Indiana Glass Works and Its Ware

For forty years the Indiana Glass Works was the community’s leading industry, supplying work for 200 employees, and producing distinctive glassware to a large clientele throughout the world.  Though never highly profitable the company might still be in operation today had it not suffered a costly fire at the height of the depression.

As colonial expansion spread westward, the need for glass factories near the new settlements increased since the primitive transportation methods then available rendered it difficult to ship glassware safely.  Consequently, many glassworks sprang up in Western Pennsylvania, a development abetted by the availability of raw materials, fuel, and skilled labor.  Although Pennsylvania has led the nation in glass produced since 1860, the period of greatest growth began about the turn of the century.  About this time, Indiana entered the picture by establishing a glass factory which eventually made “Indiana Glass” famous throughout the world.

It all began on New Year’s Day, 1892 when a group of Indiana’s town fathers assembled in the office of Hon. George W. Hood to discuss an exciting new business venture with Mr. Nevill, a visiting glass expert.  Mr. Nevill had patented a series of glass molds which he claimed would increase production by one-third to one-half.  He proposed to form a company which would utilize his technique to manufacture glass in Indiana.  He hoped to establish a factory in Indiana where he would not encounter the antagonism of labor unions which had opposed his labor-saving methods.

Nevill claimed that a $40,000 stock issue would furnish sufficient capital to build and equip a glass factory that eventually would hire 200 employees with a monthly payroll of about $7,000.  The local magnates were so favorably impressed by Nevill’s glowing prospectus that they immediately subscribed $12,000 to the venture, and after the Indiana Board of Trade visited a glassworks in Blairsville, the remainder of the required funds was forthcoming.  The January 20, 1892 issue of the Indiana County Gazette announced in its headline that “Both Indiana and Blairsville will have Glass Works.”  By now the optimistic entrepreneurs were negotiating for a tract of land on the old Experimental Farm in West Indiana (now the site of the University parking area adjacent to Miller Stadium).

For several months there was no news about the glassworks and rumors began circulating that the project had died aborning.  Then on May 18, the Indiana County Gazette carried a page one article stating that company officials had opened bids for the new factory.  C.E. McSparran, a West Indiana builder, submitted the lowest bid, $4,600, and was awarded the contract.

In the ensuing months, things began to hum.  Mr. Vandersaal assumed his duties as superintendent of the building; a railroad siding was completed; Mr. Nevill’s glass molds arrived; a 130-foot well was sunk to supply water; and the 80’ x 220’ building took shape.

Early in November construction was finished, and the building was thoroughly dried out by heaters for two weeks.  Then on Monday, November 14, 1892, the Indiana Glass Works staged elaborate ceremonies to inaugurate the startup of glass production.

glass factory
Indiana Glass Works Plant in Indiana

At 2:00 p.m. Judge Harry White delivered a speech to the employees and invited townspeople extolling the benefits which the new company would bring to Indiana.  Afterward the visitors entered the works to witness the fascinating operation of glass making.  The process began in the ten huge iron pots into which the workmen poured sand, lime, soda, and special coloring ingredients.  Each pot was heated in a gas fired brick kiln.  When the solid ingredients fused into a molten mass, the clear viscous glass was removed and pressed into molds or blown into the desired shapes.  The plant produced both crystal and colored glass.

The shaped glass articles were annealed in four 65-foot long heated lehrs in which the temperature gradient gradually decreased as the glass traveled from one end to the other.  After being thoroughly tempered, the glass articles were sorted, decorated, and packed for shipment.  Decorators were highly skilled artisans who received five to six dollars per day, wages which attracted many skilled and meticulous craftsmen from Bohemia.  Before long the plant employed almost 200 workers with a monthly payroll of $10,000.  A staff of eight highly paid salesmen carried samples and portfolios containing lithographs of the complete line of glassware which they displayed to prospective customers in all parts of the country.

