So, you’re interested in a job as a glassblower. That’s no surprise. For 50 years glassblowing has been a good way for a skilled industrial laborer to earn a comfortable living, and today as we enter the 1920s, demand for these workmen shows no signs of lessening. But what are the risks?
Since there are so many glassblowers around, it’s important for society to properly assess what diseases they are likely to suffer. Frederick L. Hoffman writes, in the 231st Bulletin of the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (“Mortality from Respiratory Diseases in Dusty Trades”, 17th in the Industrial Accidents and Hygiene Series):
The hygiene of glass blowers with special reference to pulmonary tuberculosis is of exceptional interest as a labor problem in the glass industry. The number of blowers employed proportionate to the total number of wage earners is relatively large, and, from a wage point of view, the employment is of the first order of importance.
From this US government document we can see some statistics on the prevalence of tuberculosis in this population. It’s not so much that they are exposed to the bacteria to a high degree. But continual low-level lung damage by inhaling high-temperature air containing various dusts means that once the bacteria are inevitably inhaled, they have a place to roost. The lung equivalent of abrasions, you might say.
So they have higher mortality rates than men in general of the same age. With regard to tuberculosis in particular, here’s a table compiled by Prudential Insurance researchers.
Carboy blowing? Carboys are huge! It’s hard to contemplate the human lungs being the engines of inflation for one of these. Or thisHand Blown Monumental Demijohn.
Some other recent statistics, from the Chicago Tuberculosis Institute. This table is on page 153 of the July 1915 – June 1916 annual report of the Illinois Chief State Factory Inspector.
So as a glassblower you’re not as likely to fall prey to the dread tubercular bacillus as you would be as a marbleworker or upholsterer, but it’s a concern.
* * *
What about other lung conditions?
This turns out to be controversial. As a person with no medical training, I’d imagine that the risk factors for tuberculosis and emphysema are pretty similar. Inhaling poisons or microscopic things that damage the alveoli (alveoli are tiny air sacs which combine to make up a massive surface area for oxygen to enter the blood). However, the evidence regarding glassblowers suggests that the two diseases are uncorrelated.
In 1904 Prettin and Leibkind of the Stadtkrankenhaus Dresden-Friedrichstadt analyzed 230 glassblowers for an article entitled “Kann durch Glasblasen ein Lungenemphysem erzeugt werden?” JAMA (the Journal of the American Medical Association) deemed this an important finding, a perfect example of the sort of science-based result that supersedes old-fashioned beliefs that were based only on common sense.
* * *
We already know that the southeastern regions of New Jersey are great for making wines and wine-related medicinal concoctions. Meanwhile southwestern New Jersey was a hotbed of glass production, as seen in the history of the large town of Glassboro in Gloucester County. To the northeast are two townships called Waterford and Winslow, both of which are named for large glassworks that existed in the 1860s.
In 2006 Erik Schwartz of the Cherry Hill Courier-Post wrote about the long-gone legacy of glass in areas including Waterford and Winslow townships. And in 1869 Dr. John Snowden sent in some observations about the health of workers at the Waterford and Winslow glassworks, included in the Camden County report (p. 134-136) in the Transactions of the Medical Society of New Jersey. “Phthisis” means tuberculosis.
A very interesting communication on the subject of Phthisis has been received from Dr. John W. Snowden, who had practiced for more than twenty-three years at the seat of two of the largest manufactories of glass in this State — at the Waterford and Winslow glass manufactories, where several hundred hands are employed in the manufacture of glass. Dr. Snowden says that among the glass-blowers themselves Phthisis is not at all frequent; but that many of these operatives suffer from emphysema of the lungs. But that among the batch-makers (those who prepare and mix the materials of which the glass is composed), and also among the pot-makers, who make the pots in which the glass is melted in the furnaces, Phthisis is very common indeed, and that few can follow this branch of the business for many years without being liable to Phthisis.
Dr. Snowden says that many of those men, months after they have been compelled by the progress of the disease to leave off work, expectorate with tuberculous matter small masses of German clay, one of the materials of which the pots are made. This undoubtedly being drawn into the lungs by inspiration, in a state of fine powder, and being insoluble, is deposited in the tissue of the lung, where it serves as a point of irritation around which the tubercle is first deposited.
So now glass-blowers don’t get tuberculosis, but they do get emphysema? I guess it depends on the facility.
There is a lot of clay powder involved in glass-making, that’s for sure. Here are the ads at the top of three straight pages of the August 25, 1917 National Glass Budget.
* * *
Really, a lot of risks that apply to other glassworkers do not apply to glassblowers. In terms of health hazards, one of the longest assessments was written in this series of articles for insurance men, highlighting how to avoid physical accidents and the subsequent payouts for broken bones, burns, deafness, that sort of thing. I don’t know exactly what it means by “Live Articles”. Maybe it means “This is the current standard of what we expect”.
Here’s a typical illustration.
The Travelers Insurance agent who wrote “Glass Manufacturing Hazards” for this series agrees that emphysema is not a major problem for glassblowers, despite what one might expect. The men who work with the raw glass ingredients, and the “bottle-breakers” who smash undesirable glass so it can be re-melted, are more at risk for this — as they are for skin irritation, painful abrasions, burns from molten glass, and foot lacerations.
