Pittsburgh's Glass Industry
For over a century the Pittsburgh region has been the center of production and marketing for America's glass industry. Pittsburgh produced glass for globes that lit the nation's streets, windows for the country's homes and stores, and jars for foodstuffs that fed the growing urban population. It all started with three immigrants with capital and the desire to build a fortune- Albert Gallatin, James O'Hara, and Benjamin Bakewell. All of them looked upon the business of glass production as a sure path to riches, not realizing the costs of setting up such a manufacturing plant. Building the shed for the melting furnace and annealing oven was just the beginning. Raw materials (silica sand, soda ash, and limestone) had to be acquired, technical problems solved , and the product distributed. Such plants required the services of a gristmill, carpentry shop, blacksmith shop, and a general store.
Pittsburgh's strategic location on the inland river system with the Allegheny Mountains to the East and the nation's future to the West, positioned Albert Gallatin & Company and the Pittsburgh Glass Works to rely on the river network for trade. As early as the 1820's glass was shipped to Central and South America. The Louisiana Purchase (1803) provided a stimulus for markets in the western half of America; particularly, as the population of this section grew from 300,000 to over 5 million between 1800 and 1850. Pittsburgh's City Directory (1826) reported:
Western Pennsylvania was the center of the nation's glass industry by the time of the Civil War. Pittsburgh;s glass trade was a seven million dollar business in 1869 with twenty bottle and vial factories, twenty-three window glass factories, twenty-two flint glass factories and a number of glass factories devoted exclusively to the production of chimneys. Child labor was a common element in the operation of such factories as Ralph Fenn's sketch of the window glass blowers making cylinder window glass at the factory of Messrs. William McCully & Company vividly illustrates. Skilled and unskilled labor was always an obstacle-the demand for clay tramplers, pot makers, batch mixers, furnace men and master blowers-lead state governments to recognize the skill of the glass blower by exempting him from military service in time of invasion or civil insurrection.
Invention was the key to Pittsburgh's glass houses success. Over 100 patents were secured by men in this business. John Bakewell, on September 9, 1825, claimed that he was the first to secure a patent for "an improvement in making glass furniture knobs." Unfortunately, all patents issued between 1790 and 1836 were destroyed by a fire at the U.S. Patent Office, so the original Bakewell patent is not available, but a sampling of glass patents secured by proprietors of early Pittsburgh glass houses can be viewed. Technological advances in this industry was a process of fits and starts which meant some men gained while others lost fortunes.
Researchers seeking additional information on Pittsburgh glass companies in the Catalog can undertake a Word Search for glassware and catalogs (including reprints). Other rare items are located in the Oliver Room and can be viewed by appointment.
Illustration by Ralph Fenn, "Pittsburgh Sketches Among the Glass Worker," Every Saturday , March 11, 1871