal plates hinged together in a long chain. If a stream of molten glass could be poured over these moving plates, with bellows supplying puffs of air from the top, bulb production could be entirely automated.

Corning executives were skeptical, but gave Woods an old vacant building in Corning and the assistance of one of their top mechanical engineers, David Grey to develop a prototype. They worked on the machine in secret until it was unveiled in 1925. Corning chose to install this mechanical marvel in their Wellsboro plant. They had to close the factory for a little over a year in order to upgrade the furnace and install the ribbon machine. Many employees worked in Corning during this time.

light bulb

Each Ribbon Machine is over 50 feet long, 18 feet tall, and weighs 22 tons!

innovations and impacts

In 1928 a hydrochloric acid bath was invented to “frost” the inside of lightbulbs. This technique took two years to perfect. It created a softer, diffuse light. The technology would come in handy when the factory’s product line expanded in the coming decades.

The Corning Glass Works factory in Wellsboro had an impact on jobs across northern Pennsylvania, with a series of interconnected businesses. Materials were delivered on the rail line and by Taynton’s trucking company.

Light bulb blanks were made at the factory in Wellsboro, then they were shipped west on Route 6 to Galeton where the filaments were assembled and added. The partially completed bulbs were shipped west on Route 6 again to Emporium where the bases were added.

This Pennsylvania proud product was then shipped all over the country to light homes and businesses.

The CGW factory also had a massive economic impact on Wellsboro. It provided steady income and benefits to hundreds of local employees, who were then able to support other local businesses with their hard-earned paychecks. Harold “Campy” Campbell, chief inspector, stated “Corning’s decision to settle in Wellsboro has stabilized the economy here and everybody has benefited. A major share of our big payroll each week is spent right here in Wellsboro.”

In the 1930s, because of the astounding success of the ribbon machine, Corning’s previous F Machines (which had replaced the earlier E Machines) were all retired. A new tap-off system was invented that reduced breakage of the bulb blanks as they came off the ribbon machine. The blanks were now tapped off the machine a fraction of a second apart.

light bulb

This extraordinary machine was now producing 1 million bulbs in 24 hours.

Wellsboro Glass Ribbon Machines on trailers

Ribbon machines on trailers – photo by Carrie Heath

around the world

Wellsboro was not just where the ribbon machine was invented. It is also where ribbon machines were manufactured in order to be shipped to other places for production. Other Corning plants that had ribbon machines were located in Kentucky and Rhode Island. Machines were also built here and sent to countries like Hungary, Japan, Iraq, China, and even Russia. To make sure that history would always remember where they were made, though, the Wellsboro employees did things like fold up an American flag and place it inside a support column before sending a machine across the sea.

These machines were remarkably efficient. In the 1970s, just 15 ribbon machines across the globe produced enough to supply the entire world with light bulbs and ornaments.

There were two types of ribbon machines in use at the Wellsboro plant. The Model 100 was 25 feet long and produced on average 300 bulbs per minute. The Model 400 was 50 feet long and produced on average 1,100 bulbs per minute. The highest capacity that a ribbon machine could run at was 3 million of the smaller sized bulbs in 24 hours.

the town that saved Christmas

Starting in the 1880s, F.W. Woolworth imported glass ornaments from Lauscha, Germany to stock in his stores throughout the northeast. By the 1930s, 95% of the ornaments on American trees came from Germany. By 1937 the actions of an increasingly aggressive Nazi Germany threatened to disrupt the supply of imports.

Fearing the loss of the income from these extremely popular Christmas decorations, Woolworth suppliers Max Eckardt and Bill Thompson visited Corning Glass Works in Wellsboro to see if they were willing and able to modify the ribbon machine to create glass Christmas balls. Edward Leibig, Wellsboro’s CGW plant manager accepted the challenge. Wellsboro’s employees created and installed new molds and in 1939, the first million glass ornaments rolled off the line.

These ornaments were originally only clear glass. They were shipped to Eckardt’s plant in New Jersey where they were painted in plain red, green, silver, gold, and blue and sold under the name “Shiny Brite.”

Christmas ornament suppliers including George Franke, Rauch, Krebs Brothers and others were soon contracting with CGW as well.

