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Book review: W.Va.'s glass towns dominated the industry

"West Virginia Glass Towns." By Dean Six. West Virginia Book Co. (Quarrier Press). Hardcover. 240 pages. $29.95.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Dean Six spent the past 20 years collecting fascinating historical information and documents about West Virginia's glass industry -- photographs, factory site maps, advertisements, pages from company catalogs and trade publications.

They are featured in Six's new book, "West Virginia Glass Towns."

Photographs portray scores of sprawling glass factories and the people who worked in them, including some child laborers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Many historic photos show groups of workers gathered outside their plants.

Boys in their early teens are shown working at hot glass furnaces at midnight in plants located in towns such as Grafton.

Men typically worked directly with the hot glass, forming it into various products. Women typically decorated and etched glass products after they were already formed.

Many historic photographs are close-ups of workers taking molten glass out of furnaces, then shaping it into a wide variety of products: vases, lamps, paperweights, bottles, drinking glasses, saucepans, teakettles and coffeemakers.

Moncer Glass Co. in Huntington advertised the first "Ornamental Sword Fish" made by any glass company, advertising it as "very attractive for tropical fish or flowers."

Many West Virginia glass factory products were very artistic, often etched with intriguing designs.

At least 460 hot-glass manufacturing plants operated in 57 different cities and towns, since the Mountain State's first glass plant opened in Wellsburg in the early 1800s. Towns such as Ceredo also had pre-Civil War glass factories.

Today, just 16 hot-glass producing plants still operate in West Virginia, Six writes.

"West Virginia Glass Towns" lists all those 460 plants by town, identifying products they manufactured and the years during which they operated. Many plants operated for only five or six years, or even less.

Clarksburg had 39 glass plants; Fairmont, 29; Weston, 24; Salem, 18; and Parkersburg, 14. Mannington and Buckhannon each had 10 plants operating over the years.

Morgantown had 28 plants, while nearby Star City had 11. Many were built on the banks of the Monongahela River.

Charleston had only nine plants, seven of which closed between 1919 and 1929. The Libbey-Owens-Ford plant, located where the Kanawha City shopping mall is today, operated until the early 1980s.

Milton had five plants, including Blenko Glass, which is still operating.

Historically, some glass plants were very large, such as the Owens-Illinois, Westinghouse, Monongah and Hazel-Atlas plants. Each of those plants employed between 1,000 and 2,000 workers, or even more. Other plants were very small, sometimes employing a single hot-glass artist who produced handcrafted vases, paperweights and marbles.

Other photographs in the book feature parade floats, Labor Day parades, company bands and baseball players wearing local glass company team uniforms.

Dramatic photographs from Wheeling show a fire engulfing the Frank Glass Co. plant and water from the Ohio River flooding the Eagle Glass & Manufacturing plant, both in 1907.

Fires and floods posed major problems to major glass plants throughout the state, contributing to the economic downfall of several companies, Six writes.

For many years, West Virginia glass plants also produced millions of soda bottles and miles of window glass.

"The number of hot glass producers in West Virginia," Six writes, "peaked in the 1920s before the automation of window glass and the economic depression both took immense tolls."

The state's glass industry enjoyed national esteem, Six points out, reflected in the use of Blenko glass for windows in the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., and for tables in the White House during the presidency of John F. Kennedy.

A definitive and engaging history of the peak years of glass manufacturing in the state was published five years ago by West Virginia University professor Ken Fones-Wolf -- "Glass Towns: Industry, Labor and Political Economy in Appalachia, 1890-1930s."

During those years, Fones-Wolf writes, glass factories played a "major role in the economic development of northern West Virginia."

The other major economic force came from energy companies that produced coal, natural gas and oil.

West Virginia's share of the nation's glassworkers rose from just 3 percent in 1890 to 12 percent by 1915 and 15.3 percent by the beginning of the Great Depression.

Many glassworkers immigrated to West Virginia from France, Belgium, Germany and England, Fones-Wolf adds.

Fred Barkey, a retired history professor, wrote "Cinderheads in the Hills -- The Belgian Window Glass Workers of West Virginia," published by the West Virginia Humanities Foundation in 1988.

Barkey focuses on one major group of immigrant workers who made glass here.

People interested in getting a copy of Six's new book can contact the West Virginia Book Co. at 888-982-7472 or www.wvbookco.com.

Reach Paul J. Nyden at pjnyden@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5164.


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