Dear Readers,

As you may have seen elsewhere, in mid February my wife and I suffered the loss of our home in a fire, in the hills of central Massachusetts. The good news is that we got out safely and had no animals in our care at the time. The fire crews were able to contain the fire from spreading, in what turned into a 3-alarm, 5-hour-long ordeal in subzero temperatures; they did amazing work, and no one was injured. The bad news is that all of my physical historical materials and research of 30 years have gone up in smoke. As a result I have decided to suspend this blog for the time being. It will remain online as a resource for those interested in the history of glass and glassmaking in the seventeenth century and beyond. I do intend to resume writing when I can, but for now my time and energy are required in getting us back on our feet.

Friends are providing temporary shelter for us nearby and our intention is to rebuild as soon as possible. To those who have reached out with a steady hand, to those who have opened their wallets, and offered advice in our time of need, we thank you from the bottom of our hearts. In what are already difficult times for all of us, you have made a huge difference in our lives.

Paul Engle
6 March, 2021

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Anna J Agnew, Champion Glassblower

Anna J. Agnew,
Chicago Tribune, 9 March 1902, p. 43
In the spring of 1902, newspapers around the United States reported that eighteen-year-old Anna Agnew, of Norwood Pennsylvania had been proclaimed a “champion glass blower.” Stories in New York, Pennsylvania, Alabama, Virginia, Florida, Chicago and Arizona described how she was able to blow several thousand pieces of medical glassware per day. Speaking to the rigors of her profession, she stated that in the past two years her lungs had become stronger and that she had “increased in weight from 110 to 130 pounds since taking up men’s work.” When asked if she was a member of the glass workers’ union, she replied “No, as the hateful men would not take women in as active members.” [1]

Agnew worked for the glass house of the H. K. Mulford Company, a pioneering pharmaceutical outfit that grew out of the first apothecary in Philadelphia, founded in 1823. The facility was located just outside the city in idyllic Glenolden. The owners had made a strategic decision to attract a female labor force for their line of torch-made scientific glassware and sterile containers. The women “have a delicacy of touch and a deftness which make them specially fitted for expertness.” [2] Their superintendent said, “I’ve been in this business from boyhood up, and I know what I am talking about when I say that no men can turn out such good work as these girls do. [Male] glass blowers would be astonished if they looked in on this factory. The girls are infinitely more careful and painstaking than men have ever thought of being, and they are achieving results never before known in the trade.” [3]

In the not-so-distant history of American glass work, women played a strong but understated and now all but forgotten role. Anna Agnew fabricated antitoxin bulbs, goose-necks, and did ‘fancy’ glass work besides. Her female co-workers were experts at producing capillary tubes, hermetically sealed ampules and homeopathic vials. But the appreciation of female glass workers was not by any means confined to the Mulford company. Elsewhere, women around the country were specifically recruited as glass workers in other fields. From the tiny Moore Pushpin (thumb-tack) company [4] to the burgeoning incandescent light bulb industry. As Agnew and her co-workers honed their skills in the east, the Houston Electrical Supply Company in Texas advertised for “Lady Glass Blowers” experienced with incandescent lamps. Even earlier, In the 1890’s Edison’s General Electric company was running help wanted ads for “Female Glass Tubulators and Stem Makers” for his incandescent light bulb factory in Harrison, New Jersey. [5] There, women composed the vast majority of blowers making glass bases and envelopes for light bulbs. By 1918 General Electric maintained 36 lamp factories around the world, and the women at the Harrison plant met to discuss forming a union of their own. [6] Still later women became vital to the manufacture of vacuum tubes for electronics, and by the 1940’s they were working side by side with their male counterparts at the hot-glass furnaces of the Libbey glass company in Toledo, Ohio. [7]

The appreciation of female glass workers by industry in the late 1800s did not materialize out of thin air; far from it. In fact, it is not an exaggeration to say that every man, woman and child in America had heard of, read about, or seen a lady glassblower ply her craft in person. They were a widely popular attraction at county fairs, circus sideshows and dime museums. In an era when traveling performers were the premier form of entertainment in the country, glass blowers working over a torch were especially popular with women and children. Audience members could expect to walk away with a small glass toy; a model ship, an animal or a flower made entirely of glass. To see a woman making such objects was icing on the cake, a fact not lost on show managers and promoters. By the last decade of the 19th century, there were troupes entirely composed of “lady glass blowers” traveling the country, headlining their own exhibitions.

Anna Agnew was the daughter of a Philadelphia sewing machine salesman. After her stint with Mulford, she married trolley car conductor Harry Stewart and as far as can be determined, retired from the fire-arts to raise a family. She died at age 74 in Philadelphia in 1957. Other women continued their career in glass throughout their lives. There is a strong and proud tradition of women glass workers in the arts and industry that carries over from Europe and runs like a golden thread right through the entire history of the United States since its earliest days.




[1] “Girl Champion Glassblower” Chicago Tribune: Chicago, Illinois, 9 March 1902, p. 43.
[2] “Glass-Blower Girls” The Buffalo Enquirer: Buffalo, New York, 29 July 1904, p. 5.
[3] Day, Mary Edith, “Girls Who Blow Glass” Reading Times: Reading, Pennsylvania, 14 May 1902, p. 3.
[4] “Help Wanted” The Philadelphia Enquirer: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, p. 40.
[5] “Female Help Wanted” The Boston Globe: Boston, Massachusetts, p. 9.
[6] “Have Mass Meeting of Lamp Works Employees” The Fort Wayne Sentinel: Fort Wayne, Indiana,  31 December, 1918, p. 3.
[7] Rosellen Callahan, "Lady Glassblowers Wend Their Way Into 'For Men Only' Trade", Fort Lauderdale News: Fort Lauderdale, Florida, 5 August, 1943, p. 6.

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