The company’s announced policy was to produce handsome specialties that would be both ornamental and serviceable.  Designs were changed annually to meet the popular demand for new styles.  The manufactured items which in time became collectors items included:

Lampshades                                        tumblers

Sewing lamps                                      goblets

Lantern globes                                    wine glasses

Cream pitchers                                    salt and pepper bottles

Soda glasses                                        molasses jugs

Although the Indiana Glass Works constituted a definite economic asset to the community and established a reputation as a producer of quality glassware, the company’s profits proved disappointing.  Consequently, the management underwent successive changes.  The company had not been in operation long before the Northwood family, father and son, assumed control of the firm and renamed it the Northwood Company.  The Northwoods in turn were succeeded by the Dugans, father and two sons, from England who changed the name to the Dugan Glass Company.  The Dugans brought with them a number of English workers who settled in Indiana.  In 1913, the company changed names for the last time when it became the Diamond Glassware Company.

When World War I shut off imported glassware from Austria and Bohemia, the demand for American glass zoomed.  The Diamond Glassware Company shared in this prosperity running at full capacity to fill orders booked months in advance.  During this prosperous period the local firm enjoyed peaceful labor relations.  The work week was five days, most of the workmen now belonged to the union.  The plant was shut down during the month of July each year during which period the employees enjoyed a month’s vacation without pay.

After the War, the plant resumed normal operations under General Manager H. Wallace Thomas and Superintendent John Richards, Jr.  Then on Saturday afternoon, June 27, 1931, tragedy struck the company.  Early that afternoon residents in the vicinity observed smoke curling over the roof of the plant followed shortly by raging flames which burst through the roof above the decorating room.  Firemen rushed to the scene and were able to confine the damage to the frame section of the plant which housed the stock room, decorating room, and office.  Although the origin of the fire was never satisfactorily determined, several theories were advanced.  One attributed the fire to sparks from a passing train, a second ascribed it to the spontaneous combustion of oily rags while still another postulated that a smoldering spark from a freak lighting storm the previous day was the culprit.

In an interview on the day following the fire, Manager Thomas and Superintendent Richards indicated that the company’s plans for the future were indefinite, but they believed that the plant would be rebuilt.  However, the sections destroyed by fire were not reconstructed nor did the plant ever resume production.  The decision to discontinue operation doubtless was dictated by a combination of factors including a lackluster profit record, the loss in the fire of $30,000 worth of stock, increasingly sharp competition from West Virginia and Ohio firms, and the generally dismal economic outlook at the height of the Great Depression.

After standing idle for years, the main glassworks building was razed thereby drawing down the curtain on the company which had been Indiana’s leading industry for 40 years.  But though the manufacturing facilities are gone, the objects of quality craftsmanship survive.  Such are the rewards of personalized labor which unfortunately seem doomed in our increasingly computerized society.

Puttin’ on the Ritz

What a debut!  The biggest star in the history of American entertainment was born onstage at the Fourteenth Street Theater in New York on October 24, 1881.  Though she died in obscurity some fifty years later in Hollywood, most radio, film and TV greats to this very day acknowledge their debt to the star whose stage name was Voix de Ville . . . “Vaudeville.”

An eclectic mix of music, comedy, drama, dancing and circus-style acts, vaudeville was developed as a family-friendly alternative to the more bawdy saloon and burlesque entertainment of our post-Civil War era.  The secret of its longevity lay in both the ever-changing variety of its acts and the invention of the theatrical circuit by vaudeville promotor Benjamin Keith.  Acts would get their start in the catch-as-catch-can world of small venues, and if successful, were signed to a contract by one of the national circuits.  The 400 theater Keith Circuit, ancestor of RKO Pictures, was the biggest.

Vaudeville came late to Indiana County.  At first our towns just weren’t big enough to be worth a troupe’s while; after all, Voix de Ville meant “voice of the city.”  Besides, nearby Punxsutawney had more full-size theaters than our entire county AND was on a circuit.  But as our population grew in the 1890s, professional acts began to be hired for charity events, private functions and even the County Fair.  The curtain went up on big-time vaudeville here on September 6, 1899, when the Gazette announced: “The theatrical season in Indiana will be opened by the Russell Brothers Vaudeville Company, which will play Library Hall.  The troupe numbers 29 people and carries its own brass band and orchestra.”

Located behind where Indiana’s post office now stands, Library Hall (later called the Auditorium) was one of just two venues large enough to host such a full-size troupe.  Einstein’s Opera House in Blairsville, “unquestionably the largest and best theater in the county” when it opened in 1904, was the other.  So even counting the tent-shows that occasionally passed through, Indiana County vaudeville remained sparse until a certain technology changed everything….

