Women in Glasshouses: The Menace of the Unorganized Woman

First, a confession: I love organizational newsletters, newspapers, and magazines in general, so when I began research for this post on women and organized labor in the American glass industry, I started with union periodicals, many of which we have at the Rakow Research Library and some of which are available to read online via the HathiTrust Digital Library.

Cover of the October 1913 issue of The Glass Worker.

The Glass Worker, official publication of the Amalgamated Glassworkers’ International Association, and The American Flint, official magazine of the American Flint Glass Workers’ Union of North America, provide glimpses not only into the labor struggles in the glass industry in the early 1900s but also into the labor movement as a whole, nationally and internationally.

Tools for Building Solidarity

These publications weren’t intended to provide unbiased news; they were vital tools used to organize and inspire workers, to build solidarity among workers, and to educate members in the principles, rules, and procedures of trade unionism.

Reading The Glass Worker’s coverage today of the 1909 New York shirtwaist strike, also known as the “Uprising of the 20,000,” in which 70% of the strikers were women and most were Jewish, is one thing, but imagine how inspiring it might have been at the time for a woman working in the glass industry to read about thousands of women leading a fight against harsh conditions across an entire industry, despite the real possibility of violence and arrest. (Watch a brief PBS video on the strike.)

Protecting Women from Industrial Work

Women, whether wage-earners or middle-class reformers, often had complicated relationships with unions. The Glass Worker argued in September 1906 that one undesirable result of the failure of labor unions would be women “forced into the factory on account of the inadequacy of the father and husband’s wages.”

Group of striking women – shirtwaist workers. NYC. 1909. Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/2007682973/

The goal, then, was to improve working men’s wages so women could avoid industrial work altogether. This attitude wasn’t limited to glassworkers’ unions: the American Federation of Labor (AFL) in 1907 called for a living wage that would allow workers to meet their responsibilities “as husbands, fathers, men, and citizens.”

Increased mechanization in the glass industry beginning in the 1890s also raised concerns about the deskilling of the workforce, which opened the door to hiring more women at lower wages. This led to complaints from male union workers in several states who pointed out that hot temperatures in glasshouses meant that men frequently went shirtless, which, they argued, made it an inappropriate place for women to work (Fones-Wolf, 43).

How Many Women Glassworkers Were There?

The reality is that more children under the age of 16 than women over the age of 16 were regularly employed in the glass industry in the late 19th and first years of the 20th century in the United States (see Table 1). Women were also concentrated in particular parts of the glass industry. For instance, only three women worked in window glass in 1880; in 1890, that number was zero (Fones-Wolf, 22).

Census YearTotal MenTotal WomenTotal Children
Table 1: Data taken from 1880 and 1905 U.S. Census of Manufactures.

Changes in child labor and compulsory education laws shifted the balance of women and children in the industry, so only in tableware factories did children under 16 continue to have a significant presence by 1910 (Fones-Wolf, 43).

When the First World War created a need and opportunities for more women to engage in usually unskilled factory labor, The American Flint made clear its position: “In any eventuality when women may be employed, we insist that equal pay for equal work shall prevail without regard to sex” (April 1917).

Even after the war, though, women made up only 13.2% of the glass industry. While a few hundred of these women were in salaried positions, predominantly working as “clerks and other subordinate salaried employees,” the vast majority (more than 9,000) were wage earners (see 1919 U.S. Census of Manufactures). To learn more about women’s work in the glass industry, see an earlier post in this series, Life in the Factories.

Workers with a bottle machine. CMGL Foster Family Business Records. 719745 

A Note on Race

The U.S. Census of Manufactures for the dates examined does not report data about race, let alone about race and gender; however, other sources support the assumption that the vast majority of women employed in the glass industry in the late 19th and early 20th century were white.

This isn’t to say that there weren’t some Black men and a few women working in areas of the glass industry. The 1912 “Report of the Bureau of Industrial Statistics” for Pennsylvania (1914), for instance, indicates that a total of 115 Black workers were employed in the area of glass bottles; 9 in decorative glass, 35 in plate glass, 1 in stained glass, 10 in glass tableware, and 125 in window glass.

