Charles Boldt Bottle Factory (1914-1919); Owens-Illinois Glass Factory (1919-1993)
Backstory and Context
Michael Owens was born in Mason County, West Virginia in 1859. At the age of ten, he left school to become a glassware apprentice at J. H. Hobbs, Brockunier and Company in Wheeling. In 1888, Owens moved to Toledo, Ohio, where he worked at a glass factory owned by Edward Drummond Libbey. After rising through the company’s ranks, and with Libbey’s financial support, Owens invented a machine that automated the bottle-making process. The machine could produce 240 bottles per minute and reduced labor costs by eighty percent. In 1903, Owens and Libbey founded the Owens Bottle Machine Company in order to license Owens’s invention. The company also acquired various glass-related companies, purchasing over fifteen between 1909 and 1920. With these purchases, the Owens Bottle Machine Company became a producer of bottles as well as bottle machines. The company opened three plants in West Virginia: one in Fairmont, one in Kanawha City, and one in Huntington.
The Huntington plant originated as a factory of the Charles Boldt Glass Company, which grew out of the Muncie Glass Company of Muncie, Indiana, in 1900. That same year, Charles Boldt built a factory in Cincinnati, Ohio. While Boldt continued to use the Muncie plant, production at the new factory soon outpaced the older facility, leading the company to dispose of the Muncie operation in 1909. At some point between late 1905 and early 1906, the firm changed its name from the Charles Boldt Glass Company to the Charles Boldt Company. In 1910, Boldt acquired a license to make liquor bottles and flasks with the Owens Automatic Bottle Machine, and soon two were in operation in Cincinnati. Attracted by Huntington’s rail and river connections, Boldt purchased a ten-acre site on the city's south side for a new glass factory in late 1913. The facility, which was completed the following year, initially operated with two Owens machines and three furnaces. It later added a fourth furnace, as well as a box factory and corrugated paper factory, but the plant primarily produced liquor bottles and flasks. This soon proved troublesome, however, as rising numbers of state and local governments banned alcohol consumption, and Boldt’s license to use the Owens machines applied only to liquor ware. By late 1916, the factory possessed three 6-arm machines and eight 10-arm bottling machines, but the majority of them sat idle.
With the collapse of the liquor industry in 1919, the Owens Bottle Machine Company took control of Boldt’s Huntington plant. Owens refurbished the plant and installed new equipment to produce a line of non-liquor glass products like “canning jars, soft drink bottles, milk jugs, baby food jars and bottles, medicine bottles, and special bottles, such as those used by the Avon company for their colognes.” Around the same time that the Boldt plant was sold, Owens changed the name of his company to the Owens Bottle Company, which reflected its production of not only bottling machines, but bottles themselves. On the night of June 30, 1925, eight buildings of the Huntington factory were destroyed by fire, but rebuilding began almost immediately. In 1929, the company underwent another name change when the Owens Bottle Company merged with the Illinois Glass Company. Following this change, the Huntington operation continued as Plant No. 2 of the Owens-Illinois Glass Company.
Over the years that followed, Owens-Illinois grew into a giant of the glass industry despite the difficulties of Prohibition and the Great Depression. To work around the loss of the liquor industry and the devastation of the Great Depression, the company diversified production by manufacturing not only glass, but also cardboard shipping containers. Although six of Owens-Illinois’s plants were closed in 1929, the Huntington factory remained in operation, producing items like milk bottles and fruit jars. When Prohibition was repealed in 1933, the bottling industry boomed and Owens-Illinois’s earnings tripled. That same year, the company showcased an impressive Art Moderne building of glass blocks for the World’s Fair in Chicago. At the 1939 World's Fair in New York, Owens-Illinois exhibited another futuristic design in collaboration with Corning Glass Works and Pittsburgh Plate Glass. In the decades after the Second World War, Owens-Illinois expanded its production and investments both nationally and internationally. By 1947, the company’s West Virginia plants were making millions of containers each year and employing over one thousand workers. In 1954, the firm changed its name from the Owens-Illinois Glass Co. to Owens-Illinois, Inc., in a reflection of its diverse interests beyond glassware.
Even as Owens-Illinois expanded during the latter half of the twentieth century, the glass industry entered a decline due to the dramatic rise of the plastics industry. Production fell sharply at the company’s West Virginia glass plants, leading the Kanawha City facility, which was once the world’s largest bottle-making factory, to close in 1963. The Fairmont plant followed suit in 1982. The Huntington factory closed in 1993, leaving six hundred workers without jobs. After its closure, the city of Huntington bought the plant and renamed it the Huntington Industrial Center, hoping that companies would locate there and bring business to the area. One of these was Level 1 Fasteners, which makes high-performance fasteners for the U.S. Navy and its subcontractors, as well as for aerospace, aircraft, medical and oil drilling applications. The company, which purchased the center in 2011, occupies the largest building of the former Owens-Illinois complex. Other businesses there include Robert C. Jones Alloys and Koppers, a rail-products company.
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