Women in Glasshouses: A Story in Progress

Advertising postcard. Woman holding a Philips light bulb, 1910.

Our blog series exploring women working in the glass industry has drawn to a close.

We shared only a few stories, and there is so much more history yet to uncover. Our series focused on America, but other publications, exhibitions, and projects explore the history of women working around the world in glass factories and in cottage industries, making windows, beads, ornaments, and other wares. Researchers continue to explore these spaces, and many others, where women had such a great impact on the production and sales of glass.

Postcards showing young women working at cylinder glass factories in Belgium, 1910s. Raymond Chambon Postcard Collection. CMGL 92675.

Articles in the Women in Glasshouses series by necessity also touched on what was happening in the world outside the factories. The First and Second World Wars had an enormous impact on the labor force as women filled jobs held by soldiers who were serving overseas. In many cases, as the wars concluded, men returning from service regained their positions, leaving women to return to the home or to jobs they held prior to the wars. Still, women proved their abilities in jobs once thought to be the province of men only, and no doubt some attitudes changed as a result. Consider this comment by a Corning Glass Works employee from the company’s newsletter in 1946:

“There was much skepticism about girls being able or willing to perform the jobs of helpers in the blowing room when they were first suggested as replacements for men joining the armed forces. But today the foremen are generally agreed that most of the girls did a good job. ‘We could never have gotten along without them,’ said one foreman.”

Gaffer, April 1946
Photograph of women workers with glass for
the P-47 canopies used in WWII. Libbey
Owens Ford. 1944. University of Toledo Libbey-Owens-Ford Glass Company Records, 1851-1991, MSS-066.

Likewise, rampant, institutionalized racism and sexism in the early 20th century (and beyond) hit Black women workers most grievously. While many Black women worked, they were largely limited to agricultural and domestic service positions. Statistical surveys of glassworkers from the early 1900s clearly reflect their absence from the industrial workforce.

And, of course, there is the event that inspired this series–the passage of the 19th amendment giving American women the right to vote, 100 years ago this year. This constitutional amendment impacted every aspect of political, social, and economic life. Women in labor unions were particularly engaged in the suffragist movement. But even the male-dominated glassworkers’ unions took official positions (some for and some against) on whether members should support women’s right to vote.

We’ve shared with you only a few of the many stories on this fascinating topic. Reading the variety of stories our authors have posted, I’ve been struck by how challenging it often is to research these topics. Historical information about working women is scattered across a variety of sources and, of course, those sources reflect the biases of the times in which they were written, which can pose its own challenges.

Photograph of women inspecting glass, 1940s. Pittsburgh Plate Glass. Detre Library & Archives, Heinz History Center.

Many more histories wait to be discovered, buried in factory ledgers, photographs, local newspaper articles, diaries, and elsewhere. The Rakow Research Library will continue to collect these bits and pieces of glass history so researchers can continue to bring more information to light. Without the research and dedication of our own staff, we would not have been able to share with you a glimpse into the remarkable history of American women and the production of glass. Thank you to the authors and our staff editor for their work on this series. And thanks as well to those working in glass fields today who continue to advance equality in the workplace.

We hope you enjoyed our exploration of Women in Glasshouses.

To read any of the 11 entries in the Women in Glasshouses series, please click here.

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