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Home Blown : Beverage Bottles of Laurens Glass Works, 1910-1996

Exhibition at the South Carolina State Museum
Columbia, SC, April 6, 2002 - January 12, 2003

By Dr. Fritz Hamer, Chief Curator of History, SC State Museum, Columbia, SC
Reprinted from the PSBCA Soda Fizz, March 2002

    At I sat down to review my emails one morning, I discovered a new name that I hadn't seen before. When I opened it, I was surprised to see that it came from Joe Holcombe, an avid collector and researcher of South Carolina Stoneware for years. I knew the name, but I had never met him, so I was intrigued. He invited me to visit him and his father in Clinton, and see if we might be able to collaborate on some projects. I replied favorably and we set a time for my visit.

    This began the seeds of the current project that will be the first effort in South Carolina to examine in an exhibition the history and bottles of Laurens Glass Works. Although Joe told me later that he was surprised that I jumped at this topic, his father was pleased that I would take an interest in a company that he had researched and collected for many years. As most bottle collectors know, Laurens Glass was the second glass making firm in South Carolina. It produced millions of beverage bottles for soft drink companies along the East Coast and extending out as far as Texas. By no means unique in its production methods, or its designs, it is still important to the Southeast and South Carolina manufacturing history since there are few glass bottle-making firms in this region. The South Carolina State Museum has been working with the Holcombe family for more than two years to produce this exhibition. Funding has been received by tithe SC Humanities Council to produce the show and the family ahs been more than generous with its time and its information sharing. In addition, Paul Jeter, a long time bottle collector, research, and author from Columbia, has contributed significant amounts of his time and knowledge. Eddie Ivey, of Clinton, SC, proved an invaluable source for locating LGW bottles and documents, as well as contacting important informants who worked for the firm during its last forty-five years. Unfortunately, Dr. Fred Holcombe, who planted the seed for this exhibition, passed away in November 2000. Nonetheless, he taught his son much about LGW and Joe has continued his father's vision with his father's spirit and keen interest.

    In the fall of 1910, several local businessmen, led by Nathaniel Dial, incorporated Laurens Glass Works for $50,000. It began operations early the following year with an estimated work force of 50 to 75 workmen. New to the business of glass bottle production, the fledgling firm ran into problems with iis glass quality and had to shut down within a few months. It was not until 1913 that it started up again, this time with an unknown number of skilled glass workers recruited from Pennsylvania, Ohio and other Northern states. One of these new workers, John Finkbeiner, gained his training in Europe. He immigrated from Germany to Canada before moving to western Pennsylvania. From there, he was recruited to move South with his four sons and his wife. His oldest, William, although only 17, was already a skilled worker. William and his children would become integral parts of the Laurens Glass work force and management in future years. Several others had similar stories. Local folks also worked for the plant. 

    It is not certain what its first clients were, but one of the earliest was the Sander's bottling company. Coca-Cola had begun to bottle its drinks for the first time when the new century began and LGW became one of the firms that made bottles for the growing soft drink company. By 1919, it was probably the Laurens firm's most important client, making bottles for local Coke bottlers in several places in the southeast. It also made bottles for Dr. Pepper and Pepsi. Examples of these early bottles will appear in the show. 

    The Laurens firm steadily grew during the 1920s and in the following decade introduced the Applied Color Label process to its design capabilities. Except for a downturn during WWII, LGW continued to expand. In 1946, it made major new investments to increase the firm's size and production levels. The demands on its product were so great that in 1959, it built another plant in Henderson, NC and a few years later, a third branch in Ruston, LA. Although beverage bottles remained its main source of income until the 1980s, it began to make jars and other glass containers in the 1970s. At its peak in the 1960s and 70s, the Laurens plant employed an estimated 800 workers on three shifts, seven days per week.

    In 1968, when its long time President, Ernest Easterby, died, the family-owned company was sold to Indian Head Container Group headquartered in Delaware. Several more mergers followed during the next three decades. During its last ten years, glass containers for foods and medicine replaced beverage bottle production. Finally, because the Laurens plant was unable to expand, it was shut down in 1996. 

    The exhibition will examine highlights of the Lauren's firm's development, starting with a brief history of glass bottles and the first glass bottle factory in the Palmetto State: Carolina Glass Works of Columbia (1902-1913). The largest component of the exhibition will display a representative sample of the bottles produced during the 85 years of beverage bottle production. this will be divided into three major segments. The first will be the embossed period, 1911 - 1937. These will include some of the earliest identified bottles made at LGW. One of these is the sanders Spring bottle that we can document to the Laurens frim to 1913. Some of the early straight-sided Coke bottles, as well as the Atlanta-based soda company's first hobble skirt designed bottles, will be shown. By the 1920s, when LGW had started adding its own logo to each bottle, the number of firms that ordered bottles grew significantly. This would continue into the 1960s. In 1937, the ACL process was introduced at LGW so that the firm not only continued to make embossed bottles, but also colored labels, often in combination of the two.


    As it made what must be thousands of bottles for the big soda companies, from Coke to Pepsi and Dr. Pepper, to regional ones such as Royal Crown Cola and Grapette, it made bottles for dozens of local bottlers. These included Mother Goose Punch Cola, Blenheim's Ginger Ale from Marlboro County, Dixie Dew, Bucks Beverages, Nichol Cola and Loy's Beverages, that often lasted only a decade or so. Most either were bought out by the bigger firms or simply closed shop because they could not compete.

    Below is the general organization of the show.

    The exhibition will be divided into eight sections, as follows:

  1. Bottles before Laurens Glass Works

  2. How glass bottles are made, from Hollow Ware to Standardization

  3. The first bottle making firm in South Carolina, Carolina Glass Company (1902-1913)

  4. Beginnings and early history of Laurens Glass Works

  5. Names and background of LGW work force. 
    Using censuses, we identify some of the first workers at LGW, showing that they came from many backgrounds and nationalities. Interviews with workers that started at LGW in the 1950s and 60s will be excerpted as well, to learn about what work was like at the plant, where different jobs in the plant will come alive along with some of the unofficial things done by workers when management was not around --ie: making glass objects that were not part of an order.

  6. Beverage bottles produced by LGW, 1911-1996.
    This section will exhibit a variety of bottles produced by the firm from its beginnings to its closure.

  7. A unique bottle with a tragic story.
    This will tell the story of the specially design and produced Canada Dry bottle made for Vice-President Lyndon B. Johnson for his planned reception for President Kennedy during his Texas visit in November 1963. With the Vice-President seal applied to 2400 Canada Dry Ginger Ale bottles, none were used in the wake of JFK's assassination November 22. At least two examples of this bottle that survived will be displayed.

  8. Innovation and Growth: Quality Production leads to multi-state firm.

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