The Glass House Boys of Pittsburgh: Law, Technology, and Child Labor
In the popular mind, Western Pennsylvania is historically linked with the powerful furnaces of iron and steel production. However, the region was also once the center of glass making, when the first glass factory opened in Pittsburgh in 1797. By the time of the American Civil War, Western Pennsylvania was already the center of glass production in the United States. A several million-dollar regional enterprise in 1869, the glass industry contained over 65 facilities fabricating products from glass. At the same time, child labor was a common characteristic of this labor-intensive industry, and by the early twentieth century Pittsburgh employed more "glass-house boys" than did any other region of the United States. Within the confluence of these facts and events, James L. Flannery has written an intricate study of the impact of reform legislation on child workers and the glass-bottle industry in The Glass House Boys of Pittsburgh: Law, Technology, and Child Labor.
Flannery's study utilizes the lens of child labor reform to ascertain the lives of these children, as well as the confluence of various groups involved in their work and existence. The author demonstrates clearly that there was a "dynamic relationship between law, ideology, and sociocultural change regarding the elimination of child labor in the Pittsburgh glass houses." This particular moment in time would center on the Progressive Era, when many of the nation's leading reformers sought to remove permanently the evils of child labor from America's many factories and mines, and the children toiling in Pittsburgh's glass-bottle industry were a particularly important case.
Flannery's narrative sets the stage well for examining the various legal efforts to end child labor in Western Pennsylvania's glass-bottle industry, and though the author claims that his work is largely "a legal history within a broad social and cultural setting," Flannery clearly defines his actors and their respective points of view, so that Glass House Boys becomes a detailed and methodical social history that readers can enjoy. The author examines the often incomplete trail of legal evidence for a better understanding of the "motivation and intent behind the enactment of the law." Indeed, as the author argues, it is the reasoning behind certain legislative actions that must be correlated with non-legislative events to get at the full story of the children workers in the Pittsburgh region during this time, and this book articulates the process well. [End Page 519]
Overall, Flannery contends that "a unique combination of forces" inhibited real and complete child labor reform in Pittsburgh. These forces included the factory owners and their supporters, the child laborers and their families, and the adult workers and their union, all of whom acted to thwart the efforts of Progressive Era reformers and child advocates at the national and local levels. In particular, one of Flannery's main contentions is that glass workers' union in Pittsburgh, the Glass Bottle Blowers' Association (GBBA), formed in 1842 in Philadelphia, was itself a central obstacle to child labor reform in Western Pennsylvania. One of the reasons for this was the reluctance of the strong Pittsburgh union to support the adoption of the Owens Automatic glass-bottle blowing machine, which would have helped phase out of child labor in the region, but would also have hurt the union's strength and threatened workers' jobs in the industry. Indeed, the author explains that Pittsburgh manufacturers had to actually increase their overall production to compete with such new technology, resulting in additional day and night work and more reliance on child labor than ever before. As the author explains, the resulting impact was such that "Pittsburgh glass houses continued to exploit the labor of small children well beyond the time it was successfully regulated in virtually every other glass-producing region in the country." The book thus sheds valuable light not only on a sparsely-researched union and its leader, Denis A. Hayes, but also on the efforts of the glass workers' union to continually impede the efforts of the state legislature to end child labor in the region.
This book also examines the crucial role of women in the struggle for labor reform in Western Pennsylvania. The author contends that gender "played a significant role in efforts to regulate the employment of children in western Pennsylvania's glass-bottle factories," and his narrative examines the work of such activists as Elizabeth Beardsley Butler and Florence Kelley. Flannery points out that gender influenced several key decisions, from reform leadership positions, to legislative voting patterns, and even written classifications, presumptions, and prejudices of the child laborers and their supporters, through the employment of gender-based rhetoric. The author skillfully uses primary accounts to portray the rhetoric that the various sides used in the battle over child labor reform, demonstrating that all sides of the debate manipulated the issues for their own ideological purposes and agenda.
After much contextualization, and the failure of educational (school law) reform, Flannery recounts the efforts of reformers to amend the 1905 child [End Page 520] labor law in Pennsylvania which created a loophole, the "glass house exception" for a continuation of night work among young laborers, even while it also banned the practice among other industrial enterprises in the state. Thus, glass-bottle plants in Pittsburgh had an exception to children working at night that almost no other industry enjoyed, one which the exploited for a decade. The 1905 law led to ten years of bitter legislative debate, until the exemption was finally excluded in the child labor bill of 1915. As a result, Flannery argues that progressive reform was stymied for nearly 10 years, not because of any single cause or interest, but out of a unique set of circumstances combining the interests of those opposed to reform: manufacturers, the boys and their families, and workers and their union, each opposed to reform for their own reasons.
Flannery's The Glass House Boys of Pittsburgh is a detailed, well-organized narrative of long neglected topic of social history. Along with the recently published Glass Towns: Industry, Labor, and Political Economy in Appalachia, 1890-1930s by Ken Fones-Wolf (University of Illinois Press, 2007), this work will shed more light on the struggles of glass workers and their communities in the industrial regions of United States in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries.