Owens Joins with Illinois

 

William Eliot Smith, founder of the Illinois Glass CompanyIn 1835, Edward Levis settled in Alton, Illinois, where he married and raised a large family that included seven sons:  Edward, George M., John M., Charles, Robert H., Nelson, and Frank.  A cabinet maker by trade, Levis became involved in the glass industry in 1873 when he, along with partner William Eliot Smith, purchased the Illinois Glass Company a business that had failed three times before.  Levis was willing to invest in the venture on the condition that all of his seven sons receive jobs in the factory.  Smith acted as president and sole sales agent, while Levis acted as vice president and production manager. 

The company was so successful that within three years the partners needed room to expand.  They considered moving across the Mississippi to St. Louis, where it would be easier to acquire raw materials and ship their finished products.  But the city of Alton realized the thriving company was an asset to its own economy, and offered it a site near the river and a railroad right-of-way.  Smith and Levis accepted and the business moved to its new home in 1875.  In the next thirty years the company's sales grew 36 times over, and the number of employees grew from 60 to 3200.

Edward Levis died in 1903.  When William Eliot Smith died in 1909, control of the business passed to the five remaining Levis sons.  Up to this time bottlesEdward Levis, co-founder of Illinois Glass were still being hand blown using centuries-old labor-intensive methods.  But in 1910 the Levis brothers licensed one of Owens's automatic bottle machines and installed it in their Alton plant.  Others soon followed, and by 1915 all bottles produced at the Alton plant were made by the Owens machine.

Sales increased dramatically as a result of the mechanized process, and the company continued to grow.  By 1928 it had additional plants in Bridgeton, New Jersey; Gas City, Indiana; and Chicago Heights, Illinois; as well as subsidiaries including Tavern Rock Sand Company, Carlyle Paper Company, and Madison Warehouse Company.  The Alton plant was the largest individual bottle manufacturing factory in the world. 

By the mid-1920s the Owens Bottle Company began looking at Illinois Glass as a potential acquisition.  The patents on Owens's machines were nearing expiration, and the company stood to lose substantial revenue from its licensing program.   Illinois Glass was an Owens licensee; had an aggressive and successful sales team; and had modern, well-located facilities; all reasons that made it attractive to the Owens company.

After long negotiations, the two companies merged in 1929, representing the largest merger in the history of the glass industry to date.  The Owens-Illinois Glass Company was born, and its headquarters established in Toledo.  In the company's 1929 annual report, officials stated that "the management of the company is exerting itself to the utmost to reflect the advantages of the company's improved position in the higher quality of its products, better service to its customers, and a greater return to its shareholders."  The report also notes that significant reductions in the administrative and sales staff were necessary as a result of the merger. 

William Boshart was selected president of the new company, and William E. Levis, grandson of the founder of Illinois Glass, was appointed executive vice president and general manager.  This was short lived, however, as the Levis family quickly took control.  By 1930, Levis was named president, and his cousin, J. Preston Levis, took over management of the Alton plant.  Harold Boeschenstein, who would play an important role in the development of a new industry exploiting glass fibers, was vice president for sales.  During William Levis's first decade of leadership of the new company he oversaw an expansion unprecedented in the history of the glass industry.

 

At the Ward M. Canaday Center for Special Collections

 

The Levis family of Alton, IllinoisLevis family photographs, ca. 1887 to 1920s.  O-I, MSS-200.

            These photographs show the personal side of the family behind Illinois Glass, and include a photograph of the seven Levis sons.  Also included is a photograph of William Eliot Smith, the other co-founder of the firm. 

 

Illinois Glass Company corporate minute book, 1891 to 1912.  O-I, MSS-200.

            This book includes minutes of proceedings of the board and meetings with shareholders.

 

Glass recipes from Illinois Glass, ca. 1900.  O-I, MSS-200.

            These documents detail the ingredient requirements for producing various kinds and colors of glass.

 

Photographs and plat map of the Alton factory, Illinois Glass Co., ca. 1900 to 1930.  O-I, MSS-200.Illinois Glass Company, Alton, Illinois

            These photographs include many of the workers at the company.

 

Edward Levis estate document, 1903.  O-I, MSS-200.

            This petition for the probate of Levis's estate includes a list of heirs.

 

Letter from George Levis to Alice Smith regarding her desire to maintain representation on the Board of Directors of Illinois Glass, 1911.  O-I, MSS-200.

            Originally, Edward Levis owned only 20 percent of Illinois Glass, while William Eliot Smith owned 80 percent.  When Levis died in 1903, he still owned only a third.  After Smith's death in 1909, the Levis brothers became concerned about running the company as minority shareholders.  In 1911, Mrs. Alice Smith, widow of W.E., agreed to sell the Levis family enough of her stock to give them a majority share.  These letters relate to that transaction and Mrs. Smith's desire to maintain representation on the company's Board of Directors.

 

 "Honor Roll, Illinois Glass," 1917.  O-I, MSS-200.

            This company brochure lists employees of Illinois Glass serving in World War I, including several members of the Levis family.

 

Bottles magazine, 1923-1926.  O-I, MSS-200.

Illinois Glass workersBottles was published by Illinois Glass Company from 1914 until at least 1927 "to promote a better understanding of the services offered" by the company.

 

Illinois Glass company catalogs, 1906 to ca. 1926.  O-I, MSS-200. 

These catalogs were used by salesmen working for the company, and included price lists.  The catalogs display the two diamond-shaped logos of the company:  "Bottles of Every Description," and the later "Diamond I."  The 1926 catalog was the personal property of William Boshart, then president of the Owens Bottle Company, indicating his interest in the company three years before the merger of the two entities.

 

Illinois Glass Company advertisements, ca. 1920s.  O-I, MSS-200.

            These advertisements depict some of the ways Illinois Glass promoted its products.  Included is an ad for special hand-blown perfume bottles that were produced at the Chicago Heights plant.  

 

"Illinois Glass Company:  The Institution.  50th Anniversary," 1923.  O-I, MSS-200.

            This booklet celebrated "fifty years of achievement in building up a service of better bottles."

 

Documents concerning the creation of the Owens-Illinois Glass Company, 1929.  O-I, MSS-200.

These items include a press release announcing the consolidation of the two companies, a copy of the articles of incorporation filed with the Ohio Secretary of State, and the first annual report of the merged company.  The new logo of the company consisted of the Owens "O" surrounding the "Diamond I."

 

Centennial Issue, Owens-Illinois Company Newsletter, 1973.  O-I, MSS-200.

This issue of the newsletter was published to celebrate the founding of Illinois Glass in 1873.  It includes many photographs of the early history of the company.

Last Updated: 1/3/12