In 1940, Corning Glass Works purchased silvering and lacquering (S + L) machines, which allowed an operator to set up a rack of bulbs and spray a shiny silver nitrate solution inside each blank. The rack was then tipped to drain the blanks, and their exterior was coated with a transparent colored lacquer.

With this addition, the Wellsboro facility was able to make finished glass ornaments, and produced 40 million that year.

starting new traditions

With WWII came increased patriotism, and Americans were eager to break away from traditional European designs. Two Tioga County “boys” from Holliday, Ellsworth Brown and Carleton Hayes, were given the task of designing new styles of ornaments. Their modern “Industrial Deco” ornaments were notable for their bold forms, clear lines, and strong geometric patterns. A 1941 design notebook shows over a dozen shapes that were produced in Wellsboro including assorted bells, pine cones, oblongs, reflectors, and lanterns. Ornaments made in Wellsboro had metal caps stamped with “Made in U.S.A” on the top.

Imported ornaments, with multi-faceted indentations, were prized for their ability to capture light and multiply radiance. Whether blown by hand or machine, these were some of the most difficult styles to produce, and yet engineers were able to create these beautiful ornaments on CGW’s ribbon machine. At the Wellsboro factory, these ornaments were called “Round Dimple Reflectors” or RDRs.

These pieces, affectionately called “fancies,” were popular in the early 1940s, and required a new process to form and release the intricate asymmetrical glass shapes without breakage. This same process was later used to produce fancy flame-shaped lightbulbs.

Photo of an RDR “fancy” ornament by Anja Stam

World War II Brings Changes

With the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, the United States joined World War II, and many Corning Glass Works men were called off to war. 296 Wellsboro CGW employees served in WWII. Corning promised they would be able to return to their jobs when they came home, but in the meantime there were several hundred vacant positions at the factory.

Wellsboro’s women had always held some roles at the factory, but now they really rose to the occasion. Women held a variety of jobs including inspecting product as it came down the line, setting up the racks for the silvering and lacquering machine, hand painting ornaments, and sorting and packing the finished product. CGW liked having women on the line because of their nimble fingers. For some women this was a breakout period, a chance to do work outside the home. They enjoyed their work at the factory and some stayed on after the war.

World War II did not just affect the staffing at the factory, it also affected the products. At first, patriotic colors became even more popular. Use of metals started to be rationed, which meant no silver lacquer inside the ornaments starting in 1943. Ornaments were still coated with colored lacquers on the outside, and some had “sprigs” of metal tinsel placed inside to provide some light reflection. By 1944 almost all metal was going toward the war effort, so in addition to not having silver lacquer or tinsel inside the ornaments, the metal caps were also replaced by cardboard or paper hangers. Rationing continued after the war, and the metal caps did not return until 1946 with a new, fluted design.

Photo of examples of shiny bright ornaments that were produced at the Wellboro glass plant

Photos of WWII era ornaments from “SHINY-BRITE: America’s Most Nostalgic Christmas Ornaments” by C. Runge Jr., originally published in the December 2013 Busy Bee Trader.

Photo of two Permacap ornaments by Carrie Heath

new styles of ornaments

In 1959, machines for automatically decorating Christmas bulbs were installed at the Wellsboro plant. 100 million ornaments were produced in that year.

Christmas decorating styles evolved over the years, which is reflected in the shapes and colors that were popular during different decades. One constant throughout the years, though, was the frustration of losing the hangers for ornaments. Wellsboro employees had a solution for that. In the early 1960s CGW purchased two machines designed by Ellsworth Brown to fabricate PermaCap ornaments. These ornaments had a wire hanger fused directly into the glass bulb, and were decorated with a glass frit “snow” cap. Though this eliminated the frustration of lost caps, the practical design was not popular, and the machines were scrapped before mass production got underway.

1970's shrink wrap

Hand decorating Christmas ornaments gave way to another innovation in 1973 when Don Wilcox of Wellsboro’s Corning Glass Works developed a new process allowing full color photographs to be printed on a film. This film could then be slipped over a glass bulb and fitted tightly with a blast of hot air.

