Popular Science Monthly/Volume 42/February 1893/The Development of American Industries Since Columbus: The Glass Industry I

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Popular Science Monthly Volume 42 February 1893  (1893) 
The Development of American Industries Since Columbus: The Glass Industry I
By C. Hanford Henderson







ALONG the eastern base of the Rocky Mountains there is found a hard, dark mineral known as obsidian, or volcanic glass. It is a variety of feldspar. In the chemical sense, it is a true glass, since it is a silicate of at least two metals, aluminium and potassium. Physically, it half deserves the name. Though too dark to be transparent, it is at least translucent; and in its luster, hardness, and glassy fracture it is quite comparable to the products of industrial glass-houses. Travelers in New Mexico are offered bits of this volcanic glass by the Pueblo Indians who congregate at Wallace and other dining stations along the railroad.

The manufacture of glass in America seems, then, to have been first set up by Nature, and may easily claim priority to all our other industries. It was one of the native products used in the early receptions given to the invading white man; but lest the spirit of the hospitality be misunderstood, it should be added that it was served in the form of swiftly flying arrowheads. When Columbus came to this country the glass industry was limited to a rude fashioning of the material supplied by Nature. It had been melted in fires burned out long centuries before.

In the Europe of 1492, the operations of glass-making were still very crude and inadequate. It was a rare thing to have glazed windows, even in castle and palace. For many years the luxury was limited to the churches, and there it was an article of decoration rather than of utility. In domestic service, the supply of glassware was equally limited. Yet it was only a hundred and sixteen years after the discovery of America that the first glass works were established in the colonies. It was a modest venture in an industrial way, but one to which much importance is attached, since it was the starting point in that interesting history which it is the purpose of the present paper to outline; and still more, because it was the first industry started by Europeans on American soil. It thus heads a list which is to-day certainly as long as human needs and almost as long as human desires. It is a list which has been nearly three hundred years in the making.

This was in the year 1608. The pioneer glass-house was a part of the activities at Jamestown. The spirit of the London Company was distinctly commercial. It had gold and silver in mind as the ultimate goal, but, with a prudence characteristic of British enterprise, it had also an eye to nearer and smaller profits. The plan of colonial manufacture was meant to serve this end. On the second voyage of Captain Newport, eight Poles and Germans were sent over for the express purpose of making glass, pitch, tar, and soap ashes. The glass-house was out in the woods, about a mile from Jamestown. It was a crude affair, but it seems to have been the center of considerable activity, for when the ship returned to England in the following year, "a trial of glass" was among her cargo. The glass was presumably exported in the form of common black bottles, for the state of the art in those days, and the limited time, would scarcely have allowed the evolution of anything more difficult of manufacture.

The progress of the glass industry in America has been far from constant. It has suffered severe and violent fluctuations, amounting almost to annihilation. Several times it has needed to be born again. But the sum total of these successes and vicissitudes has been the establishment of an industry which, while it is the oldest, is also at the present time one of the most promising and most highly developed of all our industries. To understand its rise and progress, one must be familiar with the elements which go to make it up.

Four things are needed to make glass: crude materials; refractory substances for crucibles and furnaces; suitable fuel, and intelligent labor. To make glass commercially, a fifth factor is all important, and that is an accessible market.

The history of the industry has consisted in the various possible interchanges between these elements. They are far from permanent. The causes which led to the early establishment of the Jamestown glass-house were good and valid for the year 1608, although a somewhat pessimistic writer declared the energy misdirected, but they would not hold in the year 1893. The compelling force which gathers our present glass-houses to such centers as Pittsburg and southern New Jersey may shift during the course of a decade or so, and bring about a migration of the industry, similar to the migrations which so many of our industries have undergone. It requires a nice technical and commercial judgment to strike a balance which shall equally satisfy all these requirements. So it has come about that in certain branches of the industry, and notably in the manufacture of plate glass, the record until quite recently is an almost uninterrupted record of financial disaster.

A word, then, in regard to these elements, beginning with the first, the crude materials.

