The Heart of Innovation and Collaboration in the Glass City.
When I'm asked to provide a local history tour, I always include a stop at the Libbey Glass Company's manufacturing facility on Ash Street. Originally built in the late 1880’s when members of the Toledo Business Men's Committee agreed to provide a four-acre parcel and 50 lots for workers' homes, the Libbey Glass plant is an important and historic landmark in the Toledo story. It’s also a key backdrop in the fascinating chronicle of how Toledo commerce advanced through a culture of innovation and collaboration.
In August 1888, Edward Drummond Libbey carried through on the biggest bet of his life when a special train arrived in Toledo from East Cambridge, Massachusetts containing 50 carloads of machinery and 100 or so workers from the New England Glass Company. Other glass workers were also recruited from West Virginia, including a young glassblower named Michael J. Owens.
Owens' life story contrasted deeply with Libbey's. Born in the Boston suburb of Chelsea, Libbey was the descendant of an old New England family, educated at an elite boarding school in Maine and became involved in the glass industry at 24 when his father invited him in to help manage the family business. Owens, on the other hand, was born to poor Irish immigrant parents in Mason County, West Virginia and went to work in a glass factory at the age of ten after a short stint in a coal mine. Ambitious and eager, he developed his talents and by the time he was fifteen he was working alongside craftsman more than twice his age. He also became an active member and leader of the American Flint Glass Workers Union.
After the initial excitement of the move to Toledo subsided, Libbey recognized Owens' leadership abilities and put the 29-year-old glassblower in charge of his struggling Toledo plant. The two began a successful partnership that would help Toledo live up to the "Future Glass Center of the World" moniker coined by The Blade in 1888. When I tell the Libbey and Owens story, I often field questions on how the two ended up here in Toledo. I explain that in addition to its ideal location (think railroads, Great Lakes shipping, ready labor and natural resources) and the fact that Libbey was dealing with labor problems back in Massachusetts, the major reason Libbey chose to move to Toledo was because local business leaders worked together through the Toledo Business Men's Committee to attract new industry to Northwest Ohio. Their work set off a chain of events that would place our community at the center of industrial innovation and business collaboration for years to come. Byproducts included the development of the automatic glass-bottle machine, tableware, light bulbs, window glass, prescription drug containers, glass building materials, automotive glass and fiberglass through the collaboration of businesses and spin-offs with names like Libbey Glass Company, Libbey-Owens Sheet Glass Company, Libbey-Owens-Ford, Glass Fibers, Inc., Owens-Corning, and Owens-Illinois. This flourish of Toledo innovation was not limited to the glass industry. Other area innovations include DeVilbiss Atomizers, Meilink Safe, Toledo Scale, Calphalon, and First Solar. Northwest Ohio remains a place where an innovative idea can become a leading global business.
While I like to give the credit to the business leaders who helped attract Libbey to Toledo, certainly Libbey and Owens deserve our appreciation for what they accomplished after moving here. What a unique and powerful partnership these two enjoyed. It's said that throughout their relationship, Michael Owens always referred to Libbey as "Mr. Libbey" and Libbey kept a picture of Owens in his office up to his death. Their mutual respect for each other never wavered—that certainly played a major part in their successful business relationship.
If you want to learn more about the beginning of the Glass City, check out this excellent Seymour Rothman piece from the April 14, 1988 TOLEDO BLADE published on the 100th anniversary of Libbey's announcement to move to Toledo.