by Brian R. Alexander
Thomas Fulton drove one of the few automobiles in Lancaster, Ohio to the local train depot on the town’s south side. Fulton, a leader of the Hocking Glass Company, hoped to meet a crew of men there who would work in the Hocking’s plant, known as the Black Cat for its heavily carbon-dusted exterior, on the town’s west side.
Executives like Fulton didn’t make a habit of greeting new workers at the depot, but this crew was different. They were scabs from the Glass Bottle Blowers Association, coming to town to replace strikers from the American Flint Glass Workers Union. The quieter their entrance, and the faster Fulton could convey them to local boarding houses, the less opportunity for violence.
It was April 24, 1911. The Hocking Glass Company, named for the Hocking River that ran through Lancaster, formed just six years before, in 1905. Under the direction of its founder, Isaac J. “I.J” or “Ike” Collins, “The Hockin’,” as it was locally known, was already one of the town’s leading employers. A former Pinkerton union buster and Collins friend from Pittsburgh named Edward Good had provided half the capital to start the company. Union loathing was in the Hockin’s DNA.
When the “Flints” discovered the subterfuge at the railroad station, their national leadership protested to the GBBA, saying that no bottles were made inside the Black Cat. GBBA supplied the workers anyway. The Flints and the GBBA eventually negotiated a truce and the bottle blowers left town, but Collins’ move demonstrated just how little power unions had in 1911.
That lack of power showed in the Hockin’s wages and working conditions. As the company grew, neither kept up to national standards. W. Robert Taylor went to work for the company in the spring of 1924. He once labored three days and nights with no sleep. “We just kept a-goin’” he told an interviewer.
In the “hot end” near the furnaces that turned silica and other minerals into molten glass, and the molds and hand shops that turned that molten glass into tumblers, dishes, and other ware, temperatures could exceed 150 degrees. Men dropped where they stood, and when they did, co-workers pulled them outside to lay under the shade of a tree. Ambulances routinely hauled workers to the local hospital during hot summer days.
In the late 1920s, new hires at the Hocking made thirty cents an hour. Experienced men earned 35. In 1918, the average manufacturing wage in the United States was 53 cents per hour.
They took the work because Lancaster sat just at the transition from Appalachia to the plains. Many locals were poor and had come from tough farm families, or they’d been coal miners, or draymen. As hard as the work was in the glass factory, and as little as they were paid, the wages were better than they could make elsewhere.
It wasn’t until 1933 that the Hocking Glass Company Flints gained any real leverage. President Franklin Roosevelt’s National Industrial Recovery Act, the NRA, included section 7(a). That section forced factory owners to recognize a right to join an independent union, to collectively bargain for wages and working conditions, and to receive a minimum wage.
On March 21, 1934 union men met with William V. Fisher, vice-president of the Hocking. At the meeting, Fisher pledged that the company was following, and would continue to abide by, the code of the NRA “for the conduct of the glass business one-hundred percent, as to wages, hours of employment, and every provision of the Code, and will continue to do so as long as the Code was in effect.”
“The meeting was harmonious and satisfactory,” a local Lancaster newspaper reported, “to both the company and the committee of employees.” The NRA was overturned by the Supreme Court in 1935, but was quickly replaced the National Labor Relations Act, better known as the Wagner Act. It re-instituted union rights and other regulations, and made unions an integral part of the American economy.
Unionization did not slow The Hockin’s progress. The company not only survived the Great Depression, it thrived. In 1937, it merged with New York-based Anchor Cap and Closure to become the Anchor Hocking Glass Company.
By 1947, Forbs magazine was declaring Lancaster, Ohio the ideal American town, devoting its entire 30th Anniversary issue to Lancaster. With Anchor Hocking and another glass company (later known as Lancaster Glass), a shoe manufacturer, and other, smaller, industrial businesses, Lancaster became a miniature manufacturing hub.
In 1950, Anchor Hocking invented late-night television by sponsoring a show on NBC called “Broadway Open House” with host Morey Amsterdam (most famous for playing Buddy Sorrell on the Dick van Dyke Show). Broadway Open House was the antecedent of shows hosted Johnny Carson, Jimmy Fallon, Samantha Bee, David Letterman and every other late-night TV personality.
By the 1960s, Anchor Hocking was the world’s largest maker of glass tableware and the second largest manufacturer of glass containers – peanut butter jars, baby food jars, and, yes, bottles – beer bottles, soft drink bottles, liquor bottles. The GBBA and the Flints both wound up working in Anchor Hocking plants. All over the world, people could flip over a baking dish, a measuring cup, a glass jar and see the little anchor logo on the bottom.
The container division was sold off in the 1980s (though an Anchor Hocking plant in Monaca, Pennsylvania still makes liquor bottles) and the company has faced decades of depredations. It is now a shadow of what it once was. But Plant 1, the factory that replaced the old Black Cat in Lancaster, still makes those measuring cups, baking dishes, vases, and other ware, and the Flints, now part of the United Steelworkers, are still proud to be called glassmen.
Brian Alexander has written about American culture for decades. A former contributing editor to Wired magazine, he has been recognized by Medill School of Journalism’s John Bartlow Martin awards for public interest journalism and other organizations. He grew up in Lancaster, with a family history in the glass business. He lives in California.