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.