I grew up with thread-thin copper wires. They showed up in laundry. Small bundles of them served as de facto twist ties for bundles of straws, or de facto helpers in pushing sewing thread through the eyes of needles.
Once in awhile, I was jabbed in a thigh by a stray strand that had survived the washing machine’s wringer and the outdoor flapping of the clothesline and stayed anchored to the end of a pocket pouch.
Those thread-thin copper wires that glowed inside light bulbs put food on our table.
Mom made them.
Memories were renewed by last week’s news that a successor firm to the familiar Sylvania nameplate in St. Marys will plunge into making light bulbs using LED (light emitting diode) technology rather than incandescent wires.
When World War II drafted Dad and pushed 1940s housewives onto factory floors, Mom got a job at the Sylvania Electric plant in Warren. That small brick building in an otherwise residential neighborhood is now a nursing home. It morphed into a complex of a half-dozen Sylvania plants during the 1950s and 1960s, and Mom stayed right there until her retirement in the mid-1970s, before the decline of the Sylvania complex.
At first, she worked because of the war. She stayed working so she and Dad could painstakingly save the $4,000 it cost in 1947 to buy the “double house” side-by-side duplex where I grew up.
Dad’s sudden death from a stroke in 1956 left Mom as the sole breadwinner for both of us.
For another quarter-century, she stood in front of machines for eight hours a day, sometimes longer if overtime work was available.
In went chunks of copper wire. Inside the machines, heat and pressure extruded the wires to hair-strand thickness, terminated by molten glass dots that held the wires at the proper distances to permit them to glow at near-constant frequencies once inserted inside glass bulbs.
At first, Mom ran a machine that required her to move things from position to position inside it. As a kid, I popped into the plant on occasion to cadge an after-school quarter or, while delivering newspapers, just to say hello. Kids were tolerated for brief visits as long as production was not affected.
Sometimes, I stood there beside her as she worked. I remember that by the late 1950s, she could operate machines in groups of two or three, as the beginnings of automation made her work less of a make-it-herself proposition and more of a tend-the-machines process.
The work was mind-numbingly boring. I don’t know how Mom stood it, day after day, week after week — and she usually walked the mile or two to and from work each day, unless bad weather moved a co-worker to offer her a ride. We never did have a car from the time Dad died until I was halfway through college.
Earlier in Mom’s life, in the 1930s, she had worked as a typist at the mail-order clothier then known as New Process Company. She quit that job when she became pregnant with me; maternity leave was still a dream in those days. World War II brought her back to work. Armies need light bulbs as well as guns.
Unionization came to Sylvania after the war, and there were strikes and talks of strikes. Finally, and it might have not happened until the late 1960s, Mom had the quiet satisfaction of seeing Sylvania finally pay its women workers comparably to the men it employed. The “men as breadwinner” clichés were hogwash for Mom and for quite a few other women because of divorce, death or the significant hazards of many lines of work for men. My grandfather was crippled in a coalmine. A neighbor lost several fingers in a railroad yard accident. Constant tobacco smoking and day-after-day drinking took their tolls, too.
So Mom worked. And she had fun, too.
A highlight of Mom’s workweek occurred outside the plant, at Thad Lawson’s arcade bowling alley in the basement of the A&P grocery store building.
As a bowler, she was awful.
But as a bowling companion, she was a constant hoot. Strike? A shout and a cheer. Gutter ball? A hoot and a laugh.
I got to know dozens of the women Mom worked with by stopping to watch her bowl. Some wore dresses. A few wore pants. Bobby pins held hair curls in place. This or that woman would shove a few nickels toward me or the other kids for snacks.
And, of course, there were those thin orange-red strands of copper wire, slipping out of the cuffs of slacks or the pockets of skirts.
Soon, those wires will be museum pieces, curiosities, just vague reminders of “How they did it” back in those long-gone days.
But for me, for as long as an incandescent bulb glows in its fixture, I’ll recall Sylvania, Mom at those machines, and the food they brought to our table.
[Denny Bonavita is a former editor at newspapers in DuBois and Warren, and former publisher of The Leader-Vindicator. He lives near Brookville. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org]