McKee Glass: Molding Jeannette

From Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania with love. Built 1888, abandoned 1983, and not demolished.

My favorite shot of 2011; a rusty mold for a heart-shaped glass candy dish in its natural environment, so to speak.

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.

When the factory's production line was up for auction, many parts were removed, crated and labeled with big painted numbers to ease their removal by buyers. Not everything sold, however, so not one dark corner of the factory seems without a pile of dislocated industrial junk.

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. 

1910 Crew, by Terry Perich, Courtesy John Howard

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.

Asbestos-cord-wrapped glass tongs piled in a shed next to the pouring line.

Postcard, by Terry Perich, Courtesy John Howard

Plant, Late 1880s, by Terry Perich, Courtesy John Howard

A furnace control panel, cut off its subordinate before the plant closed, no doubt to be replaced.


The Shots

References »

  • Del Giudice, Luisa. Oral history, oral culture, and Italian Americans. New York: Macmillan, 2009. (accessed May 12, 2012).
  • Finoli, David, and Tom Aikens. Images of Sports: Southwestern Pennsylvania. Arcadia Publishing, 2004. (accessed May 12, 2012).
  • Heacock, William. Victorian Pattern Glass Book VII, Ruby-Stained Glass from A to Z. (accessed May 12, 2012).
  • Perich, Terry, and John Howard. Images of America: Jeanette. Arcadia Publishing, 2005. (accessed May 12, 2012).
  • Whitten, David. "McKee and Company." Accessed May 12, 2012.
    • The Docs

      1910 Crew, by Terry Perich, Courtesy John Howard McKee Watertower, by Terry Perich, Courtesy John Howard 1920 Crew, Courtesy Sen. John Heinz History Center Plant, Late 1880s, by Terry Perich, Courtesy John Howard Postcard, by Terry Perich, Courtesy John Howard
    • Ric

      My grandfather Ellis Ambler worked there in 1910. I wonder if he is in that picture. He lived on south 7th Street, along with his son,my dad, who was born there in 1907. They later moved to Okmulgee, Oklahoma to work in another glass house.

    • Joshua A Palyo

      My hometown is spelled “Jeannette”.

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