By Claire Ferguson
Toledo, Ohio, situated at the western tip of Lake Erie, is known as “The Glass City,” and for good reason. Toledo Glass makers have a long, rich history and produced everything from ketchup bottles to fiberglass to astronaut space suits. Ohio become the main industrial hub for the burgeoning glass industry in the late 19th century. The glass products made by manufacturers such as Owens-Illinois, Owens Corning Fiberglas Corp., Libbey-Owens-Ford Glass Co., and Therma-Tru Corp. were shipped to cities around the globe, and often ended up on beaches, later to be found by lucky beachcombers.
In 1824, civic leaders decided to build a canal between Cincinnati and Lake Erie for easier transport of goods. One of the canal’s termination points was at the towns of Port Lawrence and Vistula, which later incorporated as Toledo. The Miami-Erie Canal completed in 1845 helped Toledo establish itself as a transportation hub between Lake Erie and the Maumee River. By 1880, the population had jumped in just 40 years from 1,322 to over 50,000. As trains replaced canals by the late 1880s, Toldeo was second only to Chicago in the number of railroads.
Different industries began popping up and the city enacted measures to improve conditions for working class people, including opening free kindergartens, building parks, reforming the city government, and instituting an eight-hour work day. A fairly solid infrastructure provided for heavy commercial traffic and booming industry.
In 1888, Edward Drummond Libbey relocated his father’s struggling New England Glass company to Toledo, a site with large supplies of natural gas and high silica-content sandstone, necessary for glass manufacturing. They produced multiple types of glass products and became the most famous glass tableware makers in the world. Renamed Libbey Glass Company in 1892, this move helped set the foundation for all other glass companies in the area. Each of these companies were innovative in their products from glass bottles to Fiberglas and flat glass.
In 1899, Edward Ford established a plate glass factory upriver to compete with European glass. By Ford’s death in 1920, The Edward Ford Plate Glass Company was producing roughly one-fifth of all the plate glass in the U.S.
Throughout history, manufacturers had to blow glass to produce bottles, a slow and tedious process. In 1904, Michael J. Owens, initially hired by Edward Libbey, revolutionized the industry by patenting a machine that automatically manufactured glass bottles. The invention’s implementation eliminated hundreds of glassblowing jobs, and Michael Owens was recognized by The National Child Labor Committee for (unintentionally) reducing child labor in the glass industry.
With support from Libbey, Owens opened The Owens Bottle Machine Company, which expanded quickly and eventually acquired the Illinois Glass Company in 1929, becoming the Owens-Illinois Glass company. In 1937, the first skyscraper completely covered in glass was constructed for its headquarters. Corning Glass Works and Owens-Illinois joined forces in 1938 after a researcher directed a jet of compressed air at a stream of molten glass, producing fibers. Owens-Corning patented this glass fiber, called “Fiberglas.”
The Edward Ford Plate Glass Company later merged with Libbey-Owens Sheet Glass Company to make Libbey-Owens-Ford Glass Company (now owned by Pilkington). Owens-Corning is another offshoot of the original companies.
With the success of their glass empire, Edward and his wife, Florence Scott Libbey, founded the Toledo Museum of Art in 1901. The community pledged $50,000, and the museum was built on Florence’s father’s estate. Edward donated his own art collection and served as the museum’s president up until his passing in 1925. Florence funded the expansion of the grand concert hall known as The Peristyle during the Great Depression to keep 2,500 craftsmen working in Toledo. They both left an endowment fund to the museum to continue operations and the purchasing of art for the museum. In 2006, the postmodern Glass Pavilion was constructed, a 74,000-square-foot space that houses the museum’s glass collection started by Edward Libbey. The elegantly simple maze of curving glass walls float through the building and complement the windows, bottles, windshields, glass art, and more. The Glass Pavilion offers daily glass workshops.
While the manufacturing industry in Toledo today is not as bustling as it once was, the city has a growing art community, auto assembly businesses, education, thriving healthcare, sports teams, and a revitalizing entertainment district. Recently, a team of local community members organized a massive art installation called the Glass City River Wall Mural. Lining the Maumee River bank, the 170,000 square foot project will be painted on 28 grain silos and is expected to be finished this year. It will be the largest artwork of its kind in the country. Designed by artist Gabe Gault, the sky blue mural is decorated with sunflowers and three Native American portraits over 100 feet tall, a tribute to the original farmers of the land. With a message of hope and positivity, the goal is to showcase the city’s dedication to the arts and urban renewal, while telling a story about the rich and vibrant cultural history—past, present, and future.
Learn more at toledomuseum.org.
This article appeared in the Beachcombing Magazine May/June 2022 issue.