The other day, I watched an interesting YouTube video on the long-term cultural and political impact of the Bubonic Plague in Western Europe. At this point, it’s too early in the game to speculate about the fallout from COVID-19, but you would be surprised at just how much earlier diseases have impacted our local economy. Let’s talk typhoid.
Typhoid is an infection caused by the bacteria Salmonella enterica entrica. Symptoms include high fever, body ache, abdominal pain, rash, and vomiting. It is contracted by consuming food or drink contaminated with feces from an infected person. Today, it is perfectly treatable with antibiotics, but, before their invention in the 1940s, it was often fatal. During the Civil War, for example, some 80,000 soldiers died of it. While there are still the occasional outbreaks throughout the developing world, typhoid is incredibly rare within the United States and one local company is part of the reason why.
During the 1880s, there were a series of typhoid outbreaks across upstate New York. Dr. Harvey D. Thatcher of Potsdam, New York, was convinced contaminated milk was the culprit and began devising a way to fight the spread. In those days, the collecting of milk was extremely unsanitary. Cows were milked into open pails in barns filled with dust and dung, often by farmers who had not washed their hands. In 1883, he patented a device he called the milk protector which allowed the milk to flow into a covered container without human hands coming in contact with either the milk or the cow. It was a step in the right direction, but it still wasn’t enough for Thatcher.
|Dr. Harvey Thatcher|
At the time, the milkman would come around with a large can from which he would ladle a customer’s milk into a vessel of their choice. In the spring of 1884, Thatcher was horrified to witness a little girl dropping her rag doll into an open can of milk, only for the milkman to fish it out and continue serving her mother. For the next two years, Thatcher worked on perfecting a sealable, reusable glass milk bottle to prevent such contamination. In 1886, he obtained a patent and began having his bottles hand blown by a company in New Jersey. Throughout the 1880s, he made a series of improvements to his designs to make them easier to seal and manufacture.
In 1898, Elmira lawyer and businessman Francis Baldwin met Dr. Thatcher and soon purchased the company. Hand blowing the bottles was slow going and he wanted to try making them on the Owens vacuum machine, which would allow for fully automated manufacturing. Over the next decade, he opened plants in Kane, Pennsylvania (1906); Streeter, Illinois (1909); and Elmira, New York (1913).
Throughout the 1900s and 1910s, the company campaigned hard to get dairy farmers to see their sealed, reusable glass bottles as a more sanitary and economical alternative to the old milk cans. By the 1930s, states and municipalities across the country had laws requiring the use of milk bottles for distribution. As series of competitors sprang up across the country, producing bottles for local their dairies.
The Elmira plant was located just north of Eldridge Park. At the time, it was the largest milk bottle manufacturing plant in the world at 86,000 square feet with three furnaces capable of producing 500 bottles a day. The plant continued to expand. During its heyday, it was making 1.25 million bottles a day. In 1957, they employed 1,350 people locally with an annual payroll of over $6 million. Although the company had half-a-dozen plants across the country, Elmira was the corporate headquarters. In 1962, they constructed a research center in Big Flats on the corner of Colonial Drive and County Road 35.
Thatcher Glass Manufacturing Company became a subdivision of Dart Industries in 1966. In 1985, they were acquired by Diamond-Bathurst which then went bust in 1987. Today the site is the home of Anchor Glass, which still uses it to make bottles. Between 1913 and now, literally thousands of Chemung County residents have had jobs, all thanks to one man’s quest to stop the spread of typhoid.