As a child in Wheeling, W.Va., he shoveled coal into furnaces, carried fiery bottles into annealing furnaces, and held molds for glass blowers.
Michael Owens, son of Irish immigrants, was one of countless boys who worked in the glass industry.
As an adult, he had an extraordinary ability to imagine the operation of complex parts, and working for Edward Libbey in Toledo, he invented a machine that revolutionized bottle making and eliminated child labor from making glass.
"He was more responsible for the success of the glass industry in Toledo than anyone else," said Barbara Floyd, director of the Ward M. Canaday Center for Special Collections on the fifth floor of Carlson Library at the University of Toledo's main campus.
A free exhibit, "Time in a Bottle: A History of Owens-Illinois Inc." continues through Dec. 29 and includes an informative 63-page catalog, also free.
Not only are there bottles of many shapes, notebooks with hand-written recipes for making various types of glass, and Owens' drawings, there's a fascinating little video from 1910. It shows skilled glass blowers making bottles manually; 3,500 could be produced by seven men and boys in 24 hours at a cost of $1.80 a gross. It also shows the intriguing machine Owens spent a decade perfecting; by 1905 it could make 13,000 bottles a day with two men per shift, and it reduced costs to 10 to 12-cents a gross. In one scene, a dapper Owens tinkers with the machine.
The exhibit, which details how the Owens Bottle Machine Co. grew and influenced Toledo, is itself a triumph of sorts.
Last year at this time, Owens-Illinois Inc. delivered 19 pallets loaded with boxes to the Canaday Center, containing an estimated 10,000 photographs, records from the Illinois Glass Co. acquired by Owens in 1929, and one of every bottle made by O-I.
"From this very large collection we pulled out what we thought were the most unique, the most interesting things that people hadn't seen before," said Floyd.
Surveying these contents fell to Kim Brownlee, the center's manuscripts librarian, who was assisted by several others.
The collection has been used extensively by Quentin R. Skrabec, Jr. in his soon-to-be-published Michael Owens and the Glass Industry. Skrabec, of Maumee, is a professor at the University of Findlay.
The Canaday Center has about 230 collections, said Floyd, including papers of the Toledo Scale Co. and of Foy D. Kohler, who was U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union in the early 1960s. Despite Cold War tensions, the collection has poignant letters Soviet citizens wrote to Kohler expressing their sorrow at JFK's assassination, she said.
Before the O-I boxes arrived, the archives of the Libbey-Owens-Ford Co. was Canaday's largest and most frequently consulted collection. LOF developed the picture window, Floyd noted, which was of particular interest to Sandy Isenstadt, an assistant professor of art history at Yale University. His new book, The Modern American House: Spaciousness and Middle Class Identity, has a chapter called "The View it Frames: A History of the Picture Window."
"Time in a Bottle: A History of Owens-Illinois Inc.," is a free exhibit through Dec. 29. Hours are 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday and by appointment. The Canaday Center for Special Collections is on the fifth floor of the Carlson Library near the Student Union on the University of Toledo's main campus. Parking for the general public is in paid lot 1N, off the north entrance (West Bancroft Street) and Towerview Bouldvard East. Information: 419-530-2170.
Contact Tahree Lane at: