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University of Illinois Press
Glass Towns: Industry, Labor, and Political Economy in Appalachia, 1890-1930s

Glass Towns: Industry, Labor, and Political Economy in Appalachia, 1890-1930s

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One of the central questions facing scholars of Appalachia concerns how a region so rich in natural resources could end up a symbol of poverty.  Typical culprits include absentee landowners, reactionary coal operators, stubborn mountaineers, and greedy politicians. In a deft combination of labor and business history, Glass Towns complicates these answers by examining the glass industry’s potential to improve West Virginia’s political economy by establishing a base of value-added manufacturing to complement the state’s abundance of coal, oil, timber, and natural gas.

Through case studies of glass production hubs in Clarksburg, Moundsville, and Fairmont (producing window, tableware, and bottle glass, respectively), Ken Fones-Wolf looks closely at the impact of industry on local populations and immigrant craftsmen. He also examines patterns of global industrial restructuring, the ways workers reshaped workplace culture and political action, and employer strategies for responding to global competition, unreliable markets, and growing labor costs at the end of the nineteenth century.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780252073717
Publisher: University of Illinois Press
Publication date: 01/11/2007
Series: Working Class in American History Series
Edition description: 1ST
Pages: 272
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Ken Fones-Wolf is a professor of history at West Virginia University. He is coeditor of Transnational West Virginia: Ethnic Communities and Economic Change, 1840-1940 and author or editor of three other books.

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Glass Towns



Copyright © 2007 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-252-07371-1


In 1909, the Commoner and Glassworker, a weekly journal for workers in the glass industry, praised the resources of the Mountain State: "West Virginia possesses all that is necessary to make a state great and prosperous.... She is a great storehouse of natural wealth, and is richest in resources of any state in the union, and although they are almost intact, as yet, development is bringing them to the markets of the world." Although the extraction of the state's reserves of coal, oil, natural gas, lumber, and other resources was actually well underway by 1909, the newspaper suggested that the state was far from reaching its economic potential. In fact, the process, the politics, and the timing of industrialization in central Appalachia left the region with an underdeveloped economy despite its natural advantages. Even today, the state ranks near the bottom in most economic categories. Through the example of the glass industry, this book explores the development of northern West Virginia and tries to understand why things did not turn out differently.

The goals and energies of two separate sets of capitalists in the last decades of the nineteenth century set in motion forces that helped transform northern West Virginia's political economy. One group, glassmanufacturers, faced conditions that encouraged them to restructure their industry to lower production costs. This involved experimentation with marketing trusts, corporate organizations, mergers, new technologies, and increased scales and new social relations of production. But at this time, the most important element in achieving the glass manufacturers' overarching strategy of reducing costs was relocating their factories near ample and inexpensive supplies of natural gas. West Virginia became one of the chief beneficiaries of this new spatial division of labor. The state's share of the industry's wage earners climbed from 3 percent of the nation's total in 1890 to 12 percent a quarter century later, to 15.3 percent by the onset of the Great Depression.

During the same decades, a second group of entrepreneurs, those who eventually pioneered the coal, oil, and natural gas industries in the Mountain State, hoped to make West Virginia part of the great "manufacturing belt." This highly developed region included "all of New England and most of the other northeastern states," according to political scientist Richard Franklin Bensel. The West Virginia entrepreneurs, men like Henry Gassaway Davis, Stephen B. Elkins, A. B. Fleming, and Nathan Goff Jr., among others, already controlled lands rich with coal, oil, and natural gas, fuels essential to the second industrial revolution taking place in America. By the end of the century, they had succeeded, through Herculean efforts, in crisscrossing their lands with railroads and pipelines, and were seeking markets for their abundant fuel resources.

While many of these businessmen were content to become the wealthy agents of such powerful corporations as Standard Oil, some of the more visionary local capitalists saw an opportunity to use the state's natural resources to build a diversified economy that would include value-added manufacturing. In many respects, these two perspectives would wage a struggle over the political economy of this portion of central Appalachia. A glass industry in the middle of restructuring figured heavily in that contest. This book, then, is about these two processes-industry restructuring and the push for economic development in northern West Virginia-and the ways they intertwined to transform the social relations of the region.

For the concept of industrial restructuring, I learned much from economic geographers who have described in theoretical terms changes that were documented in my research on the glass industry and the slow economic development of West Virginia. To Doreen Massey, economic geography is "the spatial organization of the relations of production (defined in the widest sense of that term)." She adds: "new spatial divisions of labour (forms of economic uneven development) are thorough re-workings of the social relations which construct economic space." For scholars of industrial restructuring, the theory asserts "that industries in crisis will make various strategic moves to rationalize production and revive sagging profits in the spheres of finance, organization, production and employment" and that these moves typically involve "workplace relocation."

