Stories of Glass

Who doesn’t love a good story? It is, after all, what draws us to great Museum exhibits or makes us read late into the night to finish a good book. The Rakow Library preserves all kinds of stories about the art and history of glass in many different formats.  You might discover interesting historical facts in the thick vellum pages of a manuscript, carefully study yellowed newsprint or black and white photographs filed in archival boxes, or find inspiration from an intricate and artful design drawing in our special collections.

But lately, I’ve been intrigued by a newer collection of stories—our growing body of oral histories recorded with local factory workers, corporate executives, scientists and engineers.  All of the interviewees worked with glass…whether designing glass products, cutting, blowing or finishing glass objects, building and repairing the equipment used to make the glass, planning glass product lines, or tending the furnaces used to generate the molten glass.

Many of these interviewees worked at Corning Glass Works (CGW) and Steuben.  The recordings are filled with insights and descriptions which illuminate places that have vanished, people who have passed away, and events that now exist only in memory.

Photograph of Main Plant, courtesy of Corning, Inc. Archives

Photograph of Main Plant, courtesy of Corning, Inc. Archives

What was the “cave” of Corning’s Main Plant like in the early 1960s, for example?  There are some in the community who remember that dark, dank place, but most of us have never seen the inside of the factories that once dominated the downtown Corning cityscape.   Those factories were demolished in the 1980s to make way for the new Corporate Headquarters for Corning, Inc, but some people, like engineer Jerry Kersting, well-remember that unique place.

Jerry Kersting, retired engineer for Corning, Inc., interviewed May 2010.

Crusader bowl engraved by Max Erlacher

Crusader bowl engraved by Max Erlacher

Or think of Steuben, established in 1903 in Corning and responsible for over a hundred years worth of quality, hand-made glass.  Now Steuben, like so many other glass factories, has closed its doors.  Who made the glass that has been given to everyone, from heads of state to newly wedded couples? Roland “Max” Erlacher, long-time engraver for Steuben, relates the behind-the-scenes details of engraving the Crusader’s Bowl, which was later selected by Nancy Reagan as a gift for Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer.  It is not a well-known story, I would imagine, since the original design by Zevi Blum had to be reworked when the bowl cracked during the engraving process.

Max Erlacher, former master engraver for Steuben, interviewed May 2010.

Or what about the economic conditions and employment practices of earlier times?  Dan Keyes, a Corning Glass Works employee and a Steuben gaffer, describes in his interview how he began his career as a glassmaker.  The practice then was to wait outside the factory, in case extra hands were needed that day.  If you “worked out” then you might be lucky enough to get a permanent position at the factory.

Dan Keyes, former gaffer for Steuben, interviewed October 2010.

And if you were talented enough, as were Keyes and interviewee Harry Phillips, you could work your way up, from a carry-in boy to the highest position in a glass shop, that of gaffer.

Harry Phillips, former gaffer for Steuben, interviewed May 2011.

The Houghton family was well-known to the employees in the Corning Glass Works factories.  In his interview, Gordy Casterline describes how the “old-timers” in the factories would often go to the Houghtons with personal or family problems.

Gordon Casterline, retired from Corning, Inc.

And generations of families worked in the glass factories of Corning.  Bill Anderson, a former Corning Glass Works employee, talked about his uncle and father, who came to Corning from Norway in 1914 to blow glass.  Back in his father’s hometown, Anderson says boys as young as 8 years old worked in the local glass factories, a practice well-documented in the United States as well.

Bill Anderson, former Corning Glass Works employee, interviewed May 2011.

During World War II, women began to work in more significant numbers for Corning Glass Works and other manufacturing companies.  And of course, even after the war ended, many women continued to work outside the home. Yet, workplaces often had a different set of rules in place for women employees.  In her interview, Elizabeth Barenthaler, a Corning Glass Center staff member, humorously describes the dress code for women, prior to the 1970s as somewhat restrictive!

We weren’t allowed to wear pants.  And then I finally found out that we could wear nice pantsuits.  But it was in the 50’s I think or early 60’s because I can remember shaking my head, after the flood, after we got in E-Bldg, seeing somebody in jeans, sitting on the floor sorting something and I’m thinking, “Girl, if you only knew”.

Not many of us today take the time to record our stories or write letters to family and friends describing the important events of our lives.  These oral histories offer us a way to preserve those voices and take a snapshot of a vanishing time, before the opportunity slips away.

The Library is interested in conducting oral history interviews during Corning’s GlassFest (May 24-27, 2012). If you would like to share your story with us, please contact us at [email protected].

2 comments » Write a comment

    • Thanks! We are adding to collections constantly (both our online and print collections), and we are really excited about the oral histories we’ve been able to capture!

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