Skip to main content

How the Owens Bottle Company Helped End American Child Labor

An excerpt from Vince Beiser's new book about how sand transformed civilization.
Sand Vince Beiser

As the Industrial Revolution took hold across America, whole cities and regions grew up around the glass trade, just as they did around steel, coal, and other mushrooming industries. To manufacture glass profitably, glassmakers need easy access to high-quality sand, cheap energy to run the furnaces, and a transportation network to get the product to market. In the 1880s, the city fathers of a small, relatively young town in Ohio called Toledo realized they had all those resources and more. Eager to build up their settlement, they set about wooing glassmakers from the East to relocate. Toledo, they bragged in newspaper advertisements and personal meetings, had cheap land, cheap labor (including employable children as young as eight), natural gas, and a location on Lake Erie that offered access to canals, rivers, and railroads. Just as important, the city lay near a seam of extremely high-quality silica sand, so pure it was sold to glassmakers as far away as Pittsburgh and Wheeling, West Virginia.

The pitch worked. Glass manufacturers poured in. So many of them set up shop in Toledo—around a hundred by the turn of the 20th century—that it became known as the Glass City. It remained a vital center of the trade for decades. "Toledo glass was used to make the spacesuits of the astronauts who landed on the moon in 1969, and it was used by Admiral Richard E. Byrd in scientific experiments he conducted at the South Pole in the 1930s," notes Barbara Floyd in her history of Toledo, The Glass City: Toledo and the Industry That Built It. "It protected America's Declaration of Independence in the National Archives, and it has been used by revolutionaries around the world to convey their beliefs with Molotov cocktails. It has held the punch served at receptions in the White House, and the alcohol in the brown bags of paupers on street corners everywhere. It insulated the Alaskan oil pipeline, and it is used in solar energy panels. It is displayed in some of the finest art museums in the world, and every day it is tossed into garbage pits."

Among the earliest transplants to Toledo was Edward D. Libbey, owner of a glass factory in East Cambridge, Massachusetts. Libbey's business had been prospering, but his unionized workers were demanding higher wages. Moreover, his energy bills kept rising. Those once-vast forests of New England, a resource previously thought inexhaustible, were rapidly disappearing into industrial furnaces. So in 1888, just like an offshoring corporation today, Libbey moved his operation to a place where costs were lower. It was a fateful move for Libbey, for Toledo, and in fact for all of us.

Seeking skilled workers to staff his new factory, Libbey made a personal recruiting trip to the glass industry hub of Wheeling, West Virginia. He quickly signed up a full roster. He was just getting ready to leave his hotel room when Mike Owens, a former child coal miner, barged in. By then a beefy, square-faced, broad-nosed man of 30, Owens announced that he was coming to Toledo to work for Libbey. This, at least, is the version Quentin Skrabec recounts in his somewhat hagiographic biography of Owens. "Libbey apologized, explaining that he had all the men he needed," Skrabec writes. "Owens replied: 'Oh, no, you don't! You need me!' and ... the man's appearance and self‑confidence just stopped him."

However the job interview actually went, Owens was hired. Hard‑driving, ambitious, and extremely intelligent despite his near-total lack of schooling, he quickly worked his way up the ranks to become Libbey's top lieutenant. As a manager, Owens was punctilious and demanding. He had a sunny smile and could be charming, but he also had a serious temper. He wasn't averse to cussing out or literally kicking the ass of a malingering worker.

When Owens started at the Libbey Glass plant in 1889, the place was still making bottles much the same way it had been done in the West Virginia factory where he had started out as a boy—which wasn't much different from the method used back in Jamestown. First, the mix of sand, soda ash, and other ingredients was placed in giant pots inside a furnace, where over the course of many hours it melted into a thick, taffy-like goop. Under the supervision of a master glassblower, or gaffer, a gatherer would stick a six‑foot iron blowpipe into a pot, swirl up a glob of this infernally hot molten glass, then roll it into a ball on a metal table.