Silent films became available to small towns about 1905, and they began to form an unexpected symbiosis with vaudeville here almost immediately.  Public demand for “flickers” caused the opening of at least eight nickelodeons (movie theaters) between 1906 and 1913, and even roller-rinks showed films after hours.  Managers needing to fill the rewind-time between films began hiring non-circuit vaudevilleans to share the bill.  It worked.  From tiny Dreamland to the spacious Globe, business boomed, and THAT caught the big boys’ attention.  The Keith, Nixon and Polock circuits started booking acts that fit on our nickelodeons’ stages (Dreamland’s was only 10’x15’) and sent the bigger ones to Einstein’s and the Auditorium.  The golden age of Indiana County vaudeville had begun.

ritz2
Ad for vaudeville at Indiana’s  Star Theater (1909)

The sheer number of entertainment choices was now staggering, a sudden increase analogous to the coming of cable TV in the 1980s.  On any weeknight through 1918, an Indianan could see six vaudeville acts between three movies at one of up to five theaters . . . all for a dime.  To name just a few: The Lilliputians, midget acrobats; Harry Martine, the Juggling Jester; The Rockwell Minstrels; The Great Lamar, King of Handcuffs; Fairy Plum, the Dancing Comedienne;  Crighton and his Trained Roosters; The Mysterious Henrello; The Four Mirrors, mimics;  Valmore the Human Orchestra.

Vaudeville even did its patriotic duty in 1917 when our boys enlisted to go “Over There,” as vaudvillean George M. Cohan’s song put it.  Troops of the 110th Infantry, sent to train at Fort Lee, were entertained there by troupes hired from the Keith Circuit.

You may recall from a previous article that our county was a morally stringent place in those days.  There were no Sunday shows, nor any alcohol backstage or front.  Ads went to great lengths to assure the public of a vaudeville act’s good character.  A typical 1916 Gazette review found the Sunny South Company’s show to be “good, clean comedy . . . free from any suggestion of vulgarity.”

The one big gap in vaudeville’s character was its caricatures: ethnic and racial stereotypes formed the core of many a vaudeville comedy routine.  But there were also ethnic circuits from which small town immigrant groups sometimes hired acts for special occasions.  Heilwood’s Star Theater hosted just such a “Yiddisher troupe” during the 1916 Jewish War Sufferers fund drive, and Il Patriota gushed proudly when maestro Pietro Pastori played the Strand.

Then came Intermission.  The Colonial and the aged Auditorium closed in early 1919.  National circuits, learning of the Auditorium’s pending demolition, had withdrawn all future Indiana County bookings well in advance for want of a large enough anchor theater (Einstein’s had closed in 1916), and the remaining nickelodeons found it hard to attract independent acts.  Vaudeville all but vanished from the county for five long years.

Ritz
Heilwood’s Town Hall hosted vaudeville shows.

Two full-size modern theaters rose to fill the void in 1924: the 1,200 seat Ritz and the 1,100 seat Indiana, within a block of each other on Philadelphia in our county seat.  National circuits resumed bookings, finally sending us their biggest and best thanks to the opulent new movie palaces and some theatrical mergers.  From Blairsville’s Richelieu to the Knights of Pythias Hall in Clymer, vaudeville was back!

Three years later, the old vaudeville/flickers alliance made the next great leap when vaudeville star Al Jolson appeared and sang in the 1927 film  The Jazz Singer.  But instead of benefiting both parties as the silents had, “talkies” cleared vaudeville from most movie houses nationwide by the end of 1929, and the Great Depression did the rest.

The curtain came down on professional vaudeville in Indiana County in the early 1930s.  Half the theaters on county tax rolls in 1927 had closed by 1932, and one by one, those that remained stopped featuring live variety between movie times.  The last troupe took a bow on March 19, 1932 at the Ritz in Indiana: between showings of the film High Pressure, the Vanity Fair Vaudeville Revue presented “8 BIG TIME ACTS—30 Minutes of Comedy, Singing, Dancing!”  In the corner of their Gazette ad was an unintentional but fitting obituary: Last Times Today.

