Changing times took toll on glass manufacturers

The roll call of vanished West Virginia glassmakers is a lengthy one.

The list starts with large industrial glass companies such as Owens-Illinois that once employed thousands of West Virginia workers to make bottles and jars.

For decades, glass manufacturers had to blow glass to produce bottles — a slow and tedious process that required a great deal of skill. A Point Pleasant native, Michael Owens (1859-1923), changed that when, in 1904, he invented an automatic machine that could produce four bottles per second.

Partnering with his former employer, Edward Libbey, Owens opened his own bottle-making company in 1909, establishing his first plants in Fairmont and Clarksburg. Within 10 years Libby-Owens also had bottle plants in Charleston and Huntington.

Although the Clarksburg plant closed in the 1920s, the other three Owens plants employed thousands of workers for decades. The Charleston plant closed in 1963, the Fairmont plant in 1982 and the Huntington plant in 1993.

Today, glass collectors eagerly seek out early milk, soda, beer and whiskey bottles made by West Virginia’s industrial manufacturers.

Other collectors prize stemware, tumblers (drinking glasses), pressed glass and other items made by a number of the state’s vanished glass manufacturers. Here are a few of the best remembered:

Fenton Art Glass

The Fenton Art Glass Co. was founded in 1905 by brothers Frank L. Fenton and John W. Fenton when they purchased an old glass factory in Martin’s Ferry, Ohio. In 1907, they moved across the Ohio River to Williamstown, where they built a new factory of their own.

Toward the end of 1907, the two brothers were the first to introduce carnival glass — today a popular collector’s item, In 1908, John Fenton left the company when he moved back to Ohio, starting a company of his own.

In the company’s early years, Frank Fenton was the company’s designer and decorator. His designs were heavily influenced by two other glass companies, Tiffany and Steuben, but the many different colors on Fenton items were the work of Jacob Rosenthal, a famous glass chemist known for developing chocolate and golden agate glass.

During the Great Depression and the World War II years, Fenton produced practical items, such as mixing bowls and tablewear. Beginning in 1940, Fenton produced hobnail pattern glass, which became its biggest seller.

At its peak, Fenton employed more than 700 workers. The company saw a rapid decline in sales beginning in 2000 and closed in 2011. Later the factory was sold to the Wood County Board of Education for use as the site of a new elementary school.

Fostoria Glass

In 1887, a group of men experienced in the glass business founded the Fostoria Glass Co. in Fostoria, Ohio. The men had been attracted to the region by newly discovered deposits of natural gas which could fuel glass furnaces.

Numerous other businesses were also started in the area, and collectively they depleted the natural gas supply. This caused the new company to move to Moundsville in 1891.

After its move to Moundsville, Fostoria achieved a national reputation. The company was considered one of the top producers of elegant glass. It had over 1,000 patterns, including one (American) that was produced for more than over 75 years. Sample rooms were located in New York, Chicago, Dallas, San Francisco and other large cities.

The company advertised heavily, and one of its successes was sales through bridal registers. Fostoria made products for several U.S. presidents. At its peak in the 1950s, the company employed 1,000 workers.

During the 1970s, foreign competition and changing preferences forced the company to make substantial investments in cost-saving automation technology. The changes were made too late, and the company’s commercial division was losing money badly by 1980. The plant was closed permanently in 1986.

Pilgrim Glass

In his own words, a 34-year-old Alfred Knobler had “$5,000 and a lot of chutzpah” when he came to Wayne County in 1949 and started the Pilgrim Glass Corp. in Ceredo.

After earning a degree in ceramic engineering at Virginia Polytechnic Institute, Knobler went to work for Trenton Potteries in New Jersey. One of his suppliers was the Tri-State Glass Manufacturing Co. in Huntington.

The company was unable to get enough natural gas in winter and so was put up for sale. Knobler convinced Columbia Gas to extend a larger pipeline to the company and created Pilgrim Glass from Tri-State’s modest facilities. He opened a new plant on Walker Branch Road in Ceredo in 1956.

