Whiskey, World's Fairs, and War


The Owens-Illinois headquarters from 1935 until 1982The assets of the new Owens-Illinois Glass Company included 16 factories worth more than $48 million.  The company was headed by a management team that mostly came from Illinois Glass, including several members of the Levis family.  But the merger of 1929 occurred just as the worst financial crisis of modern times began.  The stock market crash and the Great Depression that followed hit the glass industry hard.  It followed a bleak decade for bottle manufacturers caused by Prohibition, which eliminated one of the industry's largest markets alcoholic beverage producers.  In 1929, six of O-I's plants were closed.

To recover, the company sought to expand into products that were not heavily impacted by the Depression or Prohibition, including milk bottles and fruit jars, and it acquired several companies that produced these products.  It began manufacturing its own cardboard shipping containers, a product line that would become important to the company during the next thirty years.  It also bought out Illinois Pacific Coast Company, and installed J. Preston Levis, cousin of William Levis, as manager of the west coast operations.

            The company found it needed the increased production capacity when Prohibition was finally repealed in 1933.  Executives from O-I worked with President Franklin Roosevelt's administration to control a feared surge in alcohol consumption.  To ensure that alcoholic beverage bottles would not be re-used by illegal bootleggers who remained in business, the government required that all liquor bottles be stamped to indicate they could not be refilled.  While O-I had continued limited production of whiskey bottles during Prohibition to legally supply pharmacies, it now geared up for full-scale production.  Earnings for 1933 tripled over what they had been in 1932, due to the end of Prohibition.

            The merger with Illinois Glass meant the company needed a larger building to house its headquarters.  Over the years, the company had moved itsSpitzer Building, a former home of Owens headquarters several times, from the Spitzer Building on Madison Avenue (from 1903-1908), to the Nicholas Building at Madison and Huron (1908-1928), and to an old mold shop on Wall Street across from the factory (1928-1935).  In 1935, the company moved into a more appropriate building, the former home of the Ohio Savings Bank and Trust on Madison.  The building has been completed in 1930, but the bank occupied it for less than a year when it went out of business due to the Depression.  The building would remain O-I's headquarters until its move to One SeaGate in 1982. 

            Because the Illinois Glass Company had been a largely family-run corporation, it held a paternalistic view of its relationship with its employees.  This tradition continued when the company became O-I.  When asked how the company might help its employees as part of a Christmas suggestion letter contest, workers at the Alton plant suggested starting some sort of athletic program.  In 1934, this idea developed into the OnIzed Club, which was established at each plant to provide social, welfare, and athletic programming for employees.  It also helped to reduce efforts by employees to unionize. 

            The year 1933, one of the bleakest of the Depression, must have seemed like an odd time for a
World's Fair, especially one called "A Century of Progress."  But the purpose of all such fairs is to promote optimism about the future, and the United States in 1933 was in need of a dose of optimism.  Many of the exhibits at the Chicago fair stressed the ability of science to improve mankind, and the buildings were built in the Art Moderne style to emphasize this theme.  Owens-Illinois constructed its own Moderne building of glass blocks for the fair, utilizing one of its newest product lines.  Inside the building, visitors could view a scale model diorama showing all of the steps in glass bottle production. 

The interior of the Owens-Illinois 1939 World's Fair exhibitOwens-Illinois had another major exhibition at the 1939 World's Fair in New York.  The theme for that fair was "Building the World of Tomorrow," and the buildings were even more futuristic in design than those of 1933.  The Glass Center was a joint project of O-I, Corning Glass Works, and Pittsburgh Plate Glass.  The round building was adorned with a tall glass tower, and was constructed of windows, mirrors, fiber glass, and glass block (using the newly developed Insulux blocks).  The company also organized a service bureau to assist visitors and potential customers who came to view the exhibit.  The exhibit featured some of the company's newest developments, including the application of color printing on bottles.

            The exhibit also included examples of Libbey glassware.  In 1935, Owens-Illinois acquired the assets of the Libbey Glass Company, the successor to E. D. Libbey's original company. 

            Owens-Illinois's acquisition of many smaller glass companies like Libbey came under the scrutiny of the federal government during the New Deal.  In 1938, the Justice Department's anti-trust division began to investigate the company's holdings in what would become known as the Hartford-Empire case.  The case dragged on until 1945, when O-I was eventually found guilty and restrained from unfair business practices.  However, no fines were ever levied in the case.

            The optimism about the future marketed at the New York World's Fair was short lived.  In 1938, Adolph Hitler marched into the Sudetenland and Czechoslovakia, and after Pearl Harbor in 1941, the United States entered World War II.  Like most American manufacturers, O-I quickly began producing items needed to supply the troops, including containers for pharmaceutical and food products.  The company even touted that "bottled beer is often the answer to the unsafe drinking water problem found on so many fronts of the war."  A new business for O-I, the Owens-Illinois Can Company (purchased in 1935) produced canned goods for the war.  However, the company never proved profitable and it was sold in 1944.  The company's Engineering Department also helped to produce aircraft parts and other parts for war machinery. Over 3000 O-I employees served in the war.


At the Ward M. Canaday Center for Special Collections


Miscellaneous publications, the Century of Progress Exposition, 1933-1934.  O-I, MSS-200. (PDF)

            These souvenir publications of the Chicago World's Fair included photographs of the O-I building, and a color brochure describing O-I's diorama depicting glass bottle production. 


1939 World's Fair Book Cover Sales brochures for glass block, 1931-1945.  O-I, MSS-200.

In 1931, O-I diversified and began producing building products, including structural blocks made of glass.  Glass blocks were featured in the 1933 and 1939 O-I world's fair buildings. Glass block influenced architecture of the period as it allowed for designing sleek, modern buildings.  Insulux was a glass block that included insulation and could be made translucent for privacy. 


Brochures, photograph album, and commemorative bottle, 1939 World's Fair.  O-I, MSS-200.

            O-I had a large exhibit at the 1939 World's Fair.  The company produced a souvenir bottle that incorporated the symbols of the fair "the Trylon and the Perisphere."


OnIzed Club documents, 1934-1959.  O-I, MSS-200.

            Milt Olander, an assistant athletic director at the University of Illinois, came up with the idea for the OnIzed Club based upon an employee suggestion letter.  The club was intended to "offer opportunities which will enrich and broaden the life of every employee."  Each plant had its own chapter.  The Toledo club published a newsletter called the Glaszette, and had its own men's glee club and orchestra.   


"Owens-Illinois People at Work at War," ca. 1944.  O-I, MSS-200.

            This pamphlet describes the products produced by the company for the war effort.  It was intended to inspire employees to continue to work hard to support their country. 


Photographs, war bond drives, 1942.  Joseph M. Jackson Photograph Collection, MSS-182.

             O-I was active in promoting the sale of war bonds, which helped to finance the war.  Hollywood star Dorothy Lamour lent a hand by visiting the Huntington, West Virginia, plant during the 1942 company war bond drive.  The event included a talent show where one employee played songs on various sizes of O-I bottles that produced different pitches.  


"Service Honor Roll," 1945.  O-I, MSS-200.

            This booklet honors the O-I employees from the Toledo company headquarters who served in the war. 


Owens Illinois War Bond DriveErnie Pyle.  Ernie Pyle on Glass.  Toledo, OH:  Libbey Glass, a Division of Owens-Illinois Glass Co., 1945.

            In 1941, noted newspaper writer Ernie Pyle visited Toledo to write a column about glass production.  Fascinated by what he saw, he ended up writing five columns, many featuring employees of the Libbey Glass division.  The columns were re-printed by the company in 1945 after Pyle's death, and the books were given to employees as Christmas gifts. 


Glass Bowl dedication photographs, 1946.  Joseph M. Jackson Photograph Collection, MSS-182.

            In 1943, the football program at the University of Toledo was suspended because of the war, and did not resume until 1946.  That year, Wayne Kohn, an employee of Libbey-Owens-Ford, suggested renovating the university's football stadium and renaming it the Glass Bowl.  With contributions from the city's glass manufacturers, including Owens-Illinois, the stadium was rededicated as the Glass Bowl. 


Bob Hope and Joe E. Brown photographs, ca. 1942-1946.  Joseph M. Jackson Photograph Collection, MSS-182.

            Owens-Illinois used celebrities to advertise its products during the 1940s, including Joe E. Brown and Bob Hope.  

Last Updated: 6/9/16