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Still Working: Why Pittsburgh Is Really The 'Glass City'

Walking down Penn Avenue in Garfield, people likely don’t see Jason Forck through the window two stories up as he balances a near-molten glass tumbler at the end of a steel rod.

He picks up a tool called a soffietta, a small cone attached to a short metal tube, and puffs air into the glass to give it shape. Nearby, his workbench has seven tools on it.

“It hasn’t changed that much in the last century. The tools are very similar to what was used in Roman times,” said Forck, ​education and creative projects coordinator at the Pittsburgh Glass Center.

Before technological innovation began to make mass production of glass possible in the 1820s, all glass was made the way it is in Forck's shop: by hand with a limited arsenal of tools.

Glassmaking changed dramatically thanks to this region, said Anne Madarasz, vice president of museum exhibits and collections at the Heinz History Center; it was a hotbed of innovation.

“In terms of all the major technologies for glass, even if the idea isn’t birthed here, it’s applied here and bigger than anywhere else," she said. 

In 1797, there were two factories in the area. By 1900, more than 100 factories operated in western Pennsylvania, eastern Ohio and northern West Virginia.

“From the very beginning, production is not for Pittsburgh, not for western Pennsylvania. It’s for a growing national market to the west,” Madarasz said.

A gaggle of entrepreneurs couldn’t have dreamed up a better spot for glass-making: easy access to raw materials — sand from riverbanks, ash from nearby forests and coal so abundant one manufacturer likened it to dirt — and a command of the supply lines: the rivers. Pittsburgh producers had no competition: glass from the east couldn’t survive the rough overland journey. Even as other forces cut into the market, Madarasz said the industry continued to grow.

“As American life changes, glass is part of those changes, (it) is integral to new technologies," she said. 

Railcars required glass, but so did the switches and signals and lights along the route. Cameras, radio tubes, syringes — all glass. Even now, smartphone screens are glass. But the material also has an emotional draw, Madarasz said.

“Glass is interesting because it’s an industrial story, obviously, but it’s also a product that draws people’s passions," she said. "That really appeals to us esthetically. Nobody gets rapturous over a steel beam.”

At the Mt. Pleasant Glass Museum, master glasscutter Peter O’Rourke looks fondly at the Christmas bells he made at Lenox. This town of 4,500 was once home to three glass manufacturers, but in the early 2000s, they all moved overseas.

“The question I always want to be asked is, why don’t people appreciate it today like they did 20 years ago? I’m banging my head to wonder why,” O’Rourke said.  

Growing up in Ireland in the 1960s, O’Rourke became a glass apprentice at the age of 16. Back then, he said, everyone was getting into glass.

"Every other town was setting up factories," he said. 

Museum CEO Cassandra Vivian said glass just isn’t what it once was.

“We’re a disposable age," she said. "We need to fall in love with glass all over again.”

There are still Pittsburgh glass-makers; they’ve survived by specializing. O’Rourke now runs his own company, creating custom awards instead of Presidential inauguration gifts. He sees older people come into the museum and wonders if it’s a generational thing. Maybe younger people will grow into an appreciation for glass.

“The likes of me, I’m too stubborn, I’m sticking with the old gift ware and things like that," he said. "I love doing it. So I’m going to stick doing it. Whether you make money or not.”

90.5 WESA Celebrates Inventing Pittsburgh is supported by UPMC.

Margaret J. Krauss is WESA’s senior reporter. She covers development and transportation, and has produced award-winning podcasts on housing, work, and Pittsburgh’s lesser-known history. Before joining the newsroom full time, she covered the challenges facing Pennsylvania cities as a statewide reporter, and spent another life as an assistant editor for National Geographic Kids Magazine in Washington, D.C. She can be reached at mkrauss@wesa.fm.