Incorporated: October 24, 1888 as T. C. Wheaton and Co.; 1971, as Wheaton Industries
SICs: 3221 Glass Containers; 3229 Pressed & Blown Glass & Glassware; 3085 Plastic Bottles; 3089 Plastics Products, Nec; 3559 Special Industry Machinery, Nec; 6719 Holding Companies, Nec
With origins in glass production dating to 1888, Wheaton Industries is known as the largest family-owned producer of glassware in the world. From furnishing laboratory glassware, the company moved into design and production of general laboratory supplies and innovative research equipment ranging from centrifuges to micro-processor controlled bioreactors. With the rise of plastics in the 1950s, the company developed and built the world’s first commercial injection blow molding (OEM) machine for plastic, revolutionizing the packaging industry and expanding markets in cosmetics and pharmaceutical packaging. Wheaton Plastic Containers eventually specialized in package and graphics design, engineering and package modeling, and mold design and production.
Wheaton Industries survived a stormy beginning. Construction of a new glass factory in Millville, New Jersey, under the ownership of two entrepreneurs, Mr. Shull and Mr. Goodwin, was delayed by the devastating East Coast blizzard of 1888. When operations finally got underway, the partners fell behind schedule in production of the glass tubing needed to supply their lamp room. In addition, they were losing market share to Western glass companies prospering under more advantageous fuel costs, easier access to raw materials, and a superior transportation network. In a campaign to raise much-needed capital, the fledgling company borrowed $3,000 from a local pharmacist and physician, Dr. T. C. Wheaton. Attempting to salvage his investment, Dr. Wheaton participated in company planning. His involvement grew rapidly, and on October 24, 1888, he purchased controlling interest in the firm, thereby founding T. C. Wheaton and Co.
The new company grew rapidly to reflect the medical interests of its founder, specializing in homeopathic and screw-cap vials used by scientific laboratories, chemists, perfumers, pharmacists, and physicians. Within a year, a new lamp room had been constructed alongside the factory. It accommodated 13 glass workers, as well as room for sorting, cutting, inspecting, and packing the tubing. In addition, a new shop was constructed for the manufacture of prescription bottles. Presses were designed to supply matching stoppers and other solid ware. Nursing bottles, breast pump glasses, and other druggist supplies were added to the Wheaton line.
In addition to the usual risks of starting a new company, Dr. Wheaton had to contend with fire hazards typical of the glass industry. On November 24, 1889, six of the original factory buildings were lost to the first of numerous fires over the years. Other major fires occurred in 1908, 1912, and 1925. By June of 1890, Dr. Wheaton had discontinued his private medical practice in order to focus all his energies on developing the glass business.
In 1892, Dr. Wheaton gambled on substantial growth by investing $10,000 in a plot of land surrounding the existing factory. By 1894, the number two furnace was operational, and in 1896, $14,000 was invested in 12 pot furnaces and a new building constituting the number three factory. These additions were designed to employ approximately 250 new workers and to double production capacity. Expanding business required new staff, for which Dr. Wheaton had cultivated two outstanding candidates: his two sons.
The post-World War I era marked substantial expansion. Additions to the plant included a new etching facility for perfumery ware, a metal and concrete warehouse for storing chemicals, a new mold room and batch house, sheds for grinding, and other improvements. After a debilitating fire in June of 1925 and the death of Dr. Wheaton’s brother, Walter Scott Wheaton, company growth continued unhindered. The company acquired Millville Bottle Works in 1926, gaining its competitor’s proprietary line of prescription and medicine bottles and laboratory ware, and establishing T. C. Wheaton Co. as a major player in the laboratory glassware business. On September 7, 1931, Dr. T. C. Wheaton died, leaving the post of president and chair of the board to Frank H. Wheaton, Sr. That same year, Frank Wheaton, Jr., departed for the Boston University School of Business where he passed a shortened tenure before returning to the family business to work his way up the company ladder from batch mixing assistant to truck driver’s helper and, before too long, to manager and ultimately president.
Frank Jr.’s reputation as “New Idea Man,” was reinforced by his introduction of automated glass production in the late 1930s. Earlier in that decade, he helped introduce handmade borosilicate glass tubes for select pharmaceuticals (borosilicate glass could be molded into long, narrow tubes without collapsing like standard soda-lime glass). For a short time, the company successfully sold handmade serum containers to Eli Lilly, Parke-Davis, and other pharmaceutical companies.
World War II brought a flood of needs that, paired with shortages in iron and steel, prompted innovation and diversification of Wheaton products. On the medical and laboratory front, the company supplied products for the blood serum program, serum containers, Halazone containers (used to purify water on the battlefield), and a wide variety of scientific glassware. Experimentation in material substitutes showed that glass could be used in the place of metal, sometimes with unexpected advantages. Wheaton No-Sol-Vit glass was ground to machinery tolerances and fashioned into three types of glass gages: ring gages, tri-lock gages, and taper lock plug blanks. Glass also replaced metal in many electronic applications, for which Wheaton developed water-resistant glass-to-metal seals sold under the Tronex trademark. The seals were especially useful in radio equipment vulnerable in water-prone combat situations.
At the close of the war, the glass industry saw tremendous surge in demand for new molds and new glass containers on the domestic front. In 1947, under the driving influence of Frank Wheaton, Jr., the Wheaton third generation established a new company, Wheaton Glass Company, designed to function separately but in tandem with the older company. For its initial year and a half, Wheaton Glass manufactured only type I (Borosilicate) glass, due to extremely high demand in the market. Afterwards, the new company shifted to long-run soda lime items.
The 1950s saw the rise of industrial plastic, which was quickly exploited by Wheaton and other companies as a powerful packaging medium. In 1953, Frank Wheaton, Jr., designed a new container for those aerosol products that were chemically incompatible with metal canisters. His solution involved a glass container coated with a polymer product, polyvinyl chloride, manufactured by the Goodrich Company. The result was a nonvolatile, break-resistant container that launched a new company line, Wheaton Plasti-Cote. The company also developed a small injection molding machine to make plastic snap caps, which, along with Plasti-Cote items marked the first products of the Wheaton Plastics Company.
Despite the rapid speed of change in the 1970s, two developments helped define Wheaton as a unified organization with a distinct place in history. The first development was the 1971 formation of Wheaton Industries, which was thereafter considered the parent company of its numerous divisions. The second development was the 1976 dedication of Wheaton Village, a periodized rendition of the original 1888 glassworks, complete with one of the finest glass museums in the United States. The historical park was the result of careful planning and funding on the part of Frank H. Wheaton, Jr., and associates. In 1968, Mr. Wheaton had helped found the Wheaton Historical Association as the first step in researching the town’s past and organizing historical resources. In 1984, the Creative Glass Center of America, an organization working in concert with Wheaton Village, started a fellowship program to select and fund contemporary artists to stay in the vintage glass making facilities and use the resources to innovate. The primary objective was to mix old traditions with new art forms, and to expand the costly facilities beyond the scope of traditional, and less experimental, paperweight making.
Wheaton Glass Company completely renovated its Plant I in 1987, installing all the capabilities for advanced glass production that had been lost in the Carolina Glass Works.
The 1980s also marked various milestones in Wheaton’s long history. On March 16, 1981, the company celebrated the 100th birthday of Frank Wheaton, Sr. Then in September of 1988, the company celebrated its own centennial, attended by former president Gerald R. Ford and New Jersey Governor Thomas H. Kean, among roughly 7,000 others.