Carr Lowrey Glass Co., a final glimmer in Baltimore's once-lustrous glassmaking industry, announced yesterday that it will shut down after 114 years manufacturing perfume bottles and specialty glass, having lost its long battle with foreign competitors and plastic.
After years of declining business and numerous unsuccessful attempts to sell the company, Carr Lowrey will stop manufacturing glass products next week, then shut down for good after a few more weeks of packing, shipping and associated paperwork, said K. Wayne Long, the company's president. About 250 employees will be out of work.
Local historians say that when Carr Lowrey's furnace goes cold, Baltimore will be without a glassmaking factory for the first time since at least 1800, when glassmakers in Federal Hill began to build a vibrant industry that once ranked among the city's top three employers.
"It's sad, because they're the last of what was a thriving industry for 200 years," said Paul Cypher, executive director of the Baltimore Museum of Industry, which is developing a permanent exhibit about the city's glassmaking heritage. "At the height of the glassmaking industry in Baltimore, in the late 1800s and early to mid-1900s, we were really well-known for making specialty bottles for perfume and the pharmaceuticals industry. And Carr Lowrey was one of the companies that really took off in that area."
Carr Lowrey was founded in the city's Westport section in 1889 by local businessmen William W. Lowrey and Samuel J. Carr, and it forged a specialty early on as a supplier for druggists and perfume companies, originally using mouth-blown glass. In 1927, it was one of the first American glass companies to install automated machines, according to the company's Web site.
By then the glassmaking industry in Baltimore was long-established, particularly in southern areas of the city where factories abounded with window glass and decorative bottles.
According to the 1881 publication History of Baltimore City and County by John Thomas Scharf, the glass industry in Baltimore "began at a very early day in the history of the city" and produced "all kinds of glassware, and in every variety."
"Bottles, vials, jars, flasks, demijohns, tumblers, chimneys, cologne and extract bottles and window glass," were all produced on the banks of the Patapsco River, the book said. Companies like Federal Hill Glassworks, Maryland Glass Corp. and Baltimore Glass-Works formed a thriving trade that was overshadowed only by the city's garment and canning industries.
Cypher said the local glassmaking industry was renowned for a trademark shade of colored glass known as "Baltimore Blue," the cobalt blue color made famous by Bromo Seltzer bottles.
Carr Lowrey's specialty was always fragrance containers. It produced a line of Avon bottles that were shaped like trucks, airplanes and other collectibles, and more recently made basketball-etched glass to hold Michael Jordan cologne.
Long said Carr Lowrey has continued to produce intricate, specialized glass products, and to great acclaim. But that niche is not profitable enough to sustain a factory, he said, despite years of trying.
"That's where you earn your reputation, but that doesn't pay the bills," he said. "It's the run-of-the-mill stuff that we couldn't get enough of.
"I wish things were different. For anyone who has any love or passion for this business, this is not a happy day."
Carr Lowrey, still at its original location on Kloman Street, has operated on borrowed time and money since at least 1999. It was rescued from the clutches of its Swiss creditors by a $7 million loan from the Abell Foundation, which allowed it to avoid foreclosure, and has been searching for a buyer or partner ever since. But the prospects grew ever dimmer as its markets declined and competition grew.
It expanded into the business of tableware, candle holders, and specialty food and beverage containers, but its core cosmetics and fragrance business continued to erode, company officials said. The popularity of plastic packaging and the deep discounts offered by overseas manufacturers have caused much of the company's work to decline.
Other industry watchers say the company also suffered from delivery delays and relaxed quality under a previous management team. The problems were corrected, but the company never recovered.
"We wanted to keep the company going, and they've done that for 4 1/2 years, keeping people in their jobs and paying $30 million in salaries and benefits over that time," said Robert C. Embry Jr., chairman of the Abell Foundation. "But they couldn't turn it around, and they were unable to find a buyer."
While the fate of Carr Lowrey is common in American manufacturing, particularly in a specialized and labor-intensive business like glassmaking, people close to the industry say the plant's closure is destroying an interesting piece of industrial life.
When Michael Greenman was hired there as a special projects manager in the mid-1990s, one of his responsibilities was to find uses for the ever-expanding pile of colored glass behind the main factory, a repository for scraps and mistakes. He says he will never forget his first look at the plant's fiery insides.
"My phrase for it was Dante's Inferno - there were all these molten pieces of glass, not literally flying around but sliding around in tracks and casting this strange glow," said Greenman, who now serves as executive director of the Glass Manufacturing Industry Council, a trade group.
"It's really a dark and kind of exciting place, and a real piece of history."