In many respects the most important ingredient is silica, since every true glass is a silicate of two or more metals. Sands and sandstones are its commercial representative. They are found the world over, but not of equal purity. Much of this material is quite unfit for the glass-maker's use, on account of the iron and other impurities which it contains. Here we reach at once a determining cause in the habitat of the industry. But the discrimination does not end with a chemical examination of the sand rock. It concerns itself quite as strenuously with the physical structure of the material. As it is needful that all the ingredients of the batch shall be in a state of fine powder, the condition of the silica supplied by Nature is a matter of no small importance. If Nature has already done the grinding, and sandstone and quartz ledge have relapsed into the form of a sand bank, so much the better for our purpose; or, if the choice be between two sand rocks of unequal hardness and tenacity, the softer and more easily reducible rock will be the available one. In this respect America is exceedingly well off. Her sands are among the finest in the world. Both English and French writers on glass declare them to be superior to their own supplies. They are as abundant, too, as they are excellent. The best deposits in New England are those of Berkshire County, Mass. In Pennsylvania the sands of Juniata and Fayette Counties are extensively mined. Other notable localities are in Hancock County, W. Va., Fox River, Ill., Crystal City, Mo., and southern New Jersey. New deposits in various parts of the country are constantly being announced. The importance of this wealth of sand to the glass-maker will readily be appreciated when it is remembered that the average glass contains from sixty to seventy per cent of silica. It is indeed the very foundation of the material.

The next most important constituent is the alkali, which is generally a carbonate of either sodium or potassium. At the present time the sulphate of soda, or salt-cake, is also frequently employed. The function of the alkali is to furnish one of the metals of the double silicate. Where the carbonate is used, sodium is now chosen—the "soda" of the markets, as it happens to be the cheaper. Our forefathers used potash. As none of these substances are furnished directly by Nature, the supply is subject to more rapid and more extreme fluctuations than in the case of silica. Before the Napoleonic wars, and indeed until within comparatively recent times, the chief source of the alkaline carbonates was the ashes of wood and sea-weed. Whole forests were burned, and vast piles of sea-weed were annually collected and reduced to ashes to gain the alkalies. To-day at many a country hearth the wood ashes are carefully put aside for the annual soap-making. Our earlier glass-makers were thus dependent upon the coastman or forester for their supply of alkali, and it can readily be seen that this dependence was a large determining factor in the development of the industry. The poor quality and the uncertain supply were an inconvenience particularly felt in France, where war so often cut off the foreign commerce. To protect French industries from these international hazards, as well as to secure a better supply at all times, the French Government offered a prize for the invention of a process by which soda could be made directly from common salt. The Leblanc soda process was the result. It was published in 1792. By means of the new process any nation which possessed salt springs or brines—and there are few without them—was enabled to make its own soda. The process came into use but slowly, though its effect has been very far-reaching, since it transferred the soda manufacture from the wilderness to the laboratory. In the development of glass-making in America these improvements were quite without influence until within the last half century or so. At the present time we are still largely dependent upon England for our supply of alkali, but there is a promising increase in the home manufacture. The large production of salt in Michigan and New York yields an assured supply of the crude material within comparatively short distances of the glass-making centers, while recently invented processes have greatly improved upon the method of Leblanc.

The third constituent of ordinary glass, limestone, is so abundant and so free from impurity that it is scarcely a determining factor in the development of the industry. One stone is almost as good as another. There is a tendency toward the increased use of lime in modern glass-making, but it is a tendency which may be indulged at very slight expense.

In the finer grades of tableware and decorative products lead takes the place of lime as the second base in the silicate, but with this material, again, America is well supplied. The immense deposits of lead ore in the Mississippi Valley, and the large output of the metal from the silver smelters of the West, make the supply of the oxide quite up to the demand.