Glass-blowers do sometimes break their teeth when the iron blow-pipe strikes some hard object. They slip on the smooth, worn wooden foot-benches that are often without railings. They drink too much water, causing cramps. They get blisters, which should, but usually aren’t, dealt with by puncturing the blister with a needle threaded with white sewing silk, to provide drainage before the blister bursts. And they get infectious diseases from the shared water cup used to cool down between blows, and more importantly, from the shared mouthpiece on the blow-pipe. This has been the subject of several studies. Studies of syphilis.
* * *
The first link between glass-blowers’ pipes and syphilis I can find is from 1862, when the British Medical Journal relayed a report from France. Apparently in “Giers and Vernasion” (which probably means Rive-de-Gier and Vernaison), transmitting diseases is virtually inevitable because the normal procedure is for three men to collaborate (taking turns in quick succession) on blowing a single piece of glass. Is this the normal method? Anyway, this leads to the men giving each other “the three syphilitic disease of the mouth”.
In a 1904 issue of the Indianapolis Medical and Surgical Monitor, Dr. Nelson D. Brayton of the Indiana Medical College collects a large number of reports under the title “Syphilis, a Non-Venereal Disease”. Along with dozens of other anecdotes of people acquiring the dreaded disease through innocent means, he mentions a 162-person outbreak of syphilis among glass-blowers, along with other professions where people risk disease by putting common instruments in their mouths (assayers, weavers, goldsmiths, train conductors, music teachers).
In his 1906 dissertation at the University of Würzburg, Joseph Kaesbohrer described 290 cases of syphilis in which the first observed chancre (hard sore) was seen in the tonsillar region. These frequently occurred from kissing and from nursing, as well as from medical instruments, shared eating utensils, and tobacco pipes. In a summary in the Medical Review of Reviews, the only occupation listed as a risk factor is glass-blowing. So be cautious. But should you acquire this or other so-called venereal disease from your blow-pipe, don’t fear rumors and innuendo, as Kaesbohrer found that “sexual perversion, which many have assumed to be a frequent cause, is, as a matter of fact, an infrequent cause of tonsillar chancre.”
* * *
Depending on what sort of glass works you find yourself in, the risk factors can be different. Most glass doesn’t have lead in it, but some does, and that’ll be bad if it ends up in your lungs, as seen in this 1920 case from Italy.
Unshielded eyes are at risk for “glass-blowers’ cataract”. One reason why we can’t see long-wavelength “infrared” light is that the lens of the eye absorbs this light instead of letting it through to the retina where we could perceive it. Long-term exposure to this light, which we can sense only as heat radiation, can lead to a forty-year-old having the cataracts of a man of eighty. According to the Illinois Medical Journal, the eminent Dr. de Schweinitz can look at the clouding of a furnace-worker’s eyes and tell if he is right- or left-handed.
Finally, a health consequence of glassblowing that may be the most obvious of all if you know someone who’s spent a couple decades in the job. From The Sanitarian, March 1892:
According to Le Progres Medicale, the Societe de Biologie, of which M. Brown-Sequard is president, received from M. Regnault, of Marseilles, at its session on November 7th, 1891, a communication on a disease which is met with in about one third of the workmen. This condition does not attain complete development until the men have been from ten to fifteen years in the business. They are taken into the glass factories, usually, about fifteen years of age; and at first the young workmen complain of great fatigue and a painful feeling in the cheeks which extends to the ears; later, the cheek becomes gradually weakened, is easily puffed out, and the deformity, of which the cases presented were in an advanced stage, progresses steadily. This deformity is caused principally by the weakness of the buccinator muscle, whereby the cheek becomes swollen and permanently enlarged.
The swelling is limited by the masseter muscle. There is also a special dilation of the duct of Steno, the calibre of which is increased and the orifice enlarged. This duct is filled with air, which may be forced out by pressure on the external surface, when a distinct gassy sound is heard.
In short, after years of glass-blowing, your face may be altered. The buccinator muscle is weakened, the cheeks expand into jowls, and the inner mucous lining “is thrown up into vertical and circular folds, giving it an appearance which has been likened to that of a tobacco-pouch.”
Neither M. Regnault of Marseilles nor Dr. Liaras of Bordeaux, summarized in “The Mouths of Glass-Blowers” in the June 1898 Medical Bulletin, see these altered facial features as a serious problem. But in severe cases, the primary salivary duct (the parotid duct, a.k.a. duct of Stensen, a.k.a. duct of Steno) is forced open by the intense pressure in the mouth, and it becomes dilated, forcing air into the salivary gland. I can’t imagine what that feels like. Maybe not painful, but certainly weird. It sounds like a fun party trick to be able to puff up your salivary glands on command… but when it happens unbidden at work, it’s a problem. The final citation on this subject comes from JAMA of November 23, 1912.
So, the word “Tumor”. This is not “tumor” as in cancer, it’s the form that simply means “swelling”. As in the four elements of inflammation, rubor/calor/dolor/tumor, defined by Celsus in the first century A.D. Air goes into the parotid gland, and then you have “tumor” in the parotid gland. As described here by the surgeon Narath, you may have to quit your job if the “chronically stretched duct and gland” get too bad. But you’ll always have the party trick.
* * *
And one more thing. Yet another German article paraphrased by a English-language journal, in this case the March 1899 Canada Lancet.
“Luxation of the eye”? “Proptosis”? Does that mean… yes, just search for some images. So with your newly enhanced lung power as a glass-blower, just make sure that when you sneeze, really let that sneeze escape. Don’t keep it bottled up, if you value your eyeballs’ position behind their eyelids. And good luck!