by Karen L. Johnson
“For the first time since World War II, we have women working in our plant. We know they can do a proper job, but the attendant requirements of separate bathrooms, showers, etc., will cost as much as an eight-room house did in 1940.” In 1975, Bobby Schmidt, then-president of the Olympia Brewing Company, included that statement in a speech to Oly’s stockholders.
Fast forward to current times. Megan Ockerman, newly-hired assistant director of the Olympia Tumwater Foundation, was intrigued by the role of women in our local brewery. She set off to research the issue, primarily in the Foundation’s Schmidt House archives. Megan then turned her research into an article titled “Women of the Olympia Brewing Company,” published in the Winter 2021 issue of COLUMBIA magazine, a quarterly publication of the Washington State Historical Society.
Her article discusses the many women who worked at the brewery over the years and a few of the women who were part of the Schmidt family itself, either by direct descent or by marriage.
Photos in the Schmidt House archives reveal that a very few women were employed by the brewery before Prohibition, which took effect in Washington in December 1915. But after Prohibition ended and the brewery was rebuilt in 1933, more women worked there, especially during World War II. With many men off soldiering, women helped fill the job gap, joining the “Rosie the Riveter” set. About twenty women worked at Oly during the war years—they were divided between sorters (who recycled bottle caps) and office staff.
One exception was a young woman named Muriel Fuller, who worked as a chemist and lab technician. This was a specialized position at the brewery responsible for testing yeast cultures, batches of beer, and more. Muriel started her Oly career in 1942 and retired in 1969.
After WWII ended and soldiers came home, the local bottlers’ union disallowed women in the plant. Usually relegated to administrative positions, women finally broke the gender barrier and started assuming jobs in the plant in the 1970s. Some male employees felt threatened by this, but for the most part, women workers were treated well and had positive experiences at the brewery. “No matter what job you had, working at the brewery was a good job,” reported former Oly employee Amy Lowers-Lohmann.
Megan interviewed several former employees in her research. Megan herself grew up in Olympia. Her interest in all things Oly intensified when she chose to focus on Olympia Brewing history for her master’s thesis at WSU. She is currently working on turning her thesis into a full-fledged book on our iconic brewery.
Interested in reading Megan’s full article? Back issues of COLUMBIA may be purchased at www.washingtonhistory.org/columbia-magazine/.
Photo courtesy of the Olympia Tumwater Foundation.
Photo: In the 1940s, several women were employed at the brewery as sorters, who examined and recycled bottle caps during the wartime metal shortage.