But a locality which furnished silica, alkali, and lime would still be badly off as regards the needs of glass-making if it were out of reach of adequate supplies of substances refractory enough when fashioned into crucibles to permit the fusion of the mixture. For this purpose fire clay is the material par excellence, since it withstands both the chemical action of the molten glass and the disintegrating effect of the intense heat of the furnace. It is an essential to glass-making. Bulk for bulk, however, much less fire clay is needed than crude material for the batch, so that it is less needful that the fire clay shall be a local product. It can be brought to the batch more economically than the batch can be taken to it. It does not happen, therefore, in the history of the glass industry, that the mere presence of suitable clay ever determines the location of works. At the present time much of the clay used in both England and America comes from Germany. It is significant, in looking over the columns of our trade journals, that the advertisements are for the most part of the imported rather than the native article. There are, however, large deposits of excellent clay in northeastern New Jersey, in western Pennsylvania, in Missouri, in Ohio, and in other parts of the country, which must eventually be utilized. The American clay is, if anything, purer than the foreign, but it is less dense, and will probably require somewhat different treatment from the German. The attempt to substitute it for the imported in the earlier days, before the requirements of the pot clay were so well known and our own deposits had been so well exploited, led to financial disaster, and even to the suspension of a large works at Boston, where the experiment proved absolutely fatal. Our knowledge of refractory materials is less scientific than of any of the other materials used in glass-making. In consequence we are the more dependent upon rule-of-thumb methods in working them, and pay the more dearly for the experience when we venture any innovation.

The third element involved, fuel, is of all the most important, both as regards quality and cost. In America it has been the dominant element, and largely determined the location of our glass-houses and the measure of their success. The choice lies between four varieties—wood, coal, petroleum, and natural gas. In the earlier days a fifth fuel is found on the list, North Carolina rosin, but it can hardly be said to figure in the present production. In England coal does not seem to have been used as a fuel to any extent until the beginning of the seventeenth century. About 1623 Sir Robert Mansell obtained a patent for a "method of making glass with sea coal, pit coal, or any other fuel not being timber or wood." The patent was probably for some particular method, as the simple use of coal was well known, even in the preceding century, though by no means common. The early Virginia glass works were operated entirely with wood. The same practice prevailed in Europe, and for many years wood was preferred to coal. This made it necessary to establish glass-houses near the forest districts, for in the absence of railroads and of steam navigation it was impracticable to carry so bulky a fuel for any great distance. With the substitution of coal a new condition was introduced, and the question of fuel became for the time of less moment than the supply of crude materials. These could only be obtained in certain localities, while the fossil fuel was available in many. In our own day, and within the last half dozen years, another and much greater disturbance of the industrial equilibrium has been brought about by the displacement of coal by natural gas. It is no exaggeration to say that, as far as quantity and the perfection of the processes of manipulation are concerned, the development of the glass industry has been greater, since the introduction of natural gas than in all previous time. The immense advantage of the fluid fuel over the solid, both in economy of operation and superiority of product, has made the geography of the glass industry and of natural gas nearly identical. One might almost use a geological map of the United States for a chart of the glass-making districts. Wherever the Trenton limestone and the upper coal measures are near the outcrop, one may reasonably expect to find glass-houses scattered over the surface.

It does not follow, of course, that glass-making at the present day is limited entirely to the natural gas country. There are occasional glass-houses in various localities, and there are districts so favorably located in other respects that they can overcome the disadvantages of the solid fuel and still rank as recognized centers of the industry. Such a center is found in the large bottle-making establishments in southern New Jersey. But these works are generally quite old, and already had expensive plants in operation before the utilization of natural gas.

The character of the fuel has thus given rise to three distinct eras in the industry—that of wood, of coal, and of gas. The use of petroleum has been too limited and for too secondary purposes to mark a distinct chapter.

The fourth essential element is labor. While it is, in a technical sense, the most important element of all, it has had much less influence than the material factors in deciding the history of the industry. Since its emancipation from serfdom, labor has displayed a portability which has made it available in any quarter of the globe. A large degree of dexterity, if not of intelligence, is needed in the glass-worker; but if one is to judge from the mixed nationality of our American representatives of the craft, he does not belong to any country, and is ready to go wherever he is wanted. It is easier to bring him to the work than to take the work to him. Once located, he is fairly permanent, and his dexterity is soon reproduced in the band of apprentices who gather around him.

With our present increasing output, the question of a market is no less important than the technical operations. The product is so fragile and so bulky that the market must needs be fairly accessible. Difficulties of transportation wrecked a number of the earlier enterprises. An observer of the first attempts at glass-making in Virginia reported that the industry would have done very well had there been any market for its wares.