Indeed, by 1890, the various branches of the glass industry-tableware, containers, and windows-were at a critical juncture that was the result of changes in production costs. During the previous decade, wages had climbed from less than 45 percent of production costs to nearly 55 percent. The value of imported glass increased from $5.1 million to $8.2 million, but more than doubled in windows and tripled in containers. If the theory of industrial restructuring is accurate, we would expect to see a range of strategies in investment, corporate reorganization, new technologies, and new spatial divisions of labor aimed at solving this crisis. In fact, that is exactly what occurred. Indiana's share of glass industry employment jumped from under 7 percent to 25 percent. Older centers of the industry-Pennsylvania, New York, and New Jersey-all saw their shares decline. Even that movement understates the new spatial division of labor. Pennsylvania remained the largest glass-producing state, but much of its capacity moved out of places like Pittsburgh and into small towns like Kane or Jeannette. Companies also entered marketing trusts and merger agreements to enhance their power, or introduced continuous tanks and semiautomatic machines into larger factories to better control labor costs. All these strategies were part of an era that one historian calls the "revolution in glassmaking."

If this process, as explained in theoretical terms, appears predetermined or dominated by just one group in a search for cheap labor, such was not the case. The restructuring of the 1890s also involved a new group of capitalists who did not understand the delicate balance achieved through the cooperation of labor and management in regulating output, according to a longtime industry veteran who testified before a congressional committee in 1900. This new group entered glass manufacture because of opportunities provided by the development of natural gas fields and the use of gas for the innovative continuous tank furnaces, with the result that "the output of glass very soon was more than the demands of the country could consume." (See map 1.)

Nor were capitalists the only people behind workplace relocation. In window glass and-to a lesser extent-glass tableware, groups of workers unhappy with the changing social relations of production pooled their resources and built cooperative factories in such places as Matthews, Indiana, Pt Marion, Pennsylvania, and Salem, West Virginia.

Finally, the restructuring did not occur with a single, dramatic shift. After a decade of prosperity, glass manufacturing confronted another crisis in 1909, when the value of glass produced lagged woefully behind this industry's share of the total industrial workforce. A new round of restructuring was needed; Indiana would rapidly lose ground as a center of glass production, replaced by Ohio and West Virginia before World War I. Thus, this book complements the exciting research of Jefferson Cowie, who has greatly expanded the historical framework of what modern scholars have labeled (somewhat incorrectly, as it turns out) deindustrialization. Instead, industry restructuring must be seen in the context of a "constant ebb and flow of investment, industrial production, employment and cyclical behaviour." Some of the benefits of a study of industry restructuring covering an earlier period are the insights it provides into the texture and complexity of the process.

Another benefit is linking these new spatial divisions of labor to their impact on workers and communities. Massey notes that restructuring represents "whole new sets of relations between activities in different places, new spatial forms of social organization, new dimensions of inequality and new relations of dominance and dependence." At the same time, studies of such changes have a tendency to underestimate the problems caused in the older sites of production and overestimate the advantages gained by new sites in the changing landscape of uneven economic development. For workers in the industry, as well as the communities they construct, the social relations of production will inevitably be different in both areas.

Consequently, the first part of this study explores the restructuring of various branches of the glass industry. This section builds upon the work of two excellent glass industry historians who wrote more than fifty years ago, Pearce Davis and Warren C. Scoville. They both offered insightful overviews of the technological revolution that transformed the glass industry between the 1880s and 1920. Davis was particularly concerned with the role tariffs played in the rise and decline of the "bilateral monopoly" of unions and employers in glassmaking and the impact of the subsequent mechanization on labor-management relations. Scoville concentrated on the activities of a particular group of entrepreneurs who were instrumental in breaking the "bottleneck" to industry expansion represented by handicraft techniques and strong unions. While both are outstanding industrial histories, neither is particularly attentive to the local complexity of industrial restructuring or the implications of these social processes for the uneven development of regional economies. These are important components of my study.

This first part contains two chapters. Chapter 1 examines the rise of the dual monopoly imposed by the cooperation of labor and capital in the various branches of the glass industry, as well as the crisis this system faced in the 1890s. As Davis and Scoville note, the dual monopoly emerged as a result of both politics (in the shape of protective tariffs) and the labor process, which relied on skilled workers and handicraft techniques longer than was the case for many industries. After 1890, older firms found themselves trapped in locations that enhanced the power of workers and diminished the benefits employers received from urban sites (agglomeration economies) like Pittsburgh. New companies and entrepreneurs, using new technologies, gravitated to sites offering cheaper fuels and land. The competition these new firms brought made the former costs of production prohibitive and necessitated an industry restructuring.

