April 2010 Feature Article

Collecting Earlier American Glass     By Jane Shadel Spillman


Fig. 1. Covered tumbler engraved with Tobias and the angel.  New Bremen Glassmanufactory of John Frederick Amelung, Frederick, Maryland, 1788. Blown, also engraved “Happy is he who is blessed with Virtuous Children.  Carolina Lucia Amelung.  1788.”  OH. 30.1 cm (55.4.37).  Amelung’s factory, the first successful glasshouse in the new United States, was in operation from 1785 to 1796.  This tumbler was a gift to Amelung’s wife, Carolina Lucia, and it may have been made as an anniversary or birthday present.  It illustrates the story of Tobias, from the apocryphal Book of Tobit, who is guided by an angel as he carries the fish that will cure the blindness of his father, Tobit.  The shape is of German origin, and the glass was undoubtedly intended for display, not for regular use.


Fig. 2. Burmese lamp.  Mt. Washington Glass Company, New Bedford, Massachusetts, about 1885–1895.  Blown, enameled.  H. 48.5 cm (79.4.91, gift in part of William E. Hammond).  Highly decorated glasses in bright colors were popular as parlor ornaments in the late 19th century.  Mt. Washington named the elaborate coloring of this glass Burmese, even though it was in no way related to Burma.  Exotic names for decorative glass were popular at that time.  Other colorful glasses from this company were marketed as Crown Milano, Royal Flemish, and Napoli, and all of these names were meant to sound romantic.  The metal knobs on the kerosene burner are marked “Mt. Washington Glass Company.” Fig. 3. Intarsia vase.  Steuben Division, Corning Glass Works, Corning, New York, 1920s.  Blown, with encased design.  H. 17.4 cm (69.4.221, bequest of Gladys Welles).  Frederick Carder (1863–1963), the general manager of Steuben Glass Works, was trained at Stevens & Williams in the Stourbridge district of England.  He came to the United States in 1903 to set up Steuben, which was financed by Thomas Hawkes.  During the 30 years in which Carder directed the company, he developed a great number of designs, shapes, and color techniques—more than any other glassmaker in the country.  He considered Intarsia, which had a design encased between two layers of glass, the most difficult of the techniques he developed.

Jane Shadel Spillman, Curator of American Glass, Corning Museum of Glass

All of the objects illustrated in this article are in the collection of The Corning Museum of Glass, Corning, New York.

Collecting earlier American glass has been popular since the 1920’s when interest in all kinds of American antiques and the “Colonial Revival” style of decoration and architecture became really strong.  In the earliest days, terms like “Stiegel” and “Sandwich” were as familiar to collectors as “Tiffany” and “Chihuly” are today and much early glass was misidentified as coming from those glasshouses. Although the first glasshouse in North America was built at Jamestown, Virginia, in 1608, it failed quickly.  Unlike cabinetmaking and silversmithing, glassmaking did not prosper in the first two centuries of American settlement.  This was primarily because glassmaking required three different types of knowledge and skill: the ability to construct a furnace that could maintain a temperature of at least 2,300 degrees, a knowledge of glass recipes, and proficiency in glassblowing.  These capabilities were rarely found in a single person.  Sand and other materials as raw ingredients, ceramic pots for melting these ingredients, and wood for firing the furnace were other necessities, all of which were easier to obtain than glassmaking expertise.

The first successful Colonial glasshouse was built by Caspar Wistar in Salem County, New Jersey in 1739.1  Windows and bottles were regarded by early settlers as the most important glass products.  Glass tableware was a luxury, not a necessity, and it could be imported from England and the Continent.  Several other glasshouses were started during the 18th century, but the British discouraged manufacturing.  Their plan was that the Colonies should supply raw materials to the mother country and then purchase the resulting goods.  Wistar’s factory operated almost sub rosa, as did Stiegel’s which was in operation in eastern Pennsylvania just before the American Revolution.

Fortunately, the new nation promoted manufacturing, and this caused the glassmaking industry to expand rapidly in the 19th century.  The earliest glasshouse in the new United States was the New Bremen Glassmanufactory in Frederick, Maryland.  It was founded in 1785 by John Frederick Amelung, a skilled glassmaker who had emigrated from Germany with workers and their families and equipment.  Amelung produced a number of signed glasses (Fig. 1), and several of his engraved objects that were not signed are still easily recognizable.  Although his business went bankrupt in 1796, quite a few pieces that can be attributed to the Amelung glasshouse survive.

