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Reviewed by:
  • Glass Towns: Industry, Labor, and Political Economy in Appalachia, 1890–1930s
  • Richard Oestreicher
Glass Towns: Industry, Labor, and Political Economy in Appalachia, 1890-1930s. By Ken Fones-Wolf (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2007. 272 pp.).

Having once supervised a dissertation on window glass workers,1 I thought I knew quite a bit about the glass industry, but this very fine book showed me that I had more to learn. Ken Fones-Wolf adeptly combines three themes: industrial restructuring, Appalachian underdevelopment, and the effects of economic transformations on the lives and communities of working people.

The first of these three provides the dominant paradigm for Fones-Wolf's story and thereby gives his book far greater intellectual breadth and contemporary relevance than one would expect from a regional case study of a single industry. For his definition of industrial restructuring, Fones-Wolf borrows from economic geographers who argue "that industries in crisis will make various strategic moves to rationalize production and revive sagging profits in the spheres of finance, organization, production and employment" typically involving "workplace relocation." Such relocations are "new spatial divisions of labour" and "thorough re-workings of the social relations which construct economic space."2 This use of the industrial restructuring paradigm allows Fones-Wolf to place his case study, as the subtitle suggests, into the history of capitalist political economies. He thereby avoids the implicit tautology of more conventional labor history models emphasizing only class formation and development.

His story has three acts. First, he analyzes the forces that led glass companies to locate (frequently relocate) in West Virginia—mainly the lure of natural gas and coal for an energy-intensive industry—and then to subsequently transform production processes with new machines that displaced highly paid craftsmen. Next he describes how West Virginia's glass industry fit into the developmental ideology of a cohort of state Republican entrepreneurs and politicians who hoped that by fostering development of industries based on the region's natural resources they could transform West Virginia from backwater to part of the nation's industrial heartland, and also thereby insure their political dominance. Initially working people in the glass towns tended to support the Republican development ideology because it seemed to offer abundant employment and prosperity for all. But as glass companies rationalized and modernized production processes, frequently lowering wages and increasing work pace, many workers reacted in protests including unionization, formation of worker-owned cooperative firms, and Socialist agitation. These actions produced at least modest successes in the decade before America's entry into the First World War, but the combination of wartime repression and xenophobia, further technological development and industrial streamlining, and later decline in parts of the industry undermined Socialists, cooperatives, and unions in the glass towns. Nor did the glass firms prove capable of providing a firm basis for regional development through local reinvestment of profits. The industry represented too small a share of the state's economy to have substantial impact, and eventually much of it, like the dominant resource extraction industries, fell under the control of outside investors who shipped profits out of state rather than reinvesting them locally. [End Page 835]

In the third part of the book, Fones-Wolf describes and analyzes these changes in great detail in case studies of three glass towns representing the three main branches of West Virginia's glass industry: Moundsville (table ware), Clarksburg (window glass), and Fairmont (bottles and containers). While the details varied in ways that had slightly different effects on the subsequent political and economic development of each town, the essential trajectories were similar.

Finally, in the last chapter Fones-Wolf does a follow-up on each of the towns during the Depression and after. All three towns, likeWest Virginia as a whole, went Democratic, although the differences in the division of labor and the system of labor relations in the three branches of the industry led to different responses to 1930s unionization. In Moundsville, where skilled craftsmen had maintained an earlier form of regulatory unionism based on amicable relations with managers for the highly paid artisans but exclusion of the majority of the labor force from the union, a weak AFL craft local...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1527-1897
Print ISSN
0022-4529
Pages
pp. 835-836
Launched on MUSE
2009-03-21
Open Access
No
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