The Dorflinger Glass Factory Museum and a vanished industry

By ANNEMARIE SCHUETZ
Posted 9/29/21

WHITE MILLS, PA — White Mills, you could say, was built on glass.

Cut glass, leaded crystal, glass that catches the light and the eye; it’s a testimony to the business acumen of …

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The Dorflinger Glass Factory Museum and a vanished industry

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WHITE MILLS, PA — White Mills, you could say, was built on glass.

Cut glass, leaded crystal, glass that catches the light and the eye; it’s a testimony to the business acumen of Christian Dorflinger.

The Dorflinger glass factory still stands. It’s a museum now, focusing on the labor involved in glassmaking and the factory’s impact on the community. (The nearby Dorflinger Glass Museum is a different entity, showcasing the beautiful work the factory produced.)

Inside, you can see the machinery that etched the designs into the basic glassware, called blanks. There’s the machinery that cut it, the machinery that polished it.

You can watch a 1916 film about glassmaking, see a cutting machine, hear the noise of one at work and imagine what that would be like, repeated in multiple machines throughout the large, brightly lit space that is the main floor of the factory.

“We wanted to create a museum of industrial history, like the Henry Ford Museum,” said director James Asselstine. “We studied how the Ford Museum displayed items, because we wanted to tell the story the best way possible.”

The  Dorflinger Glass Factory’s time was short, just over 50 years, but it resonated: the company sold to America’s newly rich and the country’s presidents. Its glass was for the luxury market, said Asselstine, due to “the high cost of materials and labor.”

The beginning

The business itself started in Brooklyn, over by the Navy Yards, and after the Civil War moved out to White Mills. This was not just a matter of cutting costs, although that helped.

Dorflinger knew the area; a friend owned a farm on property that now houses the Dorflinger-Suydam Wildlife Sanctuary. (Eventually he bought that property too.)

But why here?

“Dorflinger needed a reliable fuel supply and a way to bring in the ingredients” required for glasswork, Asselstine said. Scranton-area coal mines were doing a brisk business, and the Gravity Railroad shipped coal to Honesdale. The D&H canal picked it up from there and ferried coal to New York City. And the canal was close to White Mills. Not only did it get the coal to Dorflinger’s furnace, but it shipped the glass to the eager buyers.

Then there was the war itself. New York City had seen draft riots during the Civil War and a threat of terrorism against the Navy Yard; leaving likely seemed sensible, Asselstine said.

So Christian Dorflinger built a factory in White Mills in 1865, packed up his materials, machines and workers, and moved everything to Wayne County.

Business really took off after the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia in 1876, he said. “The public had the opportunity to see the quality of glasswork” in the exhibits. “That created the groundswell of interest in cut glass.”

Those who labor

An industrial museum is also about the workers.

The skilled workers, Asselstine said, came from Europe. “It was very much an immigrant industry. People came from France, Germany, Ireland, Scandinavia.” The first workers got here in 1866.

They mostly apprenticed in their homelands, a process that took five to seven years, Asselstine said. But America as the land of opportunity beckoned. Dorflinger used that, offering good wages (about $25 a week; glasscutters on average in the U.S. made $18 a week, according to a special report on immigration from the 1870s.)

He also offered the American dream: the hope of a better life than they could have in Europe, both for the workers themselves and their families.

The company town

And finally, the story is about the community of White Mills itself and how it changed when Dorflinger arrived and when the factory closed its doors for the last time.

This was very much a Dorflinger town, but Asselstine describes something different from the usual image of a company town. Employees could shop at any store. They didn’t have to live in White Mills, although many did.

From the cutting room windows, you can see houses big and small. Many were built by the Dorflinger family, some for the family, most for workers, Asselstine said. “The industrial village still exists... on Evergreen Street, School Street, those were workers’ houses.”

Before the glass company took off, there was “the D&H canal, and not much else,” he said. After? “The economic impact was tremendous.”

Rival cutting shops sprang up; the present-day Ledges Hotel was one. Businesses were started to cater to the workers. Schools for their families. Economic ripples, spreading out, affecting the region.

The work at hand

Industrial museums are a homage to the worker and the labor involved. At the factory, the cutting machines required skill to use. Hydrofluoric acid offered an easier and perhaps less-skilled way to etch designs into the glass. But the acid was—and is—a lot more dangerous.

You can watch one machine operate; it’s a noisy job. The cutting machines had a surprisingly delicate touch, if existing work is anything to go by. Images are sometimes more of a hint than a picture, time-weathered.

End of an era

The factory closed in 1921, after 56 years in business. It was overwhelmed by a tidal wave of cheaper glass and was a victim of WWI—Europe was in tatters and the apprenticeship system struggled to survive; the necessary potash, sourced from Germany, was unavailable; the coal that kept the mighty furnaces going had been diverted into the war effort. Leisurely Victorian-style dining was no longer fashionable. The luxury market had other interests. And Prohibition, of course, diverted some families from the alcohol for which specialty glassware existed.

The old ways of life were gone.

“The last special order was in 1918,” Asselstine said, “for the Presidential palace in Cuba. It was 2,300 pieces, marked with the coat of arms.”

White Mills survived, of course. Many workers went to Corning or the Gillinder glass factory in Port Jervis. The old buildings still stood, repurposed for other industries or uses. Eventually neglect took a toll.

A mission, crystal clear

Asselstine spent years as the chairman of the nearby Dorflinger-Suydam Wildlife Sanctuary and its glass museum. And then a chance came to buy the old factory.

The committee seized the moment. “It took eight years to renovate,” Asselstine said. “We wanted to do it right and we learned as we went along.”

The goal was “an industrial museum, which would show how glass was made and how it was used.” The focus isn’t just on the beauty of the product, although many displays let you see how magnificent quality glasswork can be. The Factory Museum also demonstrates the process.

It opened in 2016.

The museum building itself is the old cutting shop. The factory office next door is open for tours by appointment.

Inside the factory, a film from 1916 plays, explaining how glass was made at Dorflinger. Two replica dining rooms show how glass was used as part of Victorian fine dining. There are tables and displays of the glass itself as well as the machinery that made it. You can still see the equipment used to etch glass with the lovely, delicate trees, scrollwork, or custom designs.

But you’ll have to imagine the heat down in the boiler room. That’s been converted to an art gallery, although the old boiler still stands front and center, itself an example of industrial craft, back when such basic things could be beautiful.

History isn’t just linear, it’s not an event followed by an event, propelled along by famous people. History is about smells and sound and everyday life. Which includes work, even work in a factory in White Mills.

“We wanted to tell that story,” Asselstine said.

For more photos, see the Dorflinger Glass Factory Museum photo gallery.

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