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 Glass Works - American First in Elwood

 
 
In early August 1891, a special train from Pittsburgh, PA, pulled into the station in Elwood, Indiana.  From the train came 365 glass workers who got their first look at what would be their new homes.  They had been trained in the glass plants of Pittsburgh and were here to help establish a new factory.  Some of them would be part of an American industrial experiment as well.

The Gas Boom brought the George MacBeth Glass Works to Elwood.  His business was due for expansion and the prospects for cheap natural gas was too good to pass up.  For a while the company even operated its own natural gas well.

MacBeth had purchased a 13-acre tract of land on North Ninth Street and built a factory.  The operation consisted of several hug vats called pots for melting the glass and a huge sheet metal blowing room where skilled glassblowers shaped the hot glass.  Also included in the factory were small sheds off the main room for cooling the glass, a shipping room and an office.  A network of rails tied the operation together.  MacBeth's workers were making glass within a few days of arrival.

The chief product of MacBeth's business was glass lamp chimneys of all types, for both home and industrial use.  Lamp chimneys were used with oil, kerosene and gas lights and were, being fragile, frequently in need of replacement.  The company at one time produced 12 million glass chimneys per year.  Other products would be developed with time, but throughout its life in Elwood, glass chimneys would be made there.  However, MacBeth also intended to use the factory for a pet project of his own.

The French House

In 1890, optical glass--lenses for microscopes and telescopes--wasn't made in North America.  Europe had the majority of the skilled glass workers and it was thought that American optical glass could not compete.  MacBeth thought that this was wrong and he wanted to develop an American optical glass factory in the new structure the company was building in Elwood, Indiana.  He employed Jesse Willets, a maker of American industrial clay, to create a special pot for optical glass melting.  He also employed skilled workers to grind the glass.  The operation was called The French House because the master glass worker, Edmond Feil, was French.

The materials needed for the optical glass were sought from all over the world.  The company found a particularly fine sand in the Berkshire Hills in Massachusetts and had it shipped to Elwood in Barrels.  They imported sodium carbonate from England, potash from Germany, niter from Chile, and borax from California.

The ingredients were meticulously mixed according to a secret formula, heated and poured into one of Willets' specially-made clay pots and cooled for four days.  With experimentation, Feil and his workers were pleased with the quality of glass they were able to produce.

High Quality Optics

The company had an early client in John Brashear, a famous American astronomer and telescope maker.  In the 1890s, Brashear was making a lens for a telescope at the Tokyo Observatory in Japan.  He had to import raw glass lenses, which he then custom-ground for the telescope.  Three sets of lenses were broken in the process.  Importing more glass from Europe was a time-consuming process, so Brashear gave the MacBeth glass a try.  It proved to be of such a high quality that Brashear was easily able to complete his task.

Other high-profile projects which used MacBeth optical glass included the lenses for the Gill National Observatory in South Africa and the Dudley Observatory in Albany, N. Y.;  an astronomical camera lens for the Princeton University Observatory;  a spectrographic lens for the University of Chicago, and a six-inch lens for the U. S. Army Signal Corps.

Unfortunately, the optical glass factory was short-lived.  Despite the testimonials of successful customers, most Americans thought that MacBeth's glass was inferior to the European product and the company was unable to make money on it.

The operation closed down before 1900 and Americans continued to buy European glass.  MacBeth's process was forgotten until 1914 when Europe went to war and supplies of European glass were no long available.  The company came to the rescue, providing glass for the military although it was no longer made in Elwood.

Strike Problems

 In 1899, George MacBeth's glass business was merged with the Evans Glass Company, also of Pittsburgh, to form MacBeth-Evans Glass Company.  The Evan Company had taken advantage of the Gas Boom and had a plant in Marion, Indiana.

Part of the reason for the merger may have been that George MacBeth had acquired an important patent.  The glass chimneys in MacBeth's factory, prior to 1900, were blown by skilled glass workers into many shapes.  Skilled glassblowers were expensive employees.  They could earn up to $35 a day.

The patent for a glassblowing machine would automate much of the factory's output and reduce the need for skilled workers.  This triggered two strikes, one in 1902 and the other in 1905, which were settled with great difficulty.  During the 1905 strike, a 19-year-old union member was shot and killed in a struggle with a worker imported from Indianapolis.

Despite labor difficulties, the Elwood factory seems to have been a stable employer and a money maker for the company.  Into the 1930s,  MacBeth-Evans employed 300-400 workers at a time, including women and children.  The works were renovated in 1910 and there are no indications that the company tried to leave after the end of cheap natural gas.  The company lasted into the Depression, when it was the first Elwood factory to adopt the National Recovery Act operating standards.

The factory's output at Elwood changed with the times.  MacBeth-Evans took advantage of the burgeoning auto industry and began making glass for headlights after 1910.  In the 1930s, MacBeth-Evans developed four varieties of Depression Glass in the patterns known as American Sweetheart, Crystal Leaf, Dogwood and Chinex classic.  The Elwood factory produced tumblers and stemware.

In 1936, the MacBeth-Evans Company was bought by and merged with Corning Glass Works.  MacBeth-Evans continued as a division of the company through the 1940s, but their glass was no longer made in Elwood.  The MacBeth-Evans' Elwood plant closed sometime in the late 1930s.
By Beth Oljace, Indiana Room, Anderson Public Library, boljace@yahoo.com

 
 

 Madison County Historical Society|15 West 11th Street, P. O. Box 696, Anderson, Indiana 46015-0696|(765)683-0052|madisonchs@sbcglobal.net

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