These are the five elements which in the kaleidoscope of industrial progress have given us the series of pictures constituting the history of the glass industry. These pictures are the more intelligible when one has studied their elements separately.

The Jamestown venture in 1608 was evidently undertaken because of the abundance of timber. This gave the necessary supply of potash as well as of fuel. The early colonists in America suffered indeed from an embarrassment of riches in the way of forests. They needed no arbor-days. As a consequence, any enterprise which cleared the land for farming, and did it at a profit, commended itself to their thrift. So in the colonial records of the seventeenth century we find not infrequent mention of existing or projected glass works. The early Virginia enterprise was followed, in 1621, by a more extensive attempt. Subscriptions were opened in London for funds to build a second glass-house—the first having fallen into decay—to be devoted to the manufacture of beads for the Indian trade. Italian workmen, probably educated in the famous factories of Murano, were sent over to the colony to take part in the new enterprise. It was, however, brought to a tragic end by the Indian massacres of the following year, when the glass-house was destroyed. The natives seem to have been for the time quite blind to the allurements of glass beads, or they may have thought that they were paying too high a price for them. With this double failure glass-making in Virginia entirely ceased, and was not revived until many years after.

Meanwhile, Massachusetts was starting her first glass works. These were at Salem, and were built in 1638. In New England the town has ever been an active agent in all affairs concerning the public good. It took a lively and possibly at times a troublesome interest in these early manufactures. The establishment of glass works at Salem was held to be an event of public importance, and the town voted the projectors several acres of land, which passed into record as the Glass-House Fields. In 1641 it showed its further interest in the enterprise by granting a loan of thirty pounds. The works continued in operation for some time, turning out for the most part simply bottles and the rougher sorts of domestic wares. They finally stopped operations in 1670, "for lack of capital."

In New York, Jan Smeedes was making hollow ware in glass somewhat before the year 1664, and his enterprise gave the name of the "Glass-Makers' Street" to the lane in which he worked. He does not seem to have had any successor, however, for after his death the industry disappears from the records until the following century.

Well-meaning efforts were also made to establish the industry in Pennsylvania in the closing years of the century, but they do not seem to have been successful. In a letter, written in 1683, Penn alludes to a glass-house then existing in Philadelphia, and speaks hopefully of its prospects; but these were never realized. Yet there seems to have been a good market for window glass at least, if we are to credit the following doggerel, written by Holme in 1689:

"The window glass is often here

 Exceeding scarce and very dear,
 So that some in this way do take

 Isinglass windows for to make."

These are the only known records of glass-making during the seventeenth century. None of the attempts became permanent industries. The advantages of cheap and abundant fuel and of easily obtainable alkali were more than offset by the corresponding disadvantages found in all new communities. In some of the colonies there was no accessible market. But the greatest obstacle was the pressure of more remunerative occupations upon the attention of the glass-workers. Land was everywhere abundant and could be had almost for the asking. The temptation to pass from the artisan class to the ranks of the gentry was a strong one in the minds of European workers. It was an unusual opportunity, and in both this and the following century the privations of early agriculture were willingly endured for a time by those who had originally come to the colonies for the purpose of service or the trades, in order that they might ultimately enjoy the satisfaction of being landholders. This "desertion," as it was called by the wage-paying classes, led to the abandonment of many promising manufacturing enterprises. America stood then, perhaps more than now, for personal liberty and individualism. Men seem to have been less willing to sell themselves into industrial slavery, and more anxious to remain their own masters.

The eighteenth century witnessed an extensive revival of the glass industry, and gave birth to some of the most important establishments of the present day. This activity was, however, crowded into the latter part of the century.

