Pennsylvania Historic Preservation

Blog of the Pennsylvania State Historic Preservation Office

Large blue and gold metal marker surrounded by people.
Large blue and gold metal marker surrounded by people.

Preservation Backstory: Emporium’s Sylvania Corporation Marker

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The Historical Marker Program is one of the PHMC’s most popular public history programs, and the recently approved nominations prove these aluminum markers dotting our roads and city sidewalks are more than just “history on a stick.” The words cast into markers and the marker topics have deep meaning to many Pennsylvanians.

Each year, newly-cast markers are dedicated, and unveiling ceremonies are planned by marker sponsors, nominators, and local officials. PHMC representatives often participate in dedication events and official remarks made on behalf of the Governor note that “each marker establishes an important link to the past” and it is our hope that “the dedication of this marker is not the end of the story but will, instead, provide encouragement for further exploration and discussion.”

I have been honored to represent the PHMC at a few historical marker dedications over the years, but until this year, there has not been a marker connected to my story until the dedication of Sylvania Electric Products in Emporium, Cameron County. At the dedication ceremony for the Sylvania marker, I learned the military and global significance of this industry, which was not based in Philadelphia or Pittsburgh, but rather grew its roots in the woods of Pennsylvania.

Sylvania’s Beginnings

The name Sylvania is of French, Latin origins, which means it has more than one root, woods, or forest.  This Sylvania story began in 1907 when a new factory was constructed in Emporium to produce carbon-filament lamps. The site for the new factory is where the investors’ lumber mill had been located. Initially, the company was known as the Novelty Incandescent Lamp Co. and production of miniature specialty and decorative lamps were produced by a workforce of twelve women and two men. More on “girls town” later.

Ownership of the company changed several times for a variety of reasons. The Novelty brand was under ownership of General Motors and then General Electric (GE) between 1910 and 1921, and due to post war depression GE eventually decided to close Novelty.

Local entrepreneurs, Bernard Erskine, Joseph Wortman, and Guy Felt, took a risk during the recession to purchase the assets from General Electric for $350,000 ($1,500,00 in today’s dollars). The company was renamed Novelty Incandescent Lamp Co., or Nilco Lamp Works. All lamp production move to St. Mary’s facilities and Emporium served as general offices.

Looking to diversify their products, the team turned into the radio craze capturing the public’s fancy. Fortunately, the core of a radio set was a “tube” which involved the same manufacturing process as an incandescent lamp. After realizing they were able to transition into the tube business, NILCO’s owners applied to RCA for a license. A new company was formed separate from NILCO and was financed by selling shares at $100 per share. Sylvania Products Company took root in 1924 and quickly began producing a new type of radio tube that contributed to the invention that would change the world, the radio.

Fun fact: In 1928, the company began sponsoring a radio program broadcast to twelve stations nationally. It featured the Sylvania Foresters, an orchestra composed entirely of employees from the Emporium factory. The Sylvania Foresters were among the selections aired on NBC’s Acousticon Hour on Sunday afternoons.

New Emporium Factory

In 1929, a new factory was built in Emporium and radio tubes became a significant part of the Nilco-Sylvania business. A merger with Hygrade in 1931 propelled the company, and the emerging war in Europe stimulated business considerably. Several new and important products were patented, including 105 new types of radio tubes. A significant invention was the Lock-In Tube, developed mainly for mobile applications where vibrations or motion necessitated the need to lock tubes into place. Automobiles, aircraft, and marine radios required this specialty tube. Tube technology continued to evolve under the Hygrade Sylvania label.

Colorized historic photograph of factory buildings along a river.
Emporium, nestled in the mountains of Pennsylvania. Sylvania Electric Products anchors the southwestern corner of Emporium along the Sinnamahoning Creek.

In 1940 the National Defense Research Committee employed scientist and some of the best institutions in the county to begin researching a top-secret project. Their task was to develop a fuse that did not depend on time-to-target calculations or even physical contact with a target. The result was the proximity fuze which sent radio waves measuring the time it would take for the waves to bounce back allowing it to detonate a set distance from an object.

Proximity fuzes are intended to detonate missiles automatically upon approach to a target and at such a position along the flight path of the missile as to inflict maximum damage to the target. Proximity fuzes were fashioned by shrinking down a radio transmitter and receiver until it was small enough to fit into the allotted space.