The gaffer, the most highly skilled member of the crew, then took the pipe and blew the mass into the desired shape, sometimes with the help of a cast‑iron mold clamped around the molten glass. The glass might cool down during the blowing, requiring a stick boy to put it back into the furnace to soften it up again. Once the glass was in the right basic shape, the gaffer and his assistants would refine it with wooden tools, reheating as necessary. A carry-in boy would then take the still-hot finished piece to another furnace, where it would be gradually cooled and hardened, a process called annealing. A standard crew of five to eight men and boys working 10-hour shifts could produce about 3,600 bottles a day— about one per minute. Not exactly an efficient way to mass-manufacture a consumer product.

Owens figured he could do better. Automation was replacing human hands everywhere, increasing production at an explosive rate in industries of all kinds. Owens was no engineer and had only a rudimentary grasp of the chemistry of glass. But he had worked every stage of the glassmaking process and understood it viscerally. With Libbey's support and the resources of a now-sizable company to draw on, he set to work on making a bottle-making machine.

It took five years and $500,000—a colossal sum in those days—but in 1903 the first Owens Bottle Machine was ready. It sported six rotating arms, each fitted with a mold and a pipe. Owens' key breakthrough was figuring out a way for the machine to gather up the molten glass, something that had stumped other would‑be bottle automators. He installed a small pump on each arm; pulling the plunger back created a vacuum that sucked the glass up into a mold, then pushing it down sent a burst of air in to blow the glass into the right shape. Instant bottle. The machine then cut the bottle loose and put it on a conveyor belt leading to the annealing furnace.

The very first model cranked out bottles six times faster than a human crew. By the time Owens had an updated model ready to sell to other bottle makers, the machine could produce a dozen bottles per minute. Not only was the process far faster, it required far fewer workers, especially expensive, skilled ones. It cut the cost of producing a gross (or a dozen dozen) of bottles from $1.80 to 12 cents.

The machine was a smash hit. An industry magazine frothed: "The Owens machine stands alone in a class unapproached by other inventors. It ... eliminates all skill and labor, and reduces the cost of production practically to the cost of materials used. Not only that, but it puts the same amount of glass into every bottle, makes every bottle of the same exact length, finish, weight, shape, and capacity. It wastes no glass, uses no pipes, snaps, finishing tools, glory‑holes, gatherer, blower, mold boy, snap boy, or finisher, and still makes better bottles, more of them, at a lower cost, than is possible by any other known process." The invention was such a success that Libbey and Owens co-founded a new enterprise, the Owens Bottle Company, to manufacture bottles and license the technology to other companies. Eighty years later, the American Society of Mechanical Engineers dubbed Owens' machine an engineering landmark, and declared "Mike Owens' invention of the automatic bottle-making machine in 1903 was the most significant advance in glass production in over 2,000 years."

The World in a Grain: The Story of Sand and How It Transformed Civilization.

The World in a Grain: The Story of Sand and How It Transformed Civilization.

Suddenly, thanks to Owens' machine, far more bottles than ever before were being made. That meant more glass was needed. And to make that glass, unprecedented quantities of silica sand were drafted into service. In the single year following the introduction of the bottle‑making machine, silica sand production in the United States leapt from 1.1 million tons to 4.4 million tons.

Clawing all those grains from the Earth wreaked considerable damage on the environment. Starting in 1890, sand miners completely dismantled the Hoosier Slide, a 200‑foot‑tall Indiana dune near Michigan City that was once a tourist attraction, hauling its grains away in wheelbarrows to sell to glassmakers like the Ball Corporation, makers of the famous Ball mason jar. Like Libbey, the Ball brothers had been coaxed into leaving New York for the Midwest by the cheap gas, high‑quality sand, and generous financial incentives offered by local governments. They made millions of jars and other containers with Hoosier Slide sand, which gave the glass a blue tint. Those jars are now prized collector's items. They went out of production after the 1930s because by then the dune was gone. Other dunes along the Lake Michigan shoreline, some as high as 300 feet, were also mined out of existence until public outcry forced the state government to protect them in the 1970s and '80s.

Elsewhere in Indiana, the Gary Evening Post complained in 1913 that "sand sucker" boats were "stealing the bottom" of Lake Michigan to sell to glassmakers. At the time, no permit or payment was required; anyone was free to dredge as much sand as they liked. (Indiana sand also provided fill for the site of the 1893 Chicago World's Fair, and to reclaim the land on which Chicago's famous Lincoln Park was built.)