Massachusetts took the lead. About 1750 works were erected by German artisans at the village of Germantown in Braintree. They were intended for the manufacture of bottles. After a short run they were destroyed by fire, and were never rebuilt. Two years later the General Court attempted to encourage the industry by granting Isaac C. Winslow the sole privilege of making glass; but he seems not to have profited in his monopoly, for in 1787 the same exclusive privilege was granted to a Boston company. The monopoly covered fifteen years, and had attached to it a penalty of five hundred pounds for each infringement. By this time there was a sufficient home market to warrant somewhat extensive operations. Public sentiment was overwhelmingly in favor of American products. The company devoted itself to the manufacture of crown glass, and was one of the first makers of window glass in America. It started out rather badly by erecting a large and ill-adapted factory at the foot of Essex Street. This had afterward to be taken down and another structure put up in its place. Then came difficulties in obtaining workmen, so that the new industry did not get under way until the fall of 1792. In the following year the company was fortunate in securing the services of a skillful German glass-blower named Lindt, and under his management the enterprise was wonderfully successful. The Boston window glass was reported to be equal to the best imported glass, and possibly even superior. The shares of the company sold at a good price, and the industry enjoyed, or suffered, something very similar to a modern boom. By the end of the century the annual output of window glass amounted to seventy-six thousand dollars. But the confidence born of success finally brought the company into difficulty. They extended their operations in several directions, and made the dangerous experiment of substituting native fire clay for the imported. They were also embarrassed by a lack of suitable fuel. These difficulties, combined with subsequent bad management, finally led to failure, and the works were shut down.

In New York, glass-making was again undertaken in 1754. The factory was located in what is now Brooklyn; the venture being made by a Dutch gentleman of the name of Bamper. But the enterprise was of short life. A little later, Albany seems to have been the center of the glass industry. A Flemish family by the name of De Neufville were the chief spirits in these enterprises. It is uncertain how many glass-houses they established, but one at least seems to have been in operation in 1786, and to have had a very hard time of it. In 1788 Leonard de Neufville and his partners appealed to the State for aid in behalf of the Dowesborough glass-house. Their patience must have been severely taxed, however, for it was not until 1793 that their petition was granted. The Legislature voted them a loan of three thousand pounds for eight years, three years without interest and five years at five per cent. Three years later the enterprise was moved to Hamilton, a manufacturing town which had just been laid out some ten miles to the west of Albany. The plant consisted of two glass-houses with three large furnaces. Thirteen glass-blowers were employed, and turned out twenty thousand feet of window glass a month—nearly half an acre—besides a fair output of bottles and flint glass. The fuel was gathered from the pine forests of the neighborhood. The methods employed seem to have been much the same as elsewhere, except that they were carried out with much system, and that kelp, the ashes of sea-weed, were substituted for the purified potash. The product found a ready market, and for some time the industry was in a most flourishing condition. But, with the cutting down of the surrounding forests, fuel became more and more scarce. The final abandonment of the enterprise in 1815 is said to have been due to this cause.

But in none of the colonies were the conditions for glass-making, and particularly of bottles and the coarser kinds of hollow ware, so entirely favorable as in southern New Jersey. Extensive pine forests covered thousands of acres, while sand of sufficient purity existed in large quantities and had only to be carted a few feet to the glass-house. Qualities which make the region most unpromising for other purposes have devoted it to the use of the glass-maker. For more than a hundred years it has been the home of the bottle trade. About the middle of the last century a glass-house was established in Salem County. It was known as Wistar's, and employed a number of German glass-blowers. Other glass-houses were established throughout the county, illustrating even at that early day the now well-recognized gregariousness of manufactures. Many of them were subsequently abandoned. There was a general exodus of German workmen to the spot, which has since been called Glassborough. Here in 1775 they established a bottle factory which is still in existence, and is the oldest continuous glass-house in America, as well as the largest of our present bottle factories. It was, however, many years before the manufacture of other grades of glass was attempted. The conditions best adapt the region to the production of green glass. Though window glass has since been successfully made, the competition with other districts farther west is very unequal; so long as the locality continues to be a glass producer, it will probably always maintain its original place in the glass industry.

There is a certain picturesqueness about the development of the industry in Pennsylvania. In Penn's time, and indeed for many years after, it was simply a succession of failures, but these failures are hardly less interesting than the successes elsewhere. The most extensive attempt was that made by the Baron Steigel in 1762. He built the village of Manheim, eleven miles from Lancaster, and erected iron furnaces and glass works in the neighborhood. Operations were conducted upon quite a grand scale, and the glass produced was of excellent quality, but the enterprise was far from successful. The baron was too dramatic. His home was a veritable castle, and from its battlements the discharge of cannon announced the return of the lord of the manor, and summoned his retainers from furnace and factory to do honor to the occasion. This is thought to have somewhat interfered with the processes of glass-making. The war cut off his income from across seas and forced the abandonment of the works. The iron establishment passed into the hands of the Coleman family, and is still in operation.

