Fostoria Glass was one of Moundsville, WV’s iconic factories, along with Marx Toys, U.S. Stamping and Benwood Mill. Gary Rider, Moundsville’s town historian (who we’ve profiled before) has published Memories of Fostoria Glass, a fascinating new book on the history of Fostoria and its workers. Based on interviews with 90 some former employees of Fostoria, it’s Gary’s tenth book, and an illustration of the importance of local history. And it complements Moundsville’s Fostoria Glass Museum, one of the best museums in the region.
Every American postindustrial town is haunted by the memory of bountiful employment and young, crowded, prosperous communities. When factories closed in the last quarter of the 20th century, a new generation was left to try to figure out how to get along without widespread employment, and to grieve the memory of more prosperous times. Gary Rider does the important work of recording and remembering for his community so people can understand, and process, the story of what came before them.
In the 19th century, towns regularly granted incentives to attract employers. Fostoria Glass moved to Moundsville from Fostoria, Ohio in 1891 after getting a free building site, a 10-year contract for coal, and $10,000 in cash. And there the firm stayed until 1984, offering a steady paycheck to generations of Moundsville residents and attracting new ones.
Unlike most big industrial plants, Fostoria Glass did not have an assembly line. Instead, it was made up of small shop where individual glass blowers and designers made and decorated drinking glasses, oil lamps, plates, mugs, bowls, flutes, and other glassware.
By 1915, it was making glassware for “fine restaurants, clubs, hotels and railroads.” For the rest of the century, its principal clientele was ordinary families who wanted a permanent glassware for their homes. Fostoria advertised in Good Housekeeping, Vogue and Ladies Home Journal, and shipped out glass via a special company train station.
The company also made glassware for the government in Washington. “Starting with Vice President Richard Nixon in the 1960s, we sold ware to the White House and members of Congress,” David B. Dalzell, Jr. told Rider. “President Ronald Reagan was the last to order from us. The last usual order was for ashtrays with the signature of the official in the glassware.”
Rider chronicles the story of Fostoria from the Dalzell family who ran it to glass blowers and designers.
Jon Saffell, for example, went to work at Fostoria after the company called Moundsville High School in 1957 to ask if any graduating seniors had artistic talent. Jon was only 17 years old but Fostoria hired him to design plaster casts. When he started, “it was vacation time at Fostoria, so they left me to work by myself,” Saffell recalled. “We mainly worked in circles for glasses and cups. I made mandrel casts for two weeks and some plaster casts of various sizes.”
Norman Francis Greenan, Jr. was the fourth generation of his family to work at Fostoria. After serving in the military after the end of World War Two, Greeman found an entry level position at Fostoria: “I hauled ware to different areas of the plant for the first month. Then I went into the factory and collected the glass for the molds. Once molded, the glass had… to be tempered so that it was more durable. My next job was to haul bales of hay to the various packers to be used to pack the glass. This is where you got a lot of flack if you didn’t keep these packers in hay. They were being paid incentive pay to get as much glassware packed as possible. If they ran out of hay, they blamed me for costing them money! It was a very busy job!”
At its peak, in 1950, Fostoria employed over 900 workers and produced eight million pieces of glass a year via five thousand stores. Like other manufacturers, Fostoria was undone in the 1970s and 1980s by a combination of competition from international trade, rising costs, and changing consumer tastes. “People stopped buying expensive glass and bought plastic instead,” said Rider, when we met for lunch at Bob’s Lunch in Moundsville last week.
In the 1970s, Fostoria made a concession to modernity and installed a mechanized press to church out mass quantities of glassware. It wasn’t enough. When the end came in 1984, shocking Moundsville, most glassmakers retired or moved elsewhere. Some, like Fred Wilkerson and his son (whom we profiled in our PBS film and on this website), bravely started their own shops, doing for themselves what they did for Fostoria.
As the people of Moundsville sort out their future, they can look with pride toward their past as one of the capital of American manufacturing, and a supplier to the world. “Hand-blown glass had its day,” said Rider. Moundsville is lucky to have him to tell the story.
John W. Miller