Western Pennsylvania glass industry going the way of steel

Date: 28 December 2004

Western Pennsylvania’s once-thriving glassmaking industry is dwindling, as did the domestic steel industry and for many of the same reasons: competition and cost.

On Wednesday, 102-year-old Houze Glass Co. closed in Fayette County, the third glass company in the region to close in the past two months.The closure puts 57 workers out of a job.

The domestic glass industry has been in decline for a number of years, said Ray Burhop, a Tampa, Fla., consultant for the glass container industry.

"Glass used to be used for everything you can think of in food packaging," he said. Now many products are likely to be packaged in plastics and cans instead of glass.

The glass container industry is now largely dependent on the beer and liquor industry, he said.

"For years, I’ve always described the glass container industry much like the steel industry," Burhop said. "It’s a heavy industry, high labor costs, high energy costs ... lots of capitalization."

"Once you put on a glass furnace, you don’t shut it down until the summertime, when you repair it" — and that is costly, especially with the high cost of natural gas, said Anne Madarasz, chief curator at the Senator John Heinz Pittsburgh Regional History Center.

Western Pennsylvania, although better known for steel than glass, has been "a very large center for the glass industry, much like the steel industry, because of the natural products that were there," Burhop said, listing silica, natural gas and potash as key ingredients.

Pittsburgh’s dominance as a glass center began around 1800, Madarasz said. By 1840, it was the country’s pressed glass capital and by the 1880s, it was the nation’s center of all glass production.

The center’s exhibit, "Glass: Shattering Notions," documents the region’s glass industry and houses a collection of regional glass products. Madarasz also wrote a book by the same name about the region’s glass history.

Over the past 50 years, foreign competition with lower labor costs has chipped away at domestic producers, according to Madarasz and Burhop.

Along with alternative packaging, Madarasz said changing lifestyles have also played a role in the demise of glass. For instance, brides are less likely nowadays to register for fancy crystal, she said.

Henry Dimmick Jr. chief executive officer at American Glass Research in Butler County, said the industry has been going through consolidation over the past 20 to 30 years.

"The glass industry is not going away, it is really just changing," he said.

Several decades ago, there were dozens of glass container companies across the country, but now just three major ones — Anchor Glass Container Corp., French-owned Compagnie de Saint-Gobain and Owens Illinois Inc. — and a few smaller makers remain, according to Dimmick and Burhop.

The company manufactures quality control equipment for the glass and plastics container industry.

Madarasz said the region will retain its importance in the industry. PPG is headquartered in Pittsburgh and World Kitchen Inc. manufactures Pyrex in Charleroi, Pa., and there are a number of smaller specialty manufacturers.

PPG, which began in 1883 as the country’s first commercially successful flat glass maker, diversified early into paints and chemicals, said spokesman Jeff Worden.

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