Tall arrow-shaped metal cylinder filled with electrical and mechanical elements.
Sylvania’s “Proximity Fuse” from the early 1940s.

Although the National Defense Research Committee contracted with several other companies to produce a satisfactory design for the proximity fuze, Sylvania was the first to meet all prescribed tests. Within 29 days of contract in the spring of 1942, the first fuzes were shipped. A few months after Pearl Harbor the company switched almost completely to war production and in 1942 Hygrade Sylvania Corp. became Sylvania Electric Products.

WWII and Pennsylvania’s “Girls Town”

Young women from surrounding farms and small towns poured into Emporium to begin working in the factory. An article in Collier’s magazine on November 21, 1942, stated “Boom towns are common place phenomena in every war, but WWII has made quiet little Emporium, deep in the Bucktail Mountains of Pennsylvania, the nation’s first girls town.” It further stated that, “the girls work in the local radio-tube plan of Sylvania Electric, now one of the largest American producers of tubes. The company has employed women since 1904 because men haven’t the patience nor the skill with their fingers that the work requires.” The “Girls Town” article was read around the world and many of the girls featured began receiving hundreds of letters and telegrams.

The weapon the girls helped manufacture in Emporium was such a closely guarded secret that those who worked on the line did not truly know what they were. Sylvania’s proximity fuzes were shipped to Johns Hopkins Medical School labeled as rectal spreaders! The proximity fuze was an important technological innovation in WWII and is credited for turning the tide at the Battle of the Bulge and aiding in the defeat of Japanese Air Force and Navy.

On November 5, 1942, Sylvania received the Army-Navy “E” Award. The Army-Navy “Excellence in Production” (“E”) Award was created in 1942 to recognize industries for their outstanding production contributions to the War and Navy Departments. By war’s end, this recognition was only awarded to 5% of the more than 85,000 companies producing materials for the U.S. military’s war effort. 

After WWII the Emporium plant converted production to television picture tubes. By this time Sylvania was buying and consolidating with companies all over the U.S. and in 1954 there were more than 50 Sylvania facilities in 20 states. A merger with General Telephone (GTE) in 1959 transitioned the company’s focus from consumer electronics to precision materials.

Black and white photograph of several large buildings and a large parking lot full of parked cars.
Aerial image of Emporium’s Sylvania plant after World War II, one of fifty such facilities throughout the United States.

My Sylvania Story

My connection to Sylvania began when my mother started working for GTE Sylvania when I was a young girl. She retired from OSRAM Sylvania 25 years later. During her years working for Sylvania, she earned the nickname “Sylvania Sue” and earned the company’s “man of the year” award in 1991 for her sales achievements. When I was in college moving out of the dorm and into my first rental house my mom packed a box of old Tupperware® to help outfit my kitchen, and she also packed a box – a big box! – of Sylvania light bulbs in all shapes and sizes. I moved that box of bulbs with me to three different states before returning to Pennsylvania. And recently, I used the last little bulb from one of those packs. It worked brilliantly!

On May 29, 2021, I proudly represented the PHMC at the Sylvania Electric Products marker dedication. The rainy day brought out approximately 35 people to hear the history of Sylvania and to witness the marker unveiled. Four participants at the event were former workers at the now closed Sylvania plant in Emporium. Ironically, they were all male.

Large blue and gold metal marker surrounded by people.
Me with the newly dedicated Sylvania Electric Products historical marker.

The marker was installed on the lawn of the Sylvania Club on West Fourth Street in Emporium. The historic three-bay building now houses the Northern Tier Community Action Center.

Newspaper article "Historical Marker Honoring Sylvania Corp. Unveiled" with photo and text.
The Sylvania Corporation historical marker dedication make the front page of the Cameron County Echo newspaper.

Much of this article, research on the history of Sylvania Electric Products, and images are credited to Susan Hoy, Vice President of the Cameron County Historical Society. There is more to learn about Sylvania too! You can visit the Cameron County Historical Society’s Little Museum on Route 120, about 9 miles south of Emporium.

Author: Andrea L. MacDonald

Andrea L. MacDonald serves as the Director of the PA SHPO and is the Deputy State Historic Preservation Officer. Andrea is passionate about Pennsylvania’s food geography and is committed to discovering unique ways to connect Pennsylvanians with their unique history and communities. Andrea is has been with the PA SHPO since 2004.

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