Great River Road, 2016

Owens-Illinois Glass Company

December 5, 2016

Last modified: May 7, 2020

From 1929-1983 the Owens-Illinois Glass Company (1929 – present) was the world’s largest glass producing factory located in Alton. As a major employer to Alton residents, it boosted the economy and made Alton a highly successful industrial town in the 20th century.

In the late 19th century, Alton had an established glass industry comprising of several small businesses, with the largest being the Illinois Glass Company.  It was started in 1873 by William Eliot Smith (1844-1909) and Edward Levis (1819-1903).1 After 1877 their success demanded a larger space for production, thus prompting Alton leaders to fundraise to help purchase land to keep the company from moving to St. Louis.2 By 1915, the Illinois Glass Company modernized the glass industry by using bottle machines invented by the Owens Bottle Machine Company that replaced skilled glassblowers. The machine made producing standardized bottles faster and at a higher quantity. The Illinois Glass Company produced glass products for a wide variety of uses: medicine bottles, alcohol bottles, soda bottles, ash trays, and more.3 The company’s success prompted the Owens Bottle Machine Company to buy the Illinois Glass Company for $19 million in 1929, which created the Owens-Illinois Glass Company. William (Bill) Levis (1890-1962), the former President of the Illinois Glass Company and grandson of co-founder Edward Levis, became the new Executive Vice President and General Manager of the Owens-Illinois Glass Company, the headquarters of which moved to Toledo, Ohio.4

Soon, the Alton plant became the largest glass bottle producers and the largest container factory owned by Owens-Illinois.5 Alton had three plants: the General Engineering Division, Plant #97 Alton Central Shops Division, and Plant #7, which was the Glass Containing Plant.

The height of production for the Alton plant was in 1973, with 2,400 workers that operated nine of the ten available furnaces and 31 bottle-forming machines. Rumors of the Alton Plant #7 closing circulated in the 1980s following several layoffs, leaving the plant running at 10% of its former capacity. On July 27, 1983 news broke that the Alton plant would close due to a lack of business, leaving 17 plants open nationwide. The Alton plant closed on October 19, 1983 after 110 years of operation, leaving the remaining 312 employees without their jobs. The shutdown came from the growing popularity of plastic and aluminum bottles, slowing the demand for glass bottles.6

Owens-Illinois had operated a mold manufacturing plant in nearby Godfrey since 1958.7 Godfrey machinists went on strike in the summer of 1980 when the company failed to produce an acceptable work contract. The strike resolved on June 30, 1980 when Owens-Illinois produced a new three year contract and the workers voted to return to their jobs. The benefits of the new contract included wage increases, pension plan improvements, health and welfare coverage, and vacation and contract provisions. The plant survived the 1983 closing of the Alton operations, but was moved in 2009 to Perrysburg, Ohio which meant that Owens-Illinois had no remaining attachment to Madison County.8

In 1997, 15 years after the Alton plants were non-functioning, talks started about turning the former Owens-Illinois factory buildings and land into an industrial park to boost Alton’s economic potential. A plan to revamp the old factory as a warehouse and building a commercial strip hoped to create 1,000 jobs. Construction started in 1998 with cleanup of the old spaces and making them adhere to Illinois Environmental Protection Agency policy. The budget required $16 million, and Clark Properties Inc. of St. Louis, MO helped fund.9

Even though Owens-Illinois left Madison County officially in 2009, the impact it had on the community helped make Alton a booming industrial town. Owens-Illinois is still the world’s leading glass producer.

For more, see these Oral Histories

Endnotes   [ + ]

1. Kenneth B. Farnsworth and John A. Walthall, Bottled in Illinois: Embossed Bottles and Bottled Products of Early Illinois Merchants from Chicago to Cairo, 1840-1880, Studies in Archeology No. 6,  (Illinois State Archeological Survey: University of Illinois, Urabana, Illinois, 2011), 89-102.
2. Jack K. Paquette, The Glassmakers Revisited, (United States of America: Xlibris Corporation, 2010), 28-29.
3. The Illinois Glass Company, “”Diamond I” Products Catalog for the Illinois Glass Company,” Madison Historical, accessed March 27, 2017.
4. “8 names added to Toledo’s Civic Hall of Fame,” The Blade, January 24, 2007; Paquette, 29-35.
5. Owens-Illinois Glass Company History: Its Past, Its Products and Its People, donation from Harold Meisenheimer, Hayner Public Library Genealogy and Local History IR 666.1 OWE, 19.
6. Owens-Illinois Glass Company of Alton, Illinois, compiled by the Hayner Public Library in 2014, IR 666.1 OWE.
7. Owens-Illinois Glass Company of Alton, Illinois, compiled by the Hayner Public Library in 2014, IR 666.1 OWE
8. Steve Whitworth, “Owens-Illinois to relocate last office in area,” The Telegraph, December 18, 2008.
9. Owens-Illinois Glass Company of Alton, Illinois, compiled by the Hayner Public Library in 2014. 180-200.
Cite this article: Jessica Mills, "Owens-Illinois Glass Company," Madison Historical: The Online Encyclopedia and Digital Archive for Madison County, Illinois, last modified May 7, 2020, https://madison-historical.siue.edu/encyclopedia/the-owens-illinois-glass-company/.
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