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Glass Towns: Industry, Labor, and Political Economy in Appalachia, 1890-1930s

Author(s):Fones-Wolf, Ken
Reviewer(s):Irons, Janet

Published by EH.NET (October 2007)

Ken Fones-Wolf, Glass Towns: Industry, Labor, and Political Economy in Appalachia, 1890-1930s. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2007. xxviii + 236 pp. $25 (paperback), ISBN: 978-0-252-07371-7.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Janet Irons, Department of History, Political Science, and Economics, Lock Haven University.

It is unusual for an historian to give equal weight in the same book to two different topics: the micro-world of the transformation of the labor process on the one hand, and the macro-world of political economy on the other. Yet that is what Ken Fones-Wolf, professor of history at West Virginia University, accomplishes in his book Glass Towns. Using West Virginia as his setting, the author traces the rise and fall of what he calls the “development faith,” a belief in the promise of a high-tariff, high-wage economy as a path to prosperity. Embraced by the party of Lincoln, this faith is contrasted with the low-wage, low-tax economic strategy pursued by West Virginia (and southern) Democrats during the period of industrialization. Glass Towns chronicles the clash in these two economic visions when, at the end of the nineteenth century, communities in northern West Virginia recruited high-wage glass factories to their towns.

In contrast to West Virginia coal interests, who were absentee owners and had little commitment to local prosperity, local Republican political leaders in northern West Virginia counties sought industries whose profits would be recycled back into the community. Glass factories, protected from competition by a high tariff and run by highly paid craftsmen, fit the bill. Fones-Wolf draws on the recent insights of economic geographers to identify the motivation for the glass plants to relocate to these towns. The northern panhandle and the upper Monongahela valley had access to transportation, to skilled labor from nearby Pittsburgh, and most importantly, to pockets of natural gas which would prove ideal for powering glass factories.

The impact of the migration of Belgian and French-born glassworkers to these rural West Virginia communities is a story all by itself, and Fones-Wolf does not neglect the social and cultural implications of the glass industry’s relocation there. But the author (and the reader of EH.Net) is more interested in chronicling how the promise of the development faith subsequently became undermined when the high wage structure of the glass industry was eroded by mechanization and deskilling. This change process, the most complex part of the book, is carefully traced by means of case studies in three glass towns: Moundsville, Clarksburg, and Fairmont. Each represented a different branch of the glass industry and in each case the way that the labor force was restructured by technology was different.

In the most disappointing outcome ? the glass bottle industry in Fairmont ? mechanization deskilled the labor force to such an extent that the craft workers left or accepted new positions in the plant, and the low-skilled workers who took jobs there did not earn wages above the average state wage level. Despite some initial progress in local economic development, firms from Ohio and Connecticut built large factories there and dominated the local economy, a cruel epitaph for a development faith whose promise was the local character of the industry. Not incidentally, it was also in Fairmont that the coal industry had the greatest political influence.

In the most successful town, Clarksburg, deskilling did not fundamentally undermine the need for the most skilled craft workers for at least a generation. The story of Clarksburg, especially, illustrates how aware the author is that this is not simply a story of Republican versus Democratic political economies. Belgian craft workers in this “craftsman’s paradise” formed unions and cooperatives and developed a rich cultural and political presence which finally led to their breaking with the party of Lincoln and embracing Socialism or even Democracy. Workers thus became sometime allies, and sometime foes, to the two main political parties, contributing a third and complicating vision.

The structural underpinnings for a political economy based on high wages disappeared almost completely by the 1920s in all three communities, and the model for worker power which rose in the following decade was that of mass-production unionism linked to the Democratic Party, not skilled craft unions tied to a Republican political elite. As Fones-Wolf writes, the mass production workers in the 1930s “elbowed aside those skilled workers who had struck bargains with Republican politicians and employers who had tried to buy labor peace with sops to a skilled craft elite” (p. 176). Although the craft unions were pushed aside, it is nevertheless true that there was greater receptivity to unionism as a whole in towns like Clarksburg where craft unions had once flourished, than in Fairmont, where unionism in the glass industry had to wait until World War II.

Glass Towns is a deft combination of astute analysis and incisive reporting. The author hews to the parameters of his topic, producing a thorough, carefully argued work. As I tried to determine what else I had read that explored experiments in high-wage economic development in similar depth, I was reminded of the book Worked Over, by Dimitra Doukas, about the town of Ilion, New York [1]. Like the glass towns of West Virginia, Ilion prospered because the high wages of craftsmen in the gun industry there were recycled in the community. This recycling of income was made possible by the town’s geographical isolation. And like the glass towns, Ilion’s prosperity was undermined by mechanization and deskilling, triggered by the sale of the gun factory to owners outside the community. Both of these works uncover something of a hidden history, suggesting that we are beginning to shift our emphasis in the way we describe the contours of economic change in the U.S. in the late nineteenth century.

A reading of Glass Towns also provokes questions about its place in international debates about political economy. Here I was reminded of the classic work by Fernando Ortiz, Cuban Counterpoint: Tobacco and Sugar. “Tobacco has created a middle class,” Ortiz wrote, while “sugar has created two extremes, slaves and masters, the proletariat and the rich.” If coal was Appalachia’s sugar, owned by outsiders, committed to keeping wages low, then glass towns had the potential to be Appalachia’s tobacco-based communities, what Ortiz called “the abode of free men” [2].

For a generation, perhaps, the glass industry did produce a middle- class in these West Virginia towns. However, Fones-Wolf’s conclusion emphasizes the failure of the development faith to take permanent root. In part this failure stemmed from a tragic coincidence of forces: since the glass industry was mechanizing even as it was migrating to the natural gas fields of West Virginia, the faith that glass would transform northern West Virginia may have been misplaced from the start. But one could also argue, and Fones-Wolf does, that the sheer size and weight of the coal and energy sector in West Virginia overwhelmed the possibility of a political economy, based on glass, that would support self-sustained development. It would be interesting to know how these conclusions compare with the outcome of similar contests in other parts of the world.

While it is of great value to search for a broader geographical framework within which to place the story Fones-Wolf has told, one need not go far to find meaning from Glass Towns. It is startling enough to learn that in a place with the historic reputation of West Virginia, the promise of self-sustaining development took root to the extent that it did.


1. Dimitra Doukas, Worked Over: The Corporate Sabotage of an American Community (Cornell University Press, 2003).

2. Fernando Ortiz, Cuban Counterpoint: Tobacco and Sugar (originally published 1947, reprint, Duke University Press, 1995).

Janet Irons teaches labor history at Lock Haven University of Pennsylvania.

Subject(s):Urban and Regional History
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: Pre WWII