Women in Glasshouses: Early Jobs for Women

In 1850, census takers recording information in Sandwich, Massachusetts, home to the famed Boston & Sandwich Glass Company, failed to record a single occupation for a female resident. The activities of the women of Sandwich were not yet deemed worthy of recording.

At the turn of the 20th century, the number of women entering the workforce began to rise. Growing alongside this trend was the demand for glass. Some women found a foothold in the thriving glass tableware industry, but, overall, they were limited in the tasks they performed. They were almost entirely kept out of glass blowing and pressing, coming into the production line when the glass left the furnace room. The wide range of jobs that women held were largely unskilled or low-skilled. Unwilling to accept women into lengthy apprenticeships, factories hired women to perform tasks that required minimal training. The women who worked at glass factories at this time were young, in their late teens and 20s, and tended to leave the workforce when they married, allowing only a handful of years to work.

Women painting wax ink onto lampshades before acid-etching. Steuben Glass, about 1910-1920. The Rakow Research Library, Corning Museum of Glass.

For all these reasons, and more, women’s stories were often left out of histories and documentation, making it difficult to learn about women of the past.

Here are some of the jobs undertaken by women:

In the Blow Room

Although women were kept from working in the “blow” room (where the furnace was housed), there was one disheartening exception. A 1911 Bureau of Labor study reported that the only women allowed to work at this stage of production were African American. They were given the lowly jobs typically held by young boys, like “carrying in boy,” “mold boy,” and “snapping up boy.” This was the only mention in this study, as well as the other resources I consulted, of jobs held by African American women. Without further research, I must assume that all other roles afforded to women were reserved for white women. White women typically worked on women-only teams and were prohibited (sometimes by state law) from working night shifts or double shifts. African American women were not given these same considerations. This small piece of information from the Bureau of Labor study reveals that there is much more to discover about the role of African American workers in glasshouses.

In the Leer Room

Significant numbers of women worked in the “leer room,” a hot and smoke-filled room where newly blown tableware flowed through an annealing oven by conveyor belt. “Taking off the leer” or lifting off just made pieces as they came out of the oven was strenuous, fast-paced, and dirty work. Women also capped fruit jars, cut off the excess glass, fitted stoppers, and sorted and packed pieces for further finishing and decorating. In some factories, women cleaned and oiled glass pressing molds in the leer room.

Women smoothing the bottoms of tumblers on a revolving grindstone. Upland Flint Bottle Company, about 1911-1922. Foster Family Business Records. The Rakow Research Library, Corning Museum of Glass.

In the Finishing Room

The 1911 Bureau of Labor study recorded over 150 different unskilled tasks done by women in “finishing rooms.” These intermediate steps were taken on finer glassware to prepare them for decoration. They included grinding rough bottoms or edges, cutting off the shoulder of a vessel to create a tumbler, and smoothing edges with a flame (“glazing”). Women worked on the smaller and cheaper pieces while men performed these tasks on large and more expensive pieces.

Decorating

Glass tableware decorating at this time can be placed into four main categories: sandblasting, acid etching, cutting, and painting/enameling. Although a great proportion of decorators were women, there weren’t a lot of jobs in this area. In 1911, only 16% of women working in the glass industry were employed in decorating. Stencils and stamps were employed wherever possible to keep production quick and cheap, and worker training to a minimum.

Sandblasting and Acid Etching

Women often performed the dangerous task of sandblasting small vessels. To create designs, metal plates with cut-out areas were applied to the glass, allowing pressurized sand to pass through. Acid etching was even more commonly used as it could show finer details. Women dominated the tasks required to prepare glassware for acid etching. For needle etching, workers dipped a glass object in paraffin wax and scratched a design into the wax with a needle or stylus. This was initially done by hand, but by the 1910s, women were loading the paraffined wares into a machine that scratched in the designs. Plate etching was another common technique, in which the workers wiped an acid-resisting ink onto a glass object through designs cut into a metal plate. After the design was prepped, men predominantly performed the dipping or fuming with hydrofluoric acid.

