‘Glass House’ chronicles the brutal decline of an all-American industrial town: NPR


Once a thriving industrial city, Lancaster, Ohio is now plagued by underemployment and drug addiction.

Shelly Metcalf


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Shelly Metcalf


Once a thriving industrial city, Lancaster, Ohio is now plagued by underemployment and drug addiction.

Shelly Metcalf

Lancaster, Ohio, home of Fortune 500 Anchor Hocking, was once a bustling industrial and employment center. In its post-World War II heyday, the Lancaster hometown company was the largest manufacturer of glassware in the world, employing more than 5,000 townspeople.

Although Anchor Hocking remains in Lancaster today, it is a shell of its own, and the once prosperous town is plagued by underemployment and drug addiction. Lancaster native Brian Alexander recounts the rise and fall of his hometown in his new book, Tight.

“People are really struggling,” he says Fresh air’s Dave Davies. “The city’s economy is struggling, not because there is high unemployment, [but] because the job there is is all minimum wage, or even less than minimum wage.”

Fairfield County, in which Lancaster is located, got 61% for Donald Trump in the presidential election – a fact Alexander attributes to the candidate’s message of disaffection. Alexander says that on Election Day, a Lancaster woman told him she voted for Trump because she wanted “it to be that way.”

Interview Highlights

on how Lancaster was once considered an all-American city

After the Second World War, Forbes devoted almost its entire 30th anniversary issue to Lancaster, Ohio, of all places, and positioned Lancaster as the epitome and pinnacle of the all-American city – a kind of perfect balance between big industry, agriculture [and] small businesses, like retailers and traders, etc. … And everything was in this almost utopian state of balance, and for the most part it really was like that.

Which doesn’t mean there weren’t any problems. There have always been problems, there have always been scandals in small towns, and there has always been an element of poverty, a good dose of booze in Lancaster. My grandfather used to say – he was an old glass man from western Pennsylvania – and when he came to visit he said he had never seen a town with more churches and more bars. … So it was not without problems, but it was really, of my life, very similar leave it to the beaververy honestly.

On how Anchor Hocking contributed to the fabric of the city in its heyday

You had a core of sophisticated college-educated people who made a good living working right downtown on the corner of Broad and Main Street, and more importantly, in some ways, their wives – remember that’s in the 1940s, 50s, 60s and 70s – their wives generally did not work in a professional type job outside the home. They threw themselves into the city. So they did hospital services, they did services to preserve old Antebellum homes in Lancaster, they did vaccination campaigns, they made sure the sidewalks were fixed, the streets were paved, they attended city council meetings. It was a core of civic leadership.

On the 1987 acquisition of Anchor Hocking by the Newells Corp.

It was a hostile takeover. It’s still a bit of a mystery how hostile it was, but they buy it in a hostile takeover, and the first thing they do is fire all the executives and shut down the head office. So now you’ve emptied a core of people who were active in city life. Like one person in Lancaster, an elder I interviewed said, “It tore the heart of this town.” So you kidnapped the executives, you kidnapped their wives, their families. …

[It was] devastating for the city. And the newcomers, the people Newell chose to run Anchor Hocking never lived in Lancaster; they all lived in Columbus. There is a long held belief, an unshakeable belief, that Newell instructed its new leaders not to live in Lancaster, so as not to be involved in United Way and other Lancaster civic activities. I have found no evidence of this, but you cannot shake the belief of the Lancasterians that this was, in fact, the case. …

The workers will tell you that Newell was not a bad employer. They weren’t necessarily unhappy under Newell. It was not the same; it was less of a family atmosphere. Hourly workers and salaried workers all say the same thing. They say the business got a little more efficient, they made money, they made money for Newell, they weren’t unhappy under Newell, but it didn’t feel like the old Anchor Hocking, and it would never be again.

On how what happened in Lancaster reflects a larger trend in capitalism

When you can pay a foreign worker a third or less of what you pay a unionized white glass worker in Lancaster, that’s one factor, but it’s far from the only one. We seem to believe with a shrug that it’s all some kind of natural evolution, like the death of the dinosaurs. But what I’m trying to make in the book is that part of this, at least in part, is a result of a series of conscious decisions [by] politicians, economists, businessmen, financiers.

On what Lancaster is today

Previous books by Brian Alexander include The chemistry between us, Rapture and America decompressed.

Brian Alexander


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Brian Alexander

The houses, for example, are no longer as well maintained as before. The west side, which has always been the working-class side of town, is even more disheveled than before. … The parents are in prison, so the grandparents or the aunts or the uncles have the children. I saw a map of the state of Ohio the other day that showed the percentage of children who are now in the social service system and the percentage of their parents who use opiates. In Fairfield County, 58% of children who are in the system, their parents used opiates. The neighboring county, Hocking County, is over 70%. So now you have drugs in the community, which are an escape from all that stuff. …

The best thing about Lancaster is how much people love their city and want it to work. But they face very difficult situations.

On Lancaster voters backing Trump in the presidential election

I think in part, Trump has already fulfilled at least one expectation, and that’s to sort of express that kind of widespread anger and aggression that they wish they could [have] and Trump, I think, is kind of their pilot doing it for them. Eventually, I think they’ll find it empty, but I can’t be sure.

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