Copyright 2003 By Bob Hibbs
Saturday Aug 9, 2003 

Saturday Postcard 206: Iowa City Glass


The Iowa City Glass making plant was located north of Kirkwood Avenue beside the Rock Island tracks.
It produced highly collectable glassware for about 15 months in 1882 and 1883. 
The buildings later served as the Rate glove factory.

Many different pieces were produced from stemmed goblets to platters and bowls, even marbles.
However, the molds were used at other sites, so it is difficult to authenticate pieces truly made in Iowa City.


By Bob Hibbs

Local Historian

A post-Civil War industrial boom brought several new industries to Iowa City and Johnson County, including a glass manufacturing plant which produced a variety of pieces highly sought by collectors today.

The nemesis is that others produced nearly identical pieces – sometimes from the same molds – making absolute identification as “Iowa City Glass” nearly impossible unless accompanied by original wrappings or written certification. Identifiable pieces can command several hundred dollars each; truly rare ones even more.

The glass was made beginning in early summer 1882 for a period of about 15 months before the plant was closed and its limited assets distributed among creditors. Several railroad cars filled with finished glassware were emptied by creditors for nickels of what they were due. Pieces were given away as premiums by grocers. 

The plant was located along Kirkwood Avenue at Maiden Lane, beside the railroad tracks. During recent years it served as site to Eicher Greenhouse, and now a tire shop.

From 1890 until a tannery fire in 1898, the former glass plant housed the highly regarded Rate & Sons Glove Company factory, which during its long existence also occupied two other locations and suffered two other major fires.

The Iowa City Flint Glass Manufacturing Company was incorporated April 30, 1880. It bought its plant site two pieces from Catherine Sanders and S. Sharpless, both on June 9, 1880. Among incorporators of the company were legendary local banker and entrepreneur Ezekiel Clark and plant manager James Leighton, the only one of 10 investors with experience with glass production.

Leighton, born about 1849, had come to a glass factory at Keota in 1879 from Wheeling, W.V., where he had been a glass blower.  When the Keota operation failed within a year, he moved on to Iowa City. He is the probably source of some – perhaps most – of the molds used for products here.

Sand is by weight the principal ingredient of glass. The Iowa City operation was based on the belief that sand from along the Iowa River a few miles south of the plant could be shipped the short distance by rail, an extremely efficient, reliable source.

However, early glass from this sand had a tendency to “explode” or shatter as room temperature changes caused gas bubbles to seek release from within the finished product. Sand had to be shipped in from Indiana at considerable expense, which proved financially disastrous. The plant was forced to poorer quality products which didn’t prove marketable.

At its peak, it employed about 150, many of whom came as experienced workers from eastern states, some reportedly sent by competing glass operations as saboteurs to cause the local plant difficulty. Tales claim many were a rough lot who frequented a tavern on a site now serving the University of Iowa engineering building. “Drunken brawls” were reportedly common.

The definitive treatise on Iowa City Glass was written by Miriam Righter and published in hard-cover form in 1961 and reissued later in soft-cover. It remains a valuable source on the topic and collecting hobby it spawned. The Righters, Miriam and UI band director husband Charles, resided in the Manville Heights neighborhood of Iowa City a half century beginning during the 1940s.

Other industries which grew or were established in Iowa City soon after 1865 included distilling, canning, weaving, knitting, and factories producing such products as buttons, linseed oil, drugs, perfume, glucose sugar, jewelry and cigars. A steel foundry was established at Lone Tree.

The life cycle of these enterprises extended from a few years to a few decades, some highly profitable for a time. Cigar manufacture extended well into the 20th century, although, it, too, eventually went up in smoke, so to speak!

Next Saturday: Bunkers at the foot of engineering hill c1907.

Bob Hibbs collects local postcards and researches history related to them.