West of the Alleghanies the industry was slower in finding a footing, but the conditions there made its establishment a matter of destiny. Mr. Albert Gallatin and his associates established a flourishing window-glass factory at New Geneva in Fayette County, somewhere about the year 1797. Various dates have been assigned for this undertaking, one published statement placing it as early as 1785, but the most reliable evidence appears to be in favor of the later date. The abundance of good glass sand and the wealth of timber were the attracting forces. The glass-house was forty feet square and contained one eight-pot furnace. The enterprise was reasonably successful and continued for thirty or forty years. But more significant was the opening of a glasshouse in Pittsburg somewhat earlier than this, since the city has now become the center of the industry in America. There is a tradition that this early factory was established in 1795, and was located on the west side of the Monongahela, at what is now called Glass-house Ripple. It was devoted extensively to the production of window glass, and is reported to have been about the same size as the New Geneva plant. Two years later, in 1797, General James O'Hara and Major Isaac Craig established more extensive works, whose date and history are quite authentic. We believe that these were the first works in America to use coal in the manufacture of glass. As the supply of fuel was right at hand and practically inexhaustible, they escaped a source of danger which constantly menaced those establishments which depended upon wood. The works were intended for the production of window glass, but, like many of the plants in those days, also turned out some bottles. A memorandum found among General O'Hara's papers suggests that for a time at least the outgo made more impression upon him than the income, for it reads, "To-day we made the first bottle, at the cost of thirty thousand dollars." Many difficulties had to be met and overcome before the works proved successful. They were subsequently enlarged and improved, and glass-making became one of the recognized industries of Pittsburg. A glass-house has ever since been in continuous operation upon the very site of this early factory. It can not be said, however, that glass-making was really an assured success in Pittsburg until as late as 1830.

The other colonies were also more or less active in glass production. Attracted by the cheapness of fuel and labor, Mr. Robert Hewes, of Boston, set up a glass-house at Temple, N. H., in 1780. Like most industrial pioneers, he had rather a hard time of it, and, after making some window glass and hollow ware, abandoned the enterprise in the following year. A reference in Washington's diary shows that glass was made in New Haven, Conn., in 1789, and a glass-house is known to have been in operation at about the same time in Hartford. In Maryland the industry obtained quite a firm footing. The Legislature encouraged it by loans, and the General Government in 1789, at the instance of Mr. Carroll, gave American glass works the protection of a ten-per-cent customs duty. The first factory was located at Tuscarora Creek, near Frederickstown, and was known as the Etna Glass Works. Like so many other glass factories, it was under German management, the owner being Mr. John F. Amelung. The works were started in 1775 and were moved to Baltimore in 1788. Both sheet glass and bottles were produced, the output enjoying a high reputation for superior quality. But, in spite of its technical success, the venture was a financial failure, and had finally to be abandoned. The "Baltimore Glass Works," established in 1790, were more successful, and, I believe, are still in operation.

[To be continued.]


By the death of Lord Tennyson, says Nature, "not only does England lose one of her noblest sons, but the world loses the poet who, above all others who have ever lived, combined the love and knowledge of Nature with the unceasing study of the causes of things and of Nature's laws. When from this point of view we compare him with his forerunners, Dante is the only one it is needful to name; but although Dante's knowledge was abreast of his time, he lacked the fullness of Tennyson, for the reason that in his day science was restricted within narrow limits. It is right and fitting that the highest poetry should be associated with the highest knowledge, and in the study of science, as Tennyson has shown us, we have one of the necessary bases of the fullest poetry— a poetry which appeals at the same time to the deepest emotions and the highest and broadest intellects of mankind. Tennyson, in short, has shown that science and poetry, so far from being antagonistic, must forever advance from side to side." Tennyson was a Fellow of the Royal Society, and that body was represented at his funeral by its president and officers. Prof. Lockyer speaks very highly of Tennyson's interest in astronomy and acquaintance with it.