A shrink-wrap department was set up at the Wellsboro plant, and soon it was producing ornaments under the Corning label. The first glass ornaments of this type featured a reproduction of a Currier and Ives’ “Skating in Central Park” winter scene. A great variety of additional styles were introduced over the following years including a wide range of Hallmark collectibles. The new shrink-wrap technology allowed Hallmark to introduce their line of Keepsake Ornaments in 1973 with iconic American images such as Betsey Clark, Norman Rockwell, Peanuts, and Mickey Mouse. These were also manufactured, decorated, packaged and shipped from the Wellsboro plant.

Photo of Courier and Ives special edition shrink-wrapped Christmas ornament that was manufactured at the Wellsboro glass plant

Photo of Currier and Ives ornament by Anja Stam

light bulbs, vacuum tubes & more

In addition to the ornaments that Wellsboro has become known for, Corning Glass Works’ Wellsboro factory continued producing light bulb blanks during these decades as well. Light bulb blanks were sent to Sylvania, GE, Westinghouse, and Phillips. Bulbs were produced in different colors by blending other materials such as cobalt into the mix. Another ribbon machine was added to the factory which allowed for variations in color, size, and shape of the bulbs being produced. Smaller automobile light bulbs were produced in Wellsboro and sent to Ford, GM, and Chrysler.

Another product produced in mass quantities at the Wellsboro factory were radio and vacuum tubes. These were sent to RCA, Westinghouse, GE, Motorola, and Emerson to be included in radios and TVs. It is extraordinary to think that by the 1960s, nearly every household in the United States would have had some product that rolled off the factory line in Wellsboro, whether it was a Christmas ornament, a light bulb, the tubes in the radio or tv, or the lightbulbs in the car.

Photo of radio clock at the Penn Wells Hotel by Clare Ritter

the people

The Corning Glass Works factory in Wellsboro employed about 1,800-2,000 workers in the late 1940s and early 1950s. It was not uncommon for CGW to employ workers from the same family. “If you came from a family with a good work history at Corning, they were willing to hire you on the spot,” recalled former employee, Don Wilcox. 

Corning Glass Works’ factory had a huge impact on the town of Wellsboro. Many employees worked at the facility for decades. Service dinners were held at the Wellsboro-Charleston Senior High School. 50-year employees were given a diamond pin and a check for $1,000 in 1966. Employees enjoyed these service dinners as well as less formal get-togethers like summer picnics.

Wellsboro has celebrated the Laurel Festival every June since 1938. Part of this annual event is the Laurel Festival Parade. Corning Glass Works’ float entries into the Laurel Festival Parade were glittering masterpieces made with crushed glass. They eventually took themselves out of competition after winning too many times.

Photo of “Billy Woods in the CGW hand bulb shop – 1899” from History of Wellsboro Pennsylvania Plant published by Corning Incorporated, 1966

Every July on the second Saturday, the employees from the Wellsboro factory would get together with employees from Corning at Eldridge Park in Elmira, NY. Families would eat and ride the rides to their heart’s content. Afterwards, the factory would shut down for two weeks so that everyone could take a hard-earned vacation.

Even though it was an extremely dangerous plant in many ways, Corning’s records show that the Wellsboro facility won the company-wide safety trophy 10 times, and Wellsboro had the most consecutive accident-free man hours – 3,381,971 to be exact.

honoring WWII factory heroes

In 1945 the armistice was signed and WWII ended. Soon Wellsboro’s husbands, fathers, and sons would begin the long journey home. In 1946, D.J. Carr, plant manager, determined he wanted to welcome them home with a banquet in their honor. He approached Ellsworth “Brownie” Brown with a request that he create a design out of Corning Glass products that could be used as a backdrop to the main banquet table. Brownie realized he had plenty of red, white, blue, and gold Christmas bulbs to work with, and he came up with a flag design that was then used to commemorate the soldiers’ return. This beautiful ornament flag remains on display to this day in the lobby of the Penn Wells Hotel.

honoring the fallen

Eight employees of the Wellsboro facility did not return from the war. A memorial plaque was dedicated in their honor and stood at the entrance of the plant until it closed.

Photo of memorial marker that features the names of fallen soldiers that had once worked at the Wellsboro Glass Plant