Chapter 2 turns to the impact of restructuring on workers and their communities at both ends of that process. Restructuring not only set the industry in motion but also recomposed the workforce. Factories that made a more substantial commitment to expensive machinery often reduced their use of women and children. Reform movements that pressured government officials at new sites of production undoubtedly offered an additional incentive to eliminate child labor. At the same time, the desire for larger numbers of unskilled laborers and semiskilled operatives both caused a reshuffling of industry veterans and led to the recruitment of new sources of labor from outside the region and frequently outside the continent. Glassmaking in the United States had always relied on immigrants as craftsmen; worker moves preceded "capital moves." Restructuring merely added to the foreign character of workers at both ends of the occupational ladder. Finally, restructuring elicited reactions from those skilled workers who had benefited from the dual monopoly. Some accepted new opportunities, some contributed to the relocation of production by opening cooperative factories or family-owned firms, and some tried to resist change by turning to politics. Few would have perceived moving as completely unprecedented; after all, many had far-flung, even transatlantic, family connections. However, virtually all could acknowledge the changing social relations of production.

Having explored the background of an industry that would play a major role in the economic development of northern West Virginia, I then shift the angle of vision. In the remainder of the book, I look at the region and some specific communities that were the purported beneficiaries of restructuring. As employers, workers, and technologies were transforming glass manufacturing, capitalists in the Mountain State hoped to drastically alter the economy of their home. When West Virginia separated from Virginia in 1863, a core of the state's Republican political leadership looked to the industrial North for their model. They fashioned a government that emphasized economic modernization, hoping to join the dynamic economies of Ohio and Pennsylvania rather than follow the agrarian path of their southern neighbors. Unfortunately, many of the resource-rich counties that the Republicans included within West Virginia's boundaries were undeveloped economically and controlled politically by a "buckskin elite" who ruled through a system of patron-client relationships and dominance of the county courthouses. One school of thought attributes Appalachia's slow industrial development to the persistence of this corrupt system of clientelism, which held considerable sway in West Virginia in the 1870s and 1880s.

Although this political balance certainly delayed West Virginia's economic growth, other factors contributed. Banking policies, until 1863 in Virginia and subsequently in the nation, left the Mountain State without capital resources for private investment; antiquated tax policies prevented the state from building the necessary infrastructure; and a forbidding terrain made it difficult to get products to markets. Nevertheless, by the 1880s, some key leaders in both the Republican and Democratic parties understood the opportunities awaiting development. The ensuing two decades were a time of industrial transformation, as the penetration of railroads opened up the extraction of timber, coal, oil, and natural gas to incredible energies and capitalist investments. The problem with this development, according to a second interpretation of Appalachia's underdeveloped economy, was its control by outsiders. In the 1960s and 1970s, scholars Ronald Eller, Helen Lewis, and John Alexander Williams stressed the stultifying impact of absentee ownership of the region's resources and the development of a colonial political economy. Particularly devastating for West Virginia were the entrepreneurs (Williams called them compradors) who sold or merged their assets to outside corporations for personal gain and political influence, and then used that influence to pursue policies that prevented the state from reaping any benefits from its natural wealth.

A subsequent group of scholars refined these arguments, acknowledging that the "morality play" of good and evil that became the reigning paradigm for Appalachian studies could not encompass all of the diversity within the region, nor could it account for the many social forces determining the fate of Appalachian economic development. The colonial framework painted mountain people as helpless victims and ignored those places where local entrepreneurs pioneered and sustained commercial and industrial development. Moreover, the colonial model ignored complex social relations within the region, often falling prey to a geographical determinism. Economic development in the region was far more varied than these early scholars suggested, and it certainly predated the piqued interests of outside capital. Moreover, Appalachia received a steady stream of immigrants and migrants-Irish, Germans, African Americans, Hungarians, Italians-that shatters the image of a homogeneous mountain people. Even the most important advocate of the model in West Virginia, John Alexander Williams, subsequently confessed to its "inadequacies."


Excerpted from Glass Towns by KEN FONES-WOLF Copyright © 2007 by Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Excerpted by permission.
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Table of Contents

List of lllustrations and Maps     xi
Acknowledgments     xiii
Introduction     xvii
The Restructuring of the Glass Industry
The Emeigence and Crisis of the Dual Monopoly     3
Workers and the Revolution in Glassmaking     29
Glass Towns and Political Economy in West Virginia
The Development Faith and the Glass Industry     59
Moundsville: Enterprising Managers and Upright Citizens     81
Clarksburg: A Craftsman's Paradise     113
Fairmont: A Cutting Edge of Mass Production     146
Into the Depression     175
Note on Sources     193
Notes     197
Index     229

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