There was a curtain call of sorts thereafter.  Catering to nostalgia for the good times before the Depression, some radio networks featured travelling vaudeville teams making broadcasts from local venues what we now call “remotes.”  One of those shows came to Indiana in 1935.  For three days in July, episodes of the sitcom/variety show Salt and Peanuts NBC Revue  were broadcast live from the Ritz.

And then they were gone.

Pennsylvania’s love affair with vaudeville was a passionate one, immortalized long afterwards by George Burns’ famous tag-line, “They still love me in Altoona.”  So if there are any remaining vaudevilleans out there who remember playing the Ritz . . . we still love you in Indiana!

Portrait of an Indiana Community

1655 to 1900: Chapmen and Merchants

Though  Jews have been in our state from the start – the first were river traders in Peter Stuyvesant’s time – it wasn’t until the early 1800s that sons of Abraham settled in western Pennsylvania.  Their numbers were at first few; there were just 4,000 Jews in the entire United States at the time, and only seven US cities had a Jewish population greater than one hundred by 1830.  But events in northern Europe would soon cause the first great wave of Jewish emigration to the New World.

A series of failed revolutions compounded the effects of famine and economic depression already underway in the German Confederation by 1848.  The least privileged suffered most, and it was these – the Jews of Prussia, Hanover and the Slavic territories among them – who fled to America.  In a few short years, major coastal cities like Philadelphia had absorbed more immigrants than they could employ.  To make matters worse, Jews were often excluded by law from many professions and by custom from many of the rest.

Word soon spread that for those willing to work hard and take risks, there was opportunity in the hinterland.  But few of the new Jewish citizens had the means to buy or rent land.  What to do?  What outsiders so often do best: adapt.  They became itinerant peddlers, scrapmen and rag recyclers, independent trades needing little capital investment beyond a pack or a horse.  These “huxters” (as the term then was) served the remote coal camps in our area, where immigrant miners spoke the same Silesian dialect of German many of them did.

The life of a huxter was not easy, and not without risk.  Some were robbed, and a few even murdered.  They looked different and often spoke limited English and so were viewed by some with suspicion.  Yet these Jewish peddlers also brought news of the outer world to an eager audience.  When at last they were able to save enough to leave the road, they set up shop in small towns where the demand for their goods was high and competition was low, then sent for their families.   As historian Deborah Weiner observes, “For immigrant Jews, the American Dream revolved not around economic success or owning a piece of land, but around achieving self-employment . . . owning and operating their own store.”

By 1878 there were a quarter million American Jews, and of all the thirty-eight states, none had  more Jewish communities of over one hundred than Pennsylvania.   In that year, a certain town  which would one day join the ranks of “hundred-plus” had just three Jews in residence.  It was Indiana.  But change was in the wind for our county, in the number of its Jewish citizens and in the small-town suspicions of at least some of their neighbors.

In one of history’s great ironies, it was anti-Semitic atrocities halfway around the world that paved the way for better relations here.  Speaking from the Courthouse steps in 1882, Kiski School founder A.W. Wilson addressed Indianans:

“Whereas, we read with horror . . . of the oppression and cruelties perpetrated by the government and people of Russia on its own Israelitish citizens . . . we hereby express our sympathy for the suffering of persecuted Jews, welcoming them to our own hospitable land, in the hope that this age of advancing civilization may no more witness proscription of peaceful and law-abiding citizens anywhere on account of race or creed.”

The ancestors of most present-day Pennsylvania Jews came as refugees from Russia between 1880 and 1910, fleeing pogroms in the wake of Czar Alexander II’s assassination.  Those who settled in western Pennsylvania often came by “chain migration,” having first come to larger communities elsewhere and later to small towns at the invitation of relatives or friends already there.  And unlike the early peddler, the late-century Jewish newcomer often found a social network already in place; the traditional Hebrew concept of  TZEDEKAH, a communal obligation to help others, meant that he would seldom go hungry or homeless while he sought employment.  Thus, by the dawn of the new century, the stage was set for Indiana’s Jews to take their place – and set the pace – in retail commerce, and through it to gain the social acceptance so long denied them in the Old World and the New.