Over the decades, Pilgrim gained a well-deserved reputation for its quality tableware and art glass.

During the early years, Pilgrim’s main product was hand-blown crackle glass in a variety of colors, produced by immersing the hot glass piece in cold water and then reheating it. In the mid-1950s, two brothers from Murano Island in Italy, long known as a glassmaking center, came to work at Pilgrim. When Knobler saw Alessandro and Roberto Moretti’s remarkable skill in making novelty items, he added a series of their small glass animals to Pilgrim’s offerings.

Pilgrim had a popular glass exhibition at the 1964 New York World’s Fair. In 1969, plant manager Karel Konrad introduced cranberry glass, which became a big seller for the company. In the 1980s, cameo glass was perfected at Pilgrim by artists Kelsey Murphy and Robert Bomkamp.

In 2001, the aging Knobler offered Pilgrim Glass for sale. Unable to find a buyer, he reluctantly closed the plant. He was 92 when he died in 2007.

Seneca Glass

Seneca Glass was once said to be the largest manufacturer of tumblers (inking glasses) in the United States. The company was also known for its high-quality lead stemware, which was hand-made for nearly a century.

The firm’s first glass plant was located in Fostoria, Ohio, where in 1892 it took over a factory that had been vacated by the Fostoria Glass Co. Otto Jaeger, the first president of Seneca, had been part of the Fostoria management team. Like Jaeger, many of the new company’s original leaders were German craftsmen.

In 1896, the firm moved to Morgantown, where it continued to produce high-quality decorated glassware. A second plant was built in 1911 to produce tumblers and less-elaborate ware.

During the 1950s, Seneca introduced its Driftwood Casual table setting pattern in an attempt to capture a less formal segment of the glassware market. This pattern was produced for nearly 30 years, and became especially important to the company as formal glassware became less popular.

In 1982, the company was sold to a group of investors that renamed the firm Seneca Crystal Inc.

When Seneca moved to Morgantown, it was the first of more than two dozen glass firms to locate there, attracted by a dependable supply of natural gas. When the new owners failed to revive the company in its last years, the Seneca furnace fires were turned off for the last time in 1984.

Today, the former Seneca factory is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Now named Seneca Center, it contains retail shops and offices.

Viking Glass

Originally established in 1901 as the New Martinsville Glass Manufacturing Co. in New Martinsville, Viking Glass operated under various names for nearly a century.

In its early years, New Martinsville Glass produced perfume bottles, vanity jars, dresser sets, lamps, smoking and liquor sets. It began making distinctive colored and decorative glassware in 1923.

Beginning around 1940, the company began to concentrate on modernization and hand-made quality glassware which the company called “Swedish Type.”

In 1944, the factory was renamed the Viking Glass Co. to reflect this modern approach. For the next 40-plus years, Viking produced modern, colorful, hand-made glass for every function.

In 1973, Viking purchased the Rainbow Art Glass Co. in Huntington. The Rainbow plant was destroyed by fire in 1983 and Viking did not rebuild it.

In 1987 the company’s name was changed to Dalzell-Viking. In 1998, steadily increasing manufacturing costs and growing foreign competition forced the company to close.

Funerals for Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Antill, Norman - 6 p.m., Curry Funeral Home, Alum Creek.

Arbaugh, Jennings - Noon, Bartlett-Nichols Funeral Home, St. Albans.

Doss, Mark - 11 a.m., Handley Funeral Home, Danville.

Gillispie, Glen - 11 a.m., Chapman Funeral Home, Hurricane.

Hoover, Evelyn - 1. p.m., Cunningham-Parker-Johnson Funeral Home, Charleston.

Linton, Anna - 1 p.m., Pennington Smith Funeral Home, Gauley Bridge.

Mace, T. Opal - 2 p.m., Starcher Cemetery, Arnoldsburg.

Nelson, Kenneth - Noon, Hafer Funeral Home, Elkview.