Owens and Libbey assured their own supply of the crucial resource by creating the Toledo-Owens Glass Sand Company and buying up a mine in the aptly named nearby town of Silica, Ohio. A trade magazine declared the sand quarried there to be "pure white in color and of exceptional quality."

Today, bottles seem a mundane, disposable product. But Owens' machine had consequences so far-reaching it's hard to fathom. It made many people rich, most of whom had nothing to do with bottle-making. It transformed bottles from a luxury to a commodity, altering forever the patterns of what we drink and how, when, and where we drink it.

Within just a few years of its introduction, Owens' machine was making bottles for everyone from milk producers to H.J. Heinz. By 1911, 103 of the machines were at work in the U.S. and at least nine European countries as well as Japan, cranking out hundreds of millions of bottles annually.

The first impact of the arrival of all these cheap mass-manufactured bottles was, of course, on the jobs of glassworkers. Recognizing the threat to their jobs, just as bricklayers had earlier with concrete, the bottle blowers' unions fought to keep Owens' machine out of their factories. A few of the machines were even sabotaged. But it was a losing battle. By 1917, the number of relatively well-paid skilled glassblowers was cut in half. On the other hand, the market grew so much that the bottle-making industry soon employed more total workers than ever. For the first time, some of those workers were women, who were given jobs sorting and packing the torrent of products flooding out of the factories.

Owens' machine quickly and completely wiped out jobs for another class of workers: children. The unions suddenly became crusaders for eliminating child labor—partly because their low pay dragged down wages for everyone, at a time when workingmen's livelihoods were already in jeopardy. But more important, kids simply were no longer needed in the factories. The dangerous, repetitive tasks that had been given to children were now better handled by machines. In 1880, nearly one-quarter of all glass industry workers were children; by 1919, fewer than 2 percent were.

Owens was celebrated as a crusading reformer. In 1913 the National Child Labor Committee declared that his machine had done more to eliminate child labor in the U.S. than the organization had through the legislature. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics declared in 1927 that child labor in the glass industry had become "almost a thing of the past, and credit for this is due in no small measure to Michael J. Owens." The irony of all this was that Owens himself didn't see much wrong with child labor. He always insisted his own early career was a fine one for any stouthearted lad. In a 1922 magazine interview, he expounded: "One of the greatest evils of modern life is the growing habit of regarding work as an affliction. When I was a youngster I wanted to work.... A great deal of the trouble to day is with the mothers. Too many boys are being brought up by sentimental women. The first fifteen or twenty years of their lives are spent in playing.... When they finally start to work, they are so useless and so helpless that it is positively pathetic. The young man who has begun to work when he was a boy has them handicapped.... The hard work I did as a boy never injured me." He added: "I went through all the jobs the boys performed, and I enjoyed every bit of the experience."

Child labor hasn't disappeared in all sand‑related industries. Today, adolescents toil in sand mines in Morocco, Ghana, Nigeria, India, and Uganda, while miners in Kenya reportedly recruit kids to drop out of school and come to work harvesting sand instead.

Michael Owens, the man who did more than anyone to make glass a part of our daily lives, died a rich man, with 49 patents to his name, on his way out of a company board meeting in 1923. The Owens Bottle Company, now known as Owens-Illinois, Inc., headquartered at One Michael Owens Way in Perrysburg, Ohio, just south of Toledo, is still the world's leading maker of bottles for alcoholic beverages. It boasts 80 plants in 23 countries and more than $6 billion in annual sales. But glass has long since lost its premier position as the world's beverage container material of choice; plastic bottles and metal cans now make up 80 percent of the market. Glass manufacturing, meanwhile, has largely shifted overseas, leaving Toledo to decline like so many other Midwestern industrial towns. There is one silver lining for Toledo residents, though: Fewer glass plants means less air pollution. The blazing furnaces required to melt sand into glass emit substantial amounts of carbon dioxide. They also spew out other compounds, like sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides that aren't greenhouse gases, but can form smog, as well as particulates that can damage human lungs. The glass that comes out of the factories may be clear, but the air around them sure isn't.

Excerpted from The World in a Grain: The Story of Sand and How It Transformed Civilization, © 2018 by Vince Beiser, published by Riverhead Books on August 7th, 2018.