The First World War also provided new opportunities for Black workers, with one factory reportedly employing 102 Black women in “making blown glass” (see The Negro at Work during the World War and during Reconstruction, 1921), though as Philip Foner points out in his history of women in the American labor movement, “If white women suffered from low wages and other evils as a result of their unorganized status, the lot of black women workers was far worse.”

The American Federation of Labor (AFL) paid lip service during these decades to including Black workers in predominantly white unions; however, in practice, Black workers were excluded from these unions by various means. Foner notes, “While racist practices effectively limited the black membership of the AFL…, they virtually guaranteed that no black women would become union members” (p. 267).

“The Menace of the Unorganized Woman”

Early 20th century glass-industry union publications include numerous accounts of employers bringing in women as strikebreakers. At the 1902 convention of the Glass Bottle Blowers Association of the United States and Canada (GBBA), the union president reported that at the striking More-Jonas Plant in New Jersey, “some of the boys put to blow were but 12 years of age, while at Minotola a number of Italian women were taken on to do the work of laborers.”

What choices did working women have? An article in a 1907 issue of The Glass Worker argues: “Women are not willingly nor gladly the underbidders in the labor market and the competitor against the home.” These women and the trade unions both, the article argues, would benefit from greater union organization and demands for a living wage for women.

In contrast to arguments for a “family wage,” or a living wage for men, this article argues that skilled or unskilled, a woman worker should be able to afford “[a] room to herself; food to produce healthful living and efficient work; simple clothing; a chance for rest and recreation after the day’s work and on Sundays; time and opportunity for friendships; a two-weeks’ vacation into the country and a possibility to save for emergencies by putting aside a certain sum each week.”

Similarly, in April 1913, The Glass Worker reprinted an article from the Retail Clerks’ Advocate entitled “The Menace of the Unorganized Woman.” The article urges trade unionists to recognize that not all women work for “pin money”; some women have to work in order to survive. These women needed to be organized and their needs addressed.

More than a Footnote

Behind the numbers and statistics that help us make sense of women’s relationship with unions in the glass industry in the first decades of the 20th century are the stories of actual glassworkers struggling to improve, or at least to maintain, their own standards of living while being urged and urging one another to support the struggles of other workers down the road and around the world, being challenged, in many cases, to confront their own prejudices about unskilled labor and about immigrant, women, and Black workers—prejudices which frequently were at odds with progress toward their immediate goals. The extent of success in their own workplace struggles depended in no small measure on who they deemed “enemy” and “friend” and how much they took to heart union ideals of equal pay for equal work, the eight-hour day, and the right of every person to a living wage.

Women were frequent contributors to The Glass Worker in the 1910s, not only on local union topics, but also on larger social questions ranging from suffrage to socialism to the emancipation of women.

While women are often relegated to footnotes in industry reports and published labor histories, women who were out organizing for labor unions in the years before suffrage—sometimes fighting as hard inside the unions for recognition as among the unorganized—are present in union newspapers—even those of glassworking unions where women made up a relatively small percentage of workers. These publications provide snapshots of the day-to-day work real women did in and through their unions to improve working conditions for all.

Further Reading

In addition to union publications like The Glass Worker and The American Flint, and government publications like the U.S. Census of Manufactures, check out the following books:

Flannery, James L. The Glass House Boys of Pittsburgh: Law, Technology, and Child Labor. Pittsburgh, Pa: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2009.

Foner, Philip Sheldon. Women and the American Labor Movement: From Colonial Times to the Eve of World War I. London: Collier-Macmillan, 1982.

Fones-Wolf, Ken. Glass Towns: Industry, Labor, and Political Economy in Appalachia, 1890-1930s. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2007.

Kenneally, James J. Women and American Trade Unions. Montreal: Eden Press women’s publications, 1981.

Milkman, Ruth. Women, Work, and Protest: A Century of U.S. Women’s Labor History. 2014.

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 fascinating life of Helen McKearin, please click here. The next in the series will be about American industrial designer Freda Diamond.

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