- Glass Towns: Industry, Labor, and Political Economy in Appalachia, 1890–1930s
So much of the recent history of Appalachia has focused on coal, timber, and other extractive industries that we have almost forgotten the role of manufacturing in the development of the modern political economy of the region. Ken Fones-Wolf helps to broaden our vision of capitalist development in the mountains with his perceptive study of West Virginia’s glass industry. In the process Fones-Wolf adds complexity to some of the central questions that challenge state and regional historians: How could a place so rich in natural resources end up as one of the poorest parts of the United States in the twentieth century? Might an alternative pattern of industrial development based upon value-added manufacturing such as glass production have shaped a more prosperous and equitable future?
Through close examination of three northern West Virginia communities— Clarksburg, Fairmont, and Moundsville—Fones-Wolf provides a fascinating look at the business and labor history of the glass industry in the Mountain State. Drawn to the region as a result of the availability of cheap gas and oil during a period of industry restructuring in the late nineteenth century, the glass industry reflected both the promise and the failure of organized labor in America at a period of rapid mechanization and corporatization. Initially the arrival of tableware, window, and bottle-glass factories, some of which were worker-owned, created a more prosperous and cooperative business environment in the new glass towns of northern West Virginia. The largely skilled immigrant (Belgian and French) craftsmen who were attracted to the region helped to establish a mutually beneficial relationship between capital and craft unionism that maintained higher wages and granted workers considerable civic power within the community. Eventually, however, the same technological advancements that had spurred the growth of the West Virginia glass industry displaced the old craftsmen with American-born workers and with a workplace culture driven more by competition for low-wage jobs than by artisan pride and craft hierarchies. [End Page 102] The consolidation of the industry into a few heavily mechanized companies by World War I and the inability of craft unionism to accommodate the new industrial workers destroyed the promise of a craftsmen’s paradise in these new glass towns, and dashed any hope for an alternative path to “development” than that being offered by coal. By the arrival of the Great Depression, the once promising glass industry had itself fallen prey to corporate consolidation, mechanization, low wages, and absentee ownership.
The failure of cooperative development between capital and labor in the glass industry will come as no surprise to scholars in Appalachian studies or labor history. The inability of local workers to leverage and sustain power in the face of technology, corporate domination of government, and the consolidation of capital has shaped the politics of development in Appalachia, America, and much of the rest of the world in the past century. Fones-Wolf has helped us to understand that not even the craft-centered glass industry was immune to this process. This well-researched and highly readable study forces us to look beyond coal and other extractive industries for explanations of the economic and political distress that has plagued the region. Moreover, the alternative models of community envisioned by early West Virginia glass workers may still provide us with insights into building a different kind of American dream.