1900 – Present : Foundation, Floruit and Fade

The third and final wave came from Poland, Russia and economically-distressed Lithuania.  By the time WWI ended the Great Migration of 1900-1914, most members of Indiana’s Jewish community were of Lithuanian descent.  Many of its institutions were born in that period’s final years.  Hebrew Unity Club, chartered in 1914, would become Hebrew Unity Congregation two years later; both the Hub and Bon Ton, founded in 190708, would surpass the twentyfive year record set by Noah Adler’s clothing store (1867-1892) to become future Indiana icons.

The signal event in the community’s history took place on October 20, 1916 – the 23rd day  of Tishri, 5677 by the Jewish calendar – with the founding of Hebrew Unity Congregation.  Each of its thirty-eight charter members represented one of the twenty-five Jewish families of Indiana or one of thirteen in towns nearby.  They began meeting and worshiping in homes, then in rented rooms.  The new White Building’s third floor was finished in accordance with the congregation’s needs, and it remained their home for the next thirty-six years.

The word “Unity” in their name was neither incidental nor coincidental.  Many smaller Jewish communities of the time had split into separate congregations over differences in ethnic tradition or denominational practice; with its members representing four ethnic groups and all three traditions of Judaism (Orthodox, Conservative, Reform), Hebrew Unity’s founders could not afford to let those differences count more than their common heritage.

Terrible events on the world stage would once again broaden Indiana’s acceptance of its Jewish citizens as they matched their community’s response to World War One.  Joint committees of Jewish and Christian leaders spearheaded at least four war-relief drives through 1919, and Hebrew Unity’s young men enlisted to go “over there” alongside their gentile age-mates.  Lieutenant Charles LeVine, who would join the Red Cross at war’s end, survived artillery barrages, air strikes and even a submarine attack, but his Blairsville kinsman Mayer LeVine was one of many Indiana County doughboys who never came home.  Death is the great equalizer.

Indiana grew rapidly in the postwar boom.  Jewish retailers opened stores along Philadelphia Street in such number that they were in the majority there by 1929.  Yet beyond their entrepreneurial skills, it would be thrift and sacrifice – virtues on which immigrant Jews had long relied – that would see them through the Great Depression to come.

Radio and newspapers were at their zenith in the 1930s.  Hebrew Unity members unable to attend Sabbath services listened to WCAE’s broadcast from Rodef Shalom synagogue in Pittsburgh, or read that city’s Jewish Criterion for inspiration and information.  Locally, former pro basketballer Dave Abrams coached Indiana’s Cardinals in the Inter-County League, a source of pride and welcome distraction in those hard times.

Pearl Harbor changed everything, from economics to attitudes.  Looking back, men like Dave Luxenberg – then an Army battalion commander – would identify WWII as the turning point, as the military and humanitarian involvement of Indiana’s Jews proved their mettle beyond any doubt.  Eighty percent of the boys in Hebrew Unity’s 1941 Confirmation class were in uniform a year later, and the salvage business, once held in low esteem, was so crucial to the war effort that half the men in that typically Jewish profession were granted exemption from the draft.

Like much of small-town America, Indiana’s Jewish community began its Golden Age in 1946.  For a quarter century, their second generation rode a rising tide that lifted institutions of local business, nuclear family and post-secondary education to heights not seen before or since.  Social and religious groups like Hadassah and B’nai B’rith flourished.  Now over sixty families strong, Hebrew Unity became Beth Israel Congregation when the cornerstone of its new synagogue was laid in 1952.  The lot was purchased, design commissioned and building constructed WITHOUT  DEBT  OR  MORTGAGE  – a remarkable feat for a congregation of any size, much less for one of 300 souls.

All good things must come to an end.  With the opening of Regency Mall in 1969, the first of three changes that would close the Golden Age struck family-owned retail businesses.  As Stan Luxenberg would say of Indiana in Roadside Empires, “Franchised outlets now lined the highways leading to town.  Downtown stores that had once flourished closed or moved to the three malls….”  Then came the wave of outsourcing in the Eighties and the rise of E-commerce in the Nineties.  The educated children of small town Jewish families dispersed to population centers where professionals were in demand, and by 2000, Beth Israel Congregation was too small to support a full-time rabbi or even to hold regular Sabbath services.

What to do?  What the children of Abraham have always done best: adapt.  No one knows the future, but given history’s example, it would be a mistake to count out the Jews of Indiana.