Women in Glasshouses: Woman to Woman – Selling Glass in the 20th Century

There are plenty of vintage magazine and newspaper ads that tell the story of how companies have used images of women to sell more glass products. But when you get to poke through all kinds of odd bits and pieces of glass history as I do by virtue of working at a library that lives and breathes it, you can see that companies employed women to do all sorts of marketing and sales. And the marketing tactics seem all too familiar…

Ad for Pyrex. The Topeka State
Journal. November 19, 1910. [Chronicling America].

Remember the Ella Fitzgerald Memorex ads (Is it live or is it Memorex?) or Britney Spears hawking Pepsi products? Yes, celebrity endorsements were a thing, even back then. One such celebrity was Sarah Tyson Rorer, an editor for the popular women’s magazine Ladies Home Journal. Rorer traveled around the country lecturing on domestic topics like cooking, cleaning, organizing and decorating, and her appearances drew large crowds of women. Conveniently, many of her lectures were held at stores, where women could buy the household tools Rorer used in her demonstrations. Companies also paid Rorer to promote their brands in ads, like those for Pyrex bakeware. What better way to sell pans than having them praised by a cooking expert whose magazine columns are devoured by millions of readers?

The sales floor was another area where companies sought out women to sell more glass. The logic was that a woman would be more likely to understand what other women wanted and could lead them to purchase a product much more easily than a man could.

Promotion for Sarah Tyson Rorer
Appearance, Pittsburgh Daily Post, April 10, 1910.

But while store owners and companies recognized the benefits of employing women to sell their products, there were clear lines drawn between which jobs were appropriate for men and which were appropriate for women.

Hardware Dealers’ Magazine polled store owners in 1910 asking about their views on hiring women salesclerks. The respondents almost universally replied they favored women to sell crockery, glassware, and chinaware as “they have good taste, and many women purchasers prefer to be waited upon by women.” There was also the little matter of keeping the goods on the shelf presentable and women were just better at “cleaning and dusting,” plus as one store owner noted, “their wages are less.” Mhmm, he said that. Men, on the other hand, should be employed for selling hardware as women “cannot be taught…how to open a knife” and if climbing a shelf ladder is necessary, “why, it’s out of the question.”

Women salesclerks next to Nittinger’s china and glass display, September 1945. China and Glass.

In addition to staffing salesrooms, women were on the road selling products. Laura Steffens New, a saleswoman for Charles Mayer & Co., traveled all around the Midwest in the 1930s visiting women’s clubs, homes, and “teas” speaking to thousands of women, and, according to an article in Crockery and Glass Journal, “influencing in no small way their choice of tableware and, incidentally, influencing the kind of stock carried at Mayer’s.” (1932) That’s a lot of clout!

Crockery & Glass Journal, January 1, 1932.

As one glass industry expert put it: lectures drove sales by creating a desire for the products in the mind of “Mrs. Consumer” but “so skillfully disguised that it is not even recognized as such.” Mrs. Marie L. Fenn, working for the department store, Carson, Pirie, Scott & Co., offered talks such as “The Supper and Afternoon Tea Tables” and “The Charm of Hospitality.” Store owners felt the informal atmosphere of the department store was relaxing for women (Crockery & Glass Journal 1930, 82) and, after all, don’t you feel more like spending money in a place you feel comfortable?  

Libbey ad featuring designer Freda Diamond, 1949.

Slowly, women began broadening their influence from sales to design. Pipsan Swanson, Freda Diamond, and Dorothy Thorpe were among the handful of women designing glassware by mid-century. Diamond, for example, created popular drinkware lines for Libbey. Ads for her glassware designs were even marketed with a small image of Diamond and a “handwritten message” explaining how her design is practical and elegant—and a perfect gift for every bride.

Women working in sales, marketing, and design all helped sell glass products to women consumers. They were the influencers of their day and their presence in the glass industry helped shape the consumption of well-known glass brands for decades. For that reason, companies clearly valued their influence with buyers. But women remained relegated, for the most part, to limited roles and, certainly, lower wages. Even as women industrial designers were entering new spaces, there remained a clear divide between women and men in the workforce.

Photograph of Mrs. McElroy, “saleslady” in the Steuben Glass Works showroom, 1915. The Glass of Frederick Carder, Paul V. Gardner.

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 role of women in marketing, please click here. The next in the series will be a biography of Helen McKearin.

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As manager of the Rakow Library’s public services team, Regan Brumagen coordinates reference, instruction, and outreach for the library and provides leadership in the assessment of user needs and services. Before joining the Museum staff in 2004, Brumagen worked as a reference librarian and instruction coordinator at several academic libraries. She received an M.A. in English and an M.L.S Library Science from the University of Kentucky. Currently, Regan is a member of several American Library Association divisions and has served on numerous committees for these divisions during her career.

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