Last Updated: Oct 27, 2022     Views: 5

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.

  • crack-off boy would remove a finished piece of hot glassware from the end of the gaffer's blow iron by cracking it off.
  • lehr boy would carry the hot glassware to the annealing lehr. 
  • 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).


Black and white photograph of boys and young men working in a glass factory
Part of a night shift in an Indiana glass factory, August 1908. Lewis W. Hines (1874-1940). This photograph was taken as part of an assignment for the National Child Labor Committee and the original belongs to the National Child Labor Committee Collection of the Library of Congress. This print (Collection of the Rakow Research Library 92651) was obtained from the Library of Congress.

Below 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


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.


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 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.


Books/Book Chapters


  • Gratton, Brian, and Jon Moen. “Immigration, Culture, and Child Labor in the United States, 1880-1920.” The Journal of Interdisciplinary History 34, no. 3 (2004): 355–91. (Read "Immigration, Culture, and Child Labor" now at JSTOR)
  • Hoffman, Nicholas J. “Miniature Demons: The Young Helpers of Milwaukee’s Glass Industry, 1880-1922.” The Wisconsin Magazine of History 91, no. 1 (2007): 2–13. (Read "Miniature Demons" now at JSTOR)
  • Larner, John William. "The Glass House Boys: Child Labor Conditions in Pittsburgh's Glass Factories, 1890-1917." Western Pennsylvania History: 1918-2018 48, no. 4 (October 1965): 355-364. (Read "The Glass House Boys" now at Penn State University Libraries Open Publishing journals catalog)
  • Messer-Kruse, Timothy. "Technology and the decline of child labor: the impact of the Owens bottle machine reconsidered." Labor: Studies in Working-Class History of the Americas 5, no. 1 (2008): 23-45.



The Rakow Research Library will lend designated books from its collection and will send copies of articles on request from other libraries. Your local school, public, academic or special library can request items through the OCLC WorldShare Interlibrary Loan (ILL) system or by direct request through email at For more information, please see our ILL website (





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