Researching Child Labor in the American Glass Industry

Today’s post is from Museum Explainer Carolina Downie

I am an Explainer at The Corning Museum of Glass, working alongside 24 other high school and college students every day to teach visitors about glass. I learned about the Explainer program after participating in various other teen programs at the Museum, including the Junior Curators and the teen volunteer program. My involvement also exposed me to the Juliette K. and Leonard S. Rakow Research Library, which has abundant resources about glass. Thus, when I had to write an extended research paper for the International Baccalaureate Diploma Program, I decided to write about the use of child labor in the American glass industry after finding resources and support from the librarians there.

Blower and Mold Boy, Seneca Glass Works, Morgantown, W. Va. Lewis Hine

Blower and Mold Boy, Seneca Glass Works, Morgantown, W. Va., October 1908. Lewis Hine. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA.

While conducting my research, I learned there is a long history of child laborers in the American glass industry. Initially, young boys worked as apprentices alongside their male relatives to learn the family trade of glassblowing. Therefore, although children were working, the skills they learned led to a future career.1

However, the invention of the mechanical press around 1825 and the subsequent industrialization of the glass business brought an end to the apprenticeship system. The mechanical press meant that less-skilled workers could be employed in glass factories. Therefore, children were not trained to learn glassblowing, but were instead hired as cheap sources of labor in the bottle and tableware sectors.

By the mid-1800s, production teams in glasshouses were made up of two to three boys as young as 10 years old, and an older glassblower. As Harriet Van der Vaart described in a report for the National Child Labor Committee (NCLC), “… The glassblower pours the molten glass into the molds; a boy sits and closes the molds; another one picks the bottle out of the molds and puts them on a long stick or handle, and puts them in front of a small furnace ….called ‘the glory-hole,’ where the top or neck of the bottle is finished….the boys carry them into the annealing furnaces, where they are gradually cooled.”2

The "Carrying-in Boys," Midnight At an Indiana Glass Works.

The “Carrying-in Boys,” Midnight At an Indiana Glass Works, August 1908. Lewis Hine. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA.

Although child labor and compulsory education laws were enacted during the 1830s in an attempt to end child labor in many industries, most “legislation enacted before 1880 generally contained only weak restrictions and little provisions for enforcement.”3 In addition, some glass factories were specifically exempted from child labor reform; this exemption existed most infamously in Pennsylvania until 1915.4

Ten Arm Owens Automatic Bottle Machine

Ten Arm Owens Automatic Bottle Machine. Courtesy of Owen’s Automatic Bottle Machine Co., Toledo, Ohio. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA.

It was not until the development of fully automatic machines that child labor was eliminated from the glass industry. Michael Owens’ automatic bottle machine was more economical than the system of glassmaking based on teams of employees, thus making it unnecessary to hire boys. In 1913, the NCLC sent Michael Owens a letter congratulating him on “eliminating more child labor than they had through legislation.”5

Although children can’t work in glass factories today, they can still become involved in the glass world, and in ways that are much more rewarding. The Corning Museum of Glass allows area youth to become involved in the glass world through its many teen programs. I took advantage of these programs: Little Gather, the Junior Curator program, volunteering, and the Explainer program. Moreover, I learned how to use the excellent resources at the Rakow library for my paper. These programs have really helped me grow as a student and young adult.

As an Explainer, I meet children who come to the Museum curious about glass. I find it fascinating to think that a hundred years ago, some of these children may have been working in a glass factory instead of learning about glass in a museum. I love teaching children about the interesting history of glass and introducing them to all the wonderful youth programs that The Corning of Museum of Glass has to offer.

1. Fones-Wolf, Ken. “Child Labor in the American Glass Industry.” The World of Child Labor: an Historical and Regional Survey. Ed. Hugh D. Hindman. Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 2009. 468. Print.

2. Van der Vaart, Harriet. “Children in the Glass Works of Illinois.” American Academy of Political and Social Sciences Annals. Vol. 29. 1907. 77. Print.

3. Whaples, Robert. “Child labor in the United States Economic History Services.” EH.Net/ Economic History Services. Web. 01 Apr. 2011.

4. Flannery, James L. The Glass House Boys of Pittsburgh: Law, Technology, and Child Labor. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh, 2009. Print.

5. Skrabec, Quentin R. “A Revolution in Bottle Making.” Glass in Northwest Ohio. Charleston, SC: Arcadia, 2007. 75. Print.

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