Glassmaking spread across the Allegheny Mountains in 1797, when Albert Gallatin (later President Thomas Jefferson’s Secretary of the Treasury) started the first glasshouse in western Pennsylvania.  One of the most successful and longest-lived factories in Pittsburgh was operated by the Bakewell family and several partners from 1808 to 1882.  Bakewell, Page and Bakewell was arguably the most important of the Midwestern glasshouses.  It was the first flint glass factory in the United States, and it made a wide selection of table wares and containers.  In 1818, the Bakewell glasshouse filled President James Monroe’s order for a set of glassware, and it also produced a service for President Andrew Jackson.  

To make glass more quickly and inexpensively, it was blown into full-size, multipart metal molds that gave both pattern and shape to the finished object.  This method could be used for patterned table wares, but it was chiefly employed for bottles and flasks.  Whiskey flasks with decorative patterns were extremely popular from about 1815 to 1850.  More than 600 designs of whiskey flasks made by various glasshouses have been catalogued, and, along with bottles of all types,  they are eagerly sought by collectors today.

It was not until the 1820s, when someone conceived the idea of mechanically pressing glass into molds, that the American glass industry achieved its greatest success.  We do not know who patented this process first, but patents for improvements to the technique were granted to several glassmakers, including Deming Jarves of the Boston and Sandwich Glass Company. The glass pressing process spread quickly.  In 1829, James Boardman, an Englishman attending an exhibition of American manufactured goods in New York City, commented that “the most novel article was the pressed glass which was far superior, both in design and execution, to anything of the kind I have ever seen in London or elsewhere”.  The pressing industry continued to grow rapidly, and it permitted American makers of glass tableware to compete successfully with manufacturers in Europe.  By the 1840s, many shapes and patterns were being produced, and companies attempted to persuade housewives that they needed matching sets, not just a few wineglasses (Fig. 2).  Until then, sets had to be engraved or cut, decorative processes which were much more expensive and meant that only the rich could afford such sets. Pressing made them available to many more families.  Following the introduction of natural gas as a fuel, several factories for pressing glass tableware were started in Ohio and western Pennsylvania and the home of the industry gradually shifted westward.

In the meantime, the making of bottles and window glass expanded throughout the Northeast, although the main centers of production were located in southern New Jersey, upstate New York, and New England.  The glass was brownish or greenish (for bottles) and pale aqua (for windowpanes).  Blowers in the window and bottle glass industries were permitted to make pieces to sell or to take home at the end of their shifts.   Such pieces were one-of-a-kind creations, and they remained in the families of the blowers for many years. Because they are never signed, it is virtually impossible to connect them with a specific glasshouse, but they are usually very well-made and are sought after by today’s collectors.

Cutting and engraving were also popular in the mid-19th century, but the glasses produced by these time-consuming techniques were very expensive.  They were made almost exclusively on the East Coast, where there was a market for more costly glassware.  American cut and engraved glassware was initially copies from English styles, but by the 1870s, glassmakers in the United States had developed their own style of Rich Cut glass (Fig. 3), which employed very thick blanks and very deep cutting.  These glasses, which sparkled in the light of candles and electric lamps, were very popular with consumers.  Cutting shops opened all over the country, and for about the next 25 years, cut glass was one of the most popular wedding gifts.

In the 1880s, Victorian glassmakers began to produce elaborate colored and decorated pieces that were intended to be displayed in parlors.  The Mt. Washington Glass Company in New Bedford, Massachusetts, was one of the principal producers of heavily advertised and brilliantly colored Art Glass with such exotic names as Burmese and Crown Milano.  Other significant makers of this glass were Hobbs, Brockunier and Company in Wheeling, West Virginia, and the New England Glass Company (which moved from Cambridge, Massachusetts, to Toledo, Ohio, and became the Libbey Glass Company in 1888).

Partly as a reaction against these highly decorated wares, Louis C. Tiffany began to produce opalescent stained glass windows and then tableware, lamps, vases, and other objects in the Art Nouveau style.  This style was also colorful, but it was much less formulaic than the Art Glass wares.  Tiffany’s studio in Corona, Long Island, started a trend in decoration that remained popular until the 1920s, and it was adopted by other glasshouses.  Steuben Glass Works in Corning, New York, was one of the most innovative of these glasshouses.  It was directed by Frederick Carder, who developed many new colors, designs, and techniques.  In the 1920s and 1930s, hand production of everyday glassware was phased out as machines were used to make a wide range of wares. The colored tablewares made in this time period are also of interest to many collectors.  It is usually referred to as Depression Glass although production started before the Depression