Jeannette, Pennsylvania can’t forget about McKee Glass Works—that old factory in the middle of the medium-sized town.
Maybe it’s because the smokestacks from the precariously-poised plant can be seen from the city limits, maybe it’s because the town’s namesake is this factory’s founder’s wife.
Either way, I wonder what the local school kids will think when they begin their inevitable local history projects at the library to find out why their hometown was nicknamed “The Glass City.” Their confusion is unfortunately all too common these days in Pennsylvania, a state noted for its broken industry. Shuttered steel mills and coal breakers beside half-vacant factory towns like this one.
McKee Glass didn’t start in Jeannette, but it brought the glass industry with it when it was moved to the area in 1888 by its founders, H. McKee and James Chambers. Then it was known as McKee and Brothers Glass Company, a firm out of Pittsburgh that had been making glass since 1834. Energy costs—namely coal—pushed the company from of the metropolis into the place that would become known as Jeanette, where it could easily obtain the raw materials it needed: coal, water and silica. Coal and water were local, and for the silica there were railroads nearby.
The McKee factory quickly grew, and in so doing grew into and out of two new monikers, National Glass Company and McKee-Jeannette Glass Company, finally settling on the easy-to-remember McKee Glass Co in March 1910. As McKee prospered, it grew the town around it. So when the town needed a name they looked to Mr. McKee, and then to his wife, Jeannette. The industrial prosperity of McKee Glass attracted other companies to Jeanette as well, including six other glass factories.
By 1912, McKee Glass employed 600 laborers and turned out millions pieces of finished glass yearly, making it one of the largest plants of its kind in the world.
Its Depression-era glass is some of the most collectable, and in dozens of scrap bins around the property one can still find thousands of bits of opaque glassware that never made it off the production line in one piece.
McKee Glass closed in 1983 under the pressure of foreign competition and the rising price of coal.