Jerry Summers: Chattanooga Glass Company

  • Monday, May 10, 2021
  • Jerry Summers
Jerry Summers
Jerry Summers

On a concrete slab in Alton Park are the demolished remains of what was once a thriving business that existed from 1901-1988.

            After a Coca-Cola bottling plant was established in Chattanooga in 1899 the manufacturing of glass bottles began two years later to provide the containers for the product which would become a significant part of the manufacturing history of Chattanooga.

            What would eventually develop into the Chattanooga Glass Company was started by Charles Reif to provide glass bottles for his brewery.

            Said business did well until Prohibition went into effect in 1920 with the passing of the Eighteenth Amendment and it became necessary to abandon production of whiskey and beer bottles and he therefore started producing drink bottles for the soft drink industry.

            Its main customer was Coca-Cola although NeHi, Nu Grape and a variety of other soft drink companies had their bottles made at Chattanooga Glass.  Mason jars used for canning were also part of the items made at the Alton Park facility.

            Various shapes and colors of the bottles as well as different stoppers and caps evolved over the years.

            In 1915-1916 Coca-Cola adopted the famous “hobble-skirt” (curvy female profile) bottle which gave the company uniformity with its drink bottles.

            Although many people mistakenly credit the world famous “father of industrial design,” Robert Loewey, with creating the new bottle shape it was actually designed by the Root Glass Company of Terra Haute, Indiana after entering a Coca-Cola contest to create a “new and distinctive design.”  Such action was necessary to combat many competitors in the soft drink industry who were infringing on Coca-Cola's trademarks which was resulting in continuous litigation in the courts.

            J. Frank Harrison, cousin to Chattanooga Coca-Cola pioneer John Thomas Lupton, bought the glass company in 1925 and used the plant to provide bottles for Coca-Cola distributors throughout the country.

            Harrison, W.H. Meacham, Clarence Avery and W.T. Williford were the original executive officers with Harrison as the president, Meacham vice president and general manager, Avery as secretary, and W.T. Williford as treasurer.  Meacham was the main holdover from the original Reif Company.  Harrison died in 1933 but the business continued to grow.

            Originally the glass bottles were hand blown but eventually were manufactured by automatic gas fed furnaces that greatly increased their quantity of bottles produced daily.  Ultimately electric operated furnaces were installed.

            At its zenith Chattanooga Glass Company operated four bottle producing furnaces on three eight-hour shifts, seven days a week and employed 600 workers in the summer and 300 during the winter.

            In addition to local employees many came from Alabama and Georgia traveling significant distances in carpools to work at the plant.

            Many of the jobs were repetitive, the plant was not air conditioned, and rigid enforcement of safety rules did not come into existence until OSHA was adopted by Congress in 1970.

            However, it provided a steady place of employment and several families such as the Ingles, Kolwycks, and others were represented by multiple workers at Chattanooga Glass.

            Throughout the years the practice developed of putting the name of the city where the bottles were supposed to be originally circulated on the bottom plate of each bottle.  Although this had nothing to do with the location of where the bottles were actually manufactured, the presence of the name of a town on the Coca-Cola bottle led to the gambling practice of “far away.”

            Several consumers would purchase a coke without looking at the bottom plate.  They would then make a wager for the price of the drinks or additional side bets as to which bottle mark was the greatest distance away from the place of soft drink purchase.

In 1958 business was sufficiently strong enough to purchase a second plant in Corsicana, Texas which continued to operate until the final closing of the parent plant in 1987-1988 after several corporate changes and mergers with national companies.

            In 1953 J. Frank Harrison, Jr. became president of the company and it continued in operation until 1988 when it shut down permanently, largely due to the transfer to aluminum cans by the soft drink manufacturers.

             Charles Saylor, longtime employee and personnel manager for 38 years from 1954-1988, recalls the various changes in the company over the years of his service and expressed pride in the fact that Chattanooga Glass provided employment for many semi-skilled workers that allowed them to support their families in blue collar positions with the company.

            He also adopted the practice of providing summer jobs to many college students and many have attributed the interest and desire to return to college to get a degree was due to a summer of hard work at Chattanooga Glass Company.

            The plant had an active inter-plant intramural softball league in the summers and high school and college baseball players were highly sought to be placed on one of the competing squads when they were working in the plant.

            When the plant finally closed in 1988 with a rich history a strong source of employment was eliminated from the industrial fabric of Chattanooga.

* * *

Jerry Summers

(If you have additional information about one of Mr. Summers' articles or have suggestions or ideas about a future Chattanooga area historical piece, please contact Mr. Summers at jsummers@summersfirm.com)

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Chattanooga Glass workers
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