, Salem, MA

July 1, 2013

McAllister: Local icons, past and present

Essex County Chronicles
The Salem News

---- — 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.

Given its geographical proximity to Birdseye in Gloucester, it’s no surprise that Gorton’s became an industry leader in selling frozen fish products. The company had been organized in 1906 with the merger of four fish processing firms, including John Pew and Sons of Gloucester and the Rockport-based Slade Gorton and Co. The firm got into the wholesale frozen fish product business in the late 1930s and into the “convenience” or individual consumer market in 1952.

While our mothers adored frozen vegetables and fish products, we kids gravitated toward another North Shore edible. Gooey and delicious, Marshmallow Fluff was created by Somerville resident Archibald Query in 1917 but made famous by two Swampscott natives, H. Allen Durkee and Fred L. Mower. The pair acquired the product for $500 shortly after returning from their World War I service and later opened a plant in East Lynn. Within a decade, the firm was the largest seller of marshmallow cream in New England. Marshmallow Fluff is still popular, and its maker, Durkee-Mower, is still based in Lynn and still family-owned.

We were also crazy about entertaining ourselves, and before the advent of all today’s electronic gadgetry, we lived for sports and board games. Popular destinations during bad weather months were the homes of neighbors who had ping-pong tables. The American rights to Ping-Pong then belonged to Parker Brothers, a Salem company that also made many of our favorite board games including Monopoly, Clue and Risk. Our more daring friends tried Ouija, the fortune-telling game.

Younger children were always making “things” out of construction paper, glitter, macaroni and glue. Two of the most popular adhesives were Elmer’s Glue-All and LePage’s mucilage product. The former was invented by Ashworth Stull, who lived at various times in Salem and Beverly, at his American Resinous Chemical Co. at 103 Foster St. in Peabody. Stull sold his popular new product (and then his company) to Borden’s, which promptly named the white paste after the husband of its bovine mascot, Elsie the Cow.


Salem historian Jim McAllister writes a regular column for The Salem News.