A young woman coating the interior of a brilliant-cut glass bowl with wax in preparation for acid polishing. Laurel Cut Glass Works, Jermyn, Pennsylvania. Crockery & Glass Journal 1914. The Rakow Research Library, Corning Museum of Glass.

Cutting

The most skilled jobs open to women in the glass industry were in glass cutting. Women were employed to cut decorative flutes into small and light glassware, like tumblers, against a rotating stone wheel. However, most women employed in fluting were performing the unskilled task of loading glassware into a machine that cut the flutes automatically. In the making of brilliant-cut glass, women waxed, washed, selected, and wrapped the glass.

A photograph of women working at the Dorflinger Glass Works in White Mills, Pennsylvania, illustrates the last steps for cut glass objects. Workers checked each piece for flaws before (or after) it was washed, wrapped it in brown paper, and packed it for shipment.

Women selecting brilliant-cut glassware. In the foreground washed vessels are drying on a rack, and in the background, vessels are wrapped in brown paper, ready for shipment. (John Quentin Feller, Dorflinger: America’s Finest Glass, 1852-1921 (Marietta, Ohio: Antique Publications, 1988): 93).

The 1911 Bureau of Labor study reports that there were “rumors” of women who worked as roughers and polishers of brilliant-cut glass. These two steps of the glass cutting process required the most skill and training. One of these women was Matilda Ledig, who worked for Unger Bros. in Newark, New Jersey, between about 1902-1908.

Matilda Ledig sitting at a glass-cutting wheel at Unger Bros., Newark, New Jersey, 1905. (Judy Northup, “Women Glass Cutters in the Brilliant Period.” The Hobstar 30, no. 1 (September 2007)).

Enameling and Painting

Factories employed women in unskilled and semi-skilled glass enameling and painting of lamps and tableware. This style of decorating was fast work, underscored by the fact that they were paid piece-rate rather than by the hour or day. A photograph taken by Lewis Hine shows women painting flowers and the word “Friendship” onto tumblers. No doubt these women were working as quickly as they could, as weekly take-home pay depended on speed. Only the fastest workers took home a truly living wage. Enameling was similarly unskilled, using stamping techniques to speed up production. Men monopolized the painting of high-end glassware. Highly skilled, they were treated as artists, working slowly and paid a high salary, rather than working piece-rate.

Women free-hand painting glass tumblers with designs and the word “Friendship.” Lewis Hine (American, 1874-1940), about 1920. Photo: Courtesy of the George Eastman Museum.

For more about women’s work in glass in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, see:

  • Walter B. Barbe and Kurt A. Reed, The Glass Industry in Wayne County Pennsylvania, 1807-Present (White Mills: Dorflinger-Suydam Press, 2003): p114-119.
  • Elizabeth Beardsley Butler, Women and the Trades: Pittsburgh, 1907-1908 (New York: Charities Publication Committee, 1909).
  • John Quentin Feller, Dorflinger: America’s Finest Glass, 1852-1921 (Marietta, Ohio: Antique Publications, 1988): p90-91, 93.
  • Martha Hassel, “The Role of Women in The Sandwich Glass Industry,” The Acorn: The Journal of the Sandwich Glass Museum 1 (1990): p3-22.
  • Judy Northup, “Women Glass Cutters in the Brilliant Period,” The Hobstar 30, no. 1 (September 2007): p4956-4960.
  • United States Bureau of Labor, Report on Condition of Women and Child Wage-Earners in the United States, vol 3, Glass Industry (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1911).

This blog is part of a bi-weekly series called Women in Glasshouses; a discovery and celebration of the many ways that women have contributed to the glass industry in the 100 years since the ratification of the 19th amendment. To read the first entry, an introduction to this series, please click here. The next in the series will focus on working conditions and factory life.

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