, Salem, MA


July 1, 2013

McAllister: Local icons, past and present

It recently occurred to me, for no discernible reason, that long before I moved to the North Shore in 1972, I was well-acquainted with a host of everyday products — from Marshmallow Fluff to Sylvania light bulbs — that were made by world-renowned firms that had been started in the region I would one day call home.

Most of those products, in fact, I actually used, although there was one exception. No Sylvania light bulb would ever be found in our house because my father worked for the Westinghouse Lamp Division. But many of our neighbors did buy them, thereby helping keep hundreds of North Shore residents employed.

Sylvania was created in 1931 when the Hygrade Lamp Co. of Salem and the Pennsylvania-based Sylvania Products-Nilco Lamp Co. merged. The new company manufactured incandescent light bulbs and radio tubes under different brand names. By 1936, the light bulbs were being made in the company’s Loring Avenue plant in Salem. The firm’s Ipswich and Danvers plants — where fluorescent bulbs were made — opened in 1940 and 1941 respectively. I remember my siblings and I, loyal Westinghouse fans, booing as we passed the Danvers plant on our way to vacation on Cape Ann.

Somehow, we ended up with a refrigerator made by General Electric, a company with Lynn roots and a competitor of Westinghouse’s appliance division. What was memorable about it was the tiny freezer space, located inside the refrigerator proper. It was barely big enough to store some ice cube trays and a few packages of Birdseye frozen vegetables and Gorton’s frozen fish sticks.

Both of these staple products had their roots in Gloucester. Clarence Birdseye was an actual person, and he invented the technology that spawned the frozen food industry. The one-time Arctic fur trader figured out that flash-freezing fish and vegetables sealed in their taste and freshness. He set up shop on the Gloucester waterfront in 1924 and eventually sold his company and patents to the Postum Cereal Co. for upward of $20 million. The new owners continued to use his name on their frozen food products.

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