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The Glass House Boys of Pittsburgh

Law, Technology, and Child Labor

James L. Flannery

Publication Year: 2009

At the end of the nineteenth century, Pittsburgh was leading the nation in glass production, and glass bottle plants in particular relied heavily on adolescent (and younger) males for their manufacturing process. These “glass house boys” worked both day and night, as plants ran around the clock to meet production demands and remain price competitive with their newly-automated rivals. Boys performed menial tasks, received low wages, and had little to say on their own behalf. By the turn of the century, most states had enacted laws banning children from working at night, and coupled with compulsory education requirements, had greatly reduced the use of children in industry. In western Pennsylvania, however, child labor was deeply entrenched, and Pennsylvania lawmakers lagged far behind the rest of the nation. In this book, James L. Flannery presents an original and compelling examination of legislative clashes over the singular issue of the glass house boys. He reveals the many societal, economic, and political factors at work that allowed for the perpetuation of child labor in this industry and region. Through extensive research in Pennsylvania state legislature archives, National Child Labor Committee reports, and union and industry journals, Flannery uncovers a complex web of collusion between union representatives, industrialists, and legislators that kept child labor reform at bay. Despite national pressure, a concerted effort by reformers, and changes to education laws, the slow defeat of the “glass house exception” in 1915 came about primarily because of technological advances in the glass bottle industry that limited the need for child labor.

Published by: University of Pittsburgh Press


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pp. vii-viii

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Preface and Acknowledgments

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pp. ix-xviii

Because Progressive Era child labor reform was quintessentially based on the power of law, this work is fundamentally a legal history.1 Any historical research project can encounter myriad challenges in terms of the availability and quality of primary source materials, challenges that can produce both excitement and frustration. One particular challenge that arose during ...

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1. Child Labor Reforms and the National Child Labor Committee

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pp. 1-33

In1913, Michael J. Owens, a principal figure in the American glass industry, received an unsolicited letter from a “special agent” of the National Child Labor Committee (NCLC). The contents were startling. The NCLC had, since its founding nearly ten years earlier, devoted itself almost exclusively to ending industrial child labor in America ...

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2. Progressive Reform and Child Labor in the Pennsylvania Glass Industry

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pp. 34-72

Despite the health dangers, the low pay, and the abusive working conditions, the late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century glass houses seemed to draw young boys into their confines with a power that even Progressive Era reformers characterized as nothing short of magical. As one progressive noted, using the flowery language of a fairy ...

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3. Glass House Owners and the Politics of Glass

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pp. 73-109

The early twentieth century was a time of great change and uncertainty for the glass-bottle producers in western Pennsylvania. Their position of dominance in the glass industry, which had developed over the previous fifty years, was diminishing. Natural gas fields producing cheap and clean fuel for glass furnaces were ...

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4. The Pittsburgh Glass Workers and the Glass Bottle Union

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pp. 110-144

Glassmaking, along with the related crafts of ceramics and metal work, were once known as the “black arts” because of the soot associated with the wood or coal fire that produced the in-tense heat required to create the end product and because many elements of the production processes were shrouded in mystery.1 The secrets of ...

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5. School Law and Compulsory Education in Pennsylvania

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pp. 145-164

Many social progressives, in Pennsylvania and elsewhere, valued formal, public school–based education for the children of the working classes. They worried that a child who received only work-based training might be relegated to a lifetime of low wages, menial labor, and poverty, and the reformers wanted to provide educational ...

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6. Child Labor Laws in Pennsylvania

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pp. 165-194

In 1905, the Pennsylvania legislature passed a child labor law that would have far-reaching consequences. This law contained a night employment provision that, together with an important qualification thereto, became both central to the continued existence of the Pittsburgh glass-bottle factories and the focus of nearly ten years of rancorous ...


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pp. 195-212


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pp. 213-218


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pp. 219-224

E-ISBN-13: 9780822977667
E-ISBN-10: 0822977664
Print-ISBN-13: 9780822943778
Print-ISBN-10: 0822943778

Page Count: 248
Illustrations: 20 b&w Illustrations
Publication Year: 2009

OCLC Number: 794702163
MUSE Marc Record: Download for The Glass House Boys of Pittsburgh

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Subject Headings

  • Glass trade -- Law and legislation -- Pennsylvania -- History.
  • Glass trade -- Pennsylvania -- Pittsburgh -- History.
  • Child labor -- Pennsylvania -- Pittsburgh -- History.
  • Child labor -- Law and legislation -- Pennsylvania -- History.
  • Educational law and legislation -- Pennsylvania -- History.
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