Women in Glasshouses: Women at the Lamp

The 1756 edition of Neri shows women working glass around a lampworking bench. Most translations of this book show men around the table instead. Kunckels, Johann. Glassmacher Kunst.

Say the word “glassblower” and this is the image many people have: hot, sweaty, muscular, male — they don’t realize there is a long tradition of women working in factories and in cottage industries, melting glass using a lamp or torch flame. In an industry that changed the world, skilled women lampworkers dominated the field.

Old-time engravings document women lampworking beads as early as the 1700s. Imagine working in long skirts while pumping the bellows that supplied air to the flame and working molten glass!

Old-time engravings, like this Diderot print, document women making beads by lampworking. Emailleur à la lampe, et peinture en émail, contenant planches simples. 1777.

A century later, factories increasingly employed women in more skilled jobs, and even in some cases preferred their expertise over men’s.

For example, the H. K. Mulford Company in Glenolden, near Philadelphia, trained 20 women, aged 17 to 20, for a new factory where they made glass packaging used to store chemicals and vaccines. The women worked from 7:15 am to 5:00 pm, making vials and bulbs over Bunsen burners, and were paid by the piece with earnings from $4.00 to $12.00 per week*, according to how many vials they could make in an hour. In 1902 their manager exuded: “The girls are infinitely more careful and painstaking than men have ever thought of being, and they are achieving results never before known in the trade.” One of the women made 300 test tubes in a day! This “model little factory” produced more than a thousand gross of vials and bulbs a month, entirely by these young women.  

Beadmaker in long skirt at the torch. Guillaume Louis Figuier, Industrie du verre et du cristal. About 1870. 

Women lampworkers had a significant impact on the production of incandescent light bulbs too. Edison manufactured electric lamps at his laboratory in Menlo Park, New Jersey, beginning in 1879, but the rural location meant he had difficulty recruiting workers. He began hiring school-aged girls and boys and soon relied on female lampworkers to assemble and finish light bulbs. A decade later, hundreds of girls and women were employed in Edison’s factories, a tradition that continued for nearly fifty years, throughout the transition to General Electric Company, until bulb making became fully automatic. 

Scientific American described the steps in manufacturing incandescent light bulbs in 1895.

Even after automated bulb production, female lampworkers were responsible for almost the entire assembly of the finished incandescent lamp. The Ribbon Machine at Corning Glass Works could produce up to 300 glass bulb “envelopes” per minute by 1926, meaning women were even busier as they kept pace with this new technology.

Charles Neill’s 1911 Report on Condition of Woman and Child Wage-earners in the United States, vol. III: Glass industry describes the employment of women and girls in making incandescent electric lamps. By then there were numerous factories assembling the lamps:  “There are few industries in which women form so large a proportion of the working force, and there is almost no other in which there has been the same degree of adaptation of processes to the special abilities and aptitudes of women.”

In a survey of eight lamp factories, 80% of workers were women. Apparently, most of the men were hired for their ability to do night work, or to do work indirectly connected with the production of the lamps.

The carbon-filament manufacturing process required many complicated steps to produce the five parts of the lamp: the “bulb,” the “carbon filament,” the small glass tube or “stem” within the bulb, the “leading-in wires,” and the metallic “base.”

In assembling the lamps, women lampworkers added glass tubes at the top of the bulb by hand to evacuate the gases using an all-glass vacuum pump made by the workers. The filament was hand sealed into the bulb and stems or filament mounts that were fabricated by hand from glass tubing.  

The work was demanding:  

“The two chief characteristics of the electric lamp industry, the minuteness of the work and the extreme speed with which the operations are performed, while not peculiar to it, are found to exist in a degree almost without parallel in any other industry… Out of this combination of speed and minuteness, linked as they are at times with other undesirable conditions, arise nearly all the evil effects attributable to the industry.” 

The report compared the “delicate operations” of the lamp makers to a housewife threading a very fine cambric needle. Repeating that one simple action two or three thousand times a day, at piece-rate, forced an “undue concentration and feverish eagerness to hurry” to increase your earnings in each ten-hour shift. The women could be fined if they didn’t meet the output goal or for imperfect work or breakage. Pay rates differed according to the tasks assigned and those requiring skilled hot glass processes often received a higher wage.  

At least from the time of Neri and Diderot we can document women’s involvement in lampworking, continuing to today. The invention of the light bulb changed human existence by illuminating homes and industries, making a wide range of human activities possible at night. Women played an important part in the production of these early bulbs.

Lampworking was also essential for the production of X-ray tubes, radio tubes and incandescent lamps, neon signs, thermometers, syringes, and industrial and laboratory glassware. Clearly, there are many more stories to explore about women working in these fields. 

Selected resources:

*Using the Bureau of Labor Statistics consumer price index, $4 in 1902 is equivalent in purchasing power to about $119.25 in 2020. https://www.in2013dollars.com/us/inflation/1902?amount=4

Period publications:

Bristol Mercury & Daily Post… March 8, 1882. p, 6.

“Girls as Glassblowers.” Crockery and Glass Journal, April 20, 1902, p. 28 [article first published in Philadelphia North American]

“Manufacture of Incandescent Lights” Scientific American, v. 72, no. 15, April 13, 1895, pp. 225, 230.

Levitt, W. T.  “Modern Aladdins” in The Bulletin of the American Ceramic Society in November 1934, p. 309. 

Neill, Chas. P. Report on condition of woman and child wage-earners in the United states, vol. III: Glass industry. Washington: Government Printing Office, 1911. (Senate Document 645) Notes: Chapter XIX: Employment of Women and Girls in Making Incandescent Electric Lamps, pp. 459- 502. https://hdl.handle.net/2027/hvd.32044048107676

More on Edison’s women glassblowers:

Paul Engle. Conciatore, https://www.conciatore.org/2019/11/thomas-edisons-lady-glassblowers.html and https://www.conciatore.org/2019/11/anna-j-agnew-champion-glassblower.html

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 working conditions for women in factories, please click here. The next in the series will focus on women in science.

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    • From the author, Beth Hylen: “Antonio Neri was the author of the first book devoted to the subject of making glass, L’Arte Vetraria, published in 1612. His numerous recipes for Renaissance glasses were so popular the book was translated into many languages. Johann Kunckel’s German edition expanded the content to include lampworking. For more information about Neri: https://www.cmog.org/article/antonio-neri-alchemist-glassmaker-priest

  1. In our world of fast, faster, and fastest in getting “important” things done and “making a difference” in the world, it is mind-blowing to get this glimpse into the precision, dedication, mastery, and impact of the work of these women and the early glassmaking industry. Will change how I look at light bulbs and glass products as what “we” humans, and these women created!

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