All About Glass

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Jobs in a 19th-Century Glass Factory

All About Glass

In a typical glass factory in earlier times, most workers would work as unskilled laborers. An unskilled laborer was usually called "boy," a term which did not refer to the age of the individual. Although girls were known to perform other work, they often worked as inspectors and packers of finished glass. They were thought to have the "keener eyesight" required to sort out poorly made glass, and it was also thought that they would be more careful packing the finished ware in shipping barrels.

  • A crack-off boy would remove a finished piece of hot glassware from the end of the gaffer's blow iron by cracking it off.
  • A lehr boy would carry the hot glassware to the annealing lehr. 
  • A mold boy would sit at the feet of the gaffer opening and closing the hinged blow-mold as required, (sometimes, a boy would actually be allowed to blow the piece).

Younger Workers

Night shift in an Indiana glass factory, August 1908Below is a list of the numbers of workers by age in an 1880s glass factory:

  • 10 years old: 2
  • 11 years old: 4
  • 12 years old: 10
  • 13 years old: 16
  • 14 years old: 53
  • 15 years old: 83
  • 16 years old: 256
  • 17 years old: 199
  • 18 years old: 52
  • 19 years old: 127
  • 20 years old: 116

Getting the Job

Hiring practices were not formal. With no labor unions to establish seniority, workers were sought-out for jobs because of their reputations as skilled, reliable people. A gaffer could hire and fire whomever he wanted. Often, local saloons were used as hiring places. Usually, a gaffer would be paid for a job by the company, then he would hire and pay the people with whom he wanted to work.

The Work Week

When factories were in full operation, a 50- to 55-hour work week was normal. Mondays through Fridays were 9- to 10-hour working days with a half-day on Saturdays. The 40-hour work week with overtime pay ("time-and-a-half") was not introduced until the 1940s.


In one glass factory, the average 1912 hourly wage for a male worker was 18 cents, and that of a female worker was 11 cents. They did not perform the same work. The lowest rate for a male was 15 cents and the highest rate for a female was still 11 cents. A 1917 statistic for the same factory shows that the average yearly wage for the lowest pay-rated male was $526, well above the U.S. poverty level at the time.

Working Conditions

Working conditions were hot, dirty, and sometimes dangerous. For that time in history, glass factory working hours were reasonable and pay was relatively good. As length of service increased, opportunities to learn a skilled trade were usually available to those who qualified. Of course, working conditions differed from factory to factory.

Published on December 8, 2011