Kokomo Glass: The Oldest Glass Manufacturer in America

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According to historian Paul Crist who wrote An Early History of Kokomo Opalescent Glass Company in 1998, the stories behind the company sound more like the makings of a soap opera than a business plan. But despite the companys somewhat fractured past, Kokomo has upheld its reputation for exceptional glass products. Since 1888, it has been producing some of the finest glass in the world, and remains the oldest manufactory in America of its kind.

Charles Edward Henry opened Kokomo Glass Factory in Kokomo, Indiana after he managed to negotiate a free factory site and cheap gas rates with community leaders. The once agriculturally based town was booming with business opportunities thanks to the discovery of natural gas. Glass production began on Nov. 13, 1888. The company specialized in colored opalescent glass, which at the time was a relatively new product. The superintendent and chemist of the company, Henrys business partner, worked tirelessly to perfect the formulas and processes needed to make the unique glass.

Journal archives show that Kokomos first order was for Tiffany Glass Co. It was six cases of mixed blue and white opalescent glass. At this time glass was sold by the pound. Common colors were priced at approx. $.08/lb. while unique colors like Gold Ruby Drapery, sold for approx. $1/lb. Darker, more intense colors were difficult to produce at the time due to the high pigment concentrations necessary to produce them, so most of what Kokomo produced was lighter and not as rich in color. The trends of the time also affected glass production. Customers on the west coast demanded lighter colors and more consistency in their glass, and customers on the east coast preferred dark, rich, rare hues.

In addition to struggles with formulas and processes, Kokomo struggled with shipping in the early years. The factory was located far from many of its customers, and the glass had to be packed and shipped by train. Much of it arrived broken or cracked.

The owner, Charles Henry also had his share of struggles. He ultimately lost all of his money and most of his mind, but miraculously the company remained in tact. It was bought and sold by a series of proprietors and maintained a consistent customer base and good reputation in the industry for many years.

Kokomos current president, Richard Elliott, is the great-great-grandson of one of the businessmen who presided over the company long ago. He continues to run the family business in the vein of his forefathers, and the companys current glass offerings are as impressive as ever. They produce a variety of textured, streaky, cathedral, and opalescent glass in every color imaginable, and many of the recipes are still derived from hand-written archives of original workers.

Moreover, the glass is produced today in much the same way as it was back then. A giant brick oven, known as the beehive, contains a 2,550 F flame, which cooks pots of molten glass. The contents of the pots include soda ash, silica sand, feldspar, crushed limestone and pigment. After cooking for many hours, the hot glass is gathered up in giant ladels, thrown on to a table, mixed and tossed into hot rollers. The job is so physically taxing and excruciatingly hot, workers must take a break every 30 minutes. The glass is then cooled, inspected, packed and shipped. It is certainly a tireless process, but a beautiful outcome.

Visitors interested in learning more about Kokomos rich history and glassmaking practices, can visit and tour its facility.

Customers wishing to purchase Kokomo glass can find it in the Delphi 2010/2011 catalog on page 73. The catalog is set to hit the streets the first week of September 2010. Kokomo Glass is also available on the Delphi website.

Thanks to Kokomo Glass for providing the articles and photos from which this blog post was written. Reference: C. Edward Henry Opalescent Glass Works, Kokomo, IND., Kokomo Opalescent Glass Co. An Early History by Paul Crist, Jan. 5, 1998

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Julie Bedford

Julie Bedford

Julie graduated from the University of Florida with a degree in Communications. She worked as a marketing director and graphic designer before coming to work for Delphi as social media manager. Her mother is an artist and inspired Julie's love for art and creativity at a young age. Her hobbies include writing, crafting and social networking.