1903: Pittsburgh Plate Glass in Tarentum, Pennsylvania

In terms of industry, Pittsburgh is usually identified with steel – hence one of its nicknames, “The Steel City”. At the turn of the century, the city was one of the manufacturing capitals of the nation, mostly built on the backbone of Andrew Carnegie’s US Steel, and other steel and metal industries. The steel industry in the city reached its peak during the Second World War, and began its slow decline. The 1980s saw deindustrialization sweep the nation, and while Pittsburgh would rebound, avoiding becoming a rust-belt cliché, the steel industry was effectively done. Mills, refineries, and blast furnaces started being torn down; fancy restaurants, finance, and entertainment sprung up.

Carrie Furnaces #6 & #7, the last remaining bit of a huge Homestead Steel Works plant in Pittsburgh. As seen from near the top in the middle of the night. Full moon long-exposure photograph by myself.

It is no secret that industrial history and archaeology are favorite topics of mine, so I was delighted to find five consecutive Underwood & Underwood stereoviews picturing an industrial topic both similar and quite different from steelworks. North of Pittsburgh, at the edge of Allegheny County, a man named Captain John Baptiste Ford had a vision – not his first – of creating a glass factory. Ford had already proven his mettle as an entrepreneur – first as a grocer and owner of a stagecoach supply station, then running a rolling ironworks which served the railroad. He earned the title of “Captain” by converting his iron interests into a shipyard, rolling out steamboats which were used by the North in the American Civil War.

Borrowing money from John Pitcairn, Jr., Ford founded the Pittsburgh Plate Glass Company in 1883. As soon as the first factory in Creighton, PA was open and profitable, Ford moved his operations to the town which he now called home – Tarentum, PA. It is there that the five stereoviews we’ll explore today were taken, in 1903 – the year of Ford’s death. Once these facilities were running and successful, Ford moved a little farther North and founded a company town – Ford City – for a huge expansion to the business. In between his work on various glass-manufacturing projects, Ford founded what was – at the time – one of the most successful chemical companies in the United States, in Wyandotte, Michigan. For this, they named a nearby town after him. Ford died in his sleep in his early 90s, and reportedly, he was working on various projects until the day he died.

The Pittsburgh Plate Glass Company – and several other glassworks in Tarentum – led to Tarentum’s reputation as the glass manufacturing capital of the nation. PPGC alone held a 60% market share in the nation’s plate glass by 1900. These stereoviews – all showing superb stereography and excellent composition – show one of the the Tarentum plants in all its glory. On the reverse of each card is a description, which I have edited the edges from in order to make them more readable on digital devices. These seem to be from some sort of teaching set – and they reference other teaching topics at times. Enjoy this little jump back 116 years into the premier glass factories of the day!

Bizarrely, the text on this card is oriented vertically, even though the series number on the front is the same. Perhaps this came from a different edition and was added in by an earlier collector.

PPG Industries, Inc., which is what Pittsburgh Plate Glass Company morphed into over the years, is now a Fortune 500 company which has diversified into everything from paint to sealants for air and spacecraft. Pitcairn ran the company until his death, with Ford being more interested in founding and conceptualizing companies than with running them. From a wealthy family already, he died a very rich man.

One thing I find wonderful about these stereoviews (and similar ones) is that you can learn so much by just immersing yourself in the text and images. Of course it’s possible to find silent film clips of workers doing this sort of work, but it’s much more engrossing to pop these cards into an appropriate Holmes scope, after having read the descriptive text on back, and really put oneself into the scene. That being said, while there is an anaglyph gallery below, I highly recommend free-viewing these if you can – to produce proper stereopsis, Underwood had to shoot these fairly hyper-stereo, so they don’t anaglyph well – while there is, of course, an anaglyph gallery below, there’s some loss in each image to allow them to merge properly.

The anaglyphs are still cool though.


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