On March 25, 1911, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York City caught fire and claimed the lives of 145 workers. Nearly all of these workers were young women. One of the most catastrophic workplace incidents in American history, this tragedy prompted changes to working conditions in factories. Conveniently, in the same year, the United States Bureau of Labor released a report on working conditions in glass factories across the country. The terrible and unsafe conditions that factory workers faced were finally gaining national attention.
This report, which surveyed 190 establishments, indicated that working conditions varied not only from factory to factory but also from room to room. Conditions were very much dependent on where workers were stationed and the type of work they did. The worst factories lacked proper ventilation, washrooms, or temperature control. Most factories consisted of one or two stories only and didn’t require a fire escape, but of the 22 factories that were taller than two stories, only 10 had a fire escape. The report also documents 21 workplace accidents, including a woman who got caught on a grinding belt and died. All of these conditions would make any safety officer shudder today.
The 1911 report also provides a peek into what it was like to be a woman working in a glass factory at the turn of the century. Out of the nearly 55,000 people employed in glass factories during this time, 4,000 were women.
Women typically worked in two places in a glass factory: the “leer” room or the finishing room. In the “leer” room, women grabbed cooled work from the lehr, or what we now call an annealer. This work involved a constant amount of bending down to place pieces in boxes with little opportunity to sit down. In the finishing room, women could perform a variety of tasks including decorating glass. The work typically took place in well-lit rooms, and women were usually paid more for working in the finishing room. But, some of the work women did in factories could be quite hazardous. Hydrofluoric acid used for acid-etching could burn the skin of the decorator. The sand used for sandblasting glass was often ill-contained and could get everywhere, including the decorator’s eyes and lungs.
Working in the furnace room was considered too rough for women. Typically, boys occupied furnace room jobs such as snap-ups, carry-ins, and mold-tenders, but shortages of boys had some factories looking to women for replacements. Only two factories out of the nearly 200 across the country employed women in this capacity and those women, according to the 1911 Bureau of Labor survey, were all women of color. The survey is scant on details about these women, and there remains very little research into what it was like for women of color working in glass factories. The survey notes that these women would work both day and night shifts and conditions were hot, rowdy, and often dangerous. Hot glass flying off the blowpipes led to burns. Sometimes these burns were maliciously done by “older boys or men,” according to the survey. Unlike women of color, white women were often banned from working at night.
Some of the daily tasks’ women performed were based on ideas about women’s presumed fragility and delicate attention to detail, but these tasks were no less essential to the glassmaking operation. The Foster Family Business Records at The Rakow Library confirm the gendered division of labor in glass factories. The records include, among other documents, the wage books for Foster’s glass factories. The 1926 wage book for the Upland Flint Bottle Company neatly (and helpfully) categorizes all workers by role and details every worker’s hours and wages on a weekly basis. At Upland Flint, “Packers” who would pack glass into boxes for shipping were predominantly women. Whereas, “Operators” who would run the automatic machines to produce bottles were typically men. It’s not known why, but the lone exception in 1926 was a woman named Amy Miller; then in 1927, three more women joined the ranks of “operators”. Women could do intricate tasks like this, as long as those tasks didn’t involve heavy lifting. In 1905, The Buffalo Evening News detailed the work behind creating light bulbs:
“Much of the work consists in handling and adjusting tiny wires, some of them intensely hot, and owing to her infinite capacity for taking pains, to say nothing of her more delicate touch, a woman can do this more rapidly and with greater satisfaction than can a man.”
The 1911 report shows that 56% of women surveyed worked full time (6 days a week) and took home less than $5 a week, the equivalent of $135 a week in 2017. For comparison, 93% of men earned more than $5 a week in the same survey. Since glass factories could pay women less money for similar labor, women were often brought in as workers during labor strikes. The American Flint Glass Union, while they banned women from becoming members, supported the concept of equal pay for equal work so factories would not benefit economically from replacing striking men with women workers. This circumstance had created resentment towards women workers who were perceived as threats to the male-dominated factory workforce.
Working conditions in American glass factories improved over the twentieth century for workers of all genders, thanks to stricter safety regulations. Now, women are working in every facet of the glassmaking industry, including as glassblowers. Despite the progress, there is still much work to be done. According to Helen Lee’s “Glass/Cash Survey” Summary Report published in New Glass Review 37 (2016), men working in glass as artists earned 47% more than women. Work by artists like Deborah Czeresko, who sculpted ornate cuts of meat in glass and composed them into a Venetian-style chandelier, demonstrates that glassmaking can still very much be a sausage fest.
This blog post is only a very small introduction to women’s work in glass factories during the early 20th century; the topic merits a dissertation unto itself! If you’re interested in learning more, here are the resources I used to create this blog:
- Report on condition of woman and child-wage earners in the United States, Washington D.C., 1910-1913.
- Upland Flint Bottle Co. Records, 1902-1972. Foster Family Business Records. Rakow Research Library. CMGL 719745.
- “Women who do Electric Work,” Buffalo Evening News, Buffalo, New York (Wednesday, November 15, 1905), pg. 9.
- “Glass/Cash Survey,” Helen Lee. New Glass Review 37, Corning Museum of Glass, Corning, New York, 2016.
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 previous entry on the types of jobs women held, please click here. The next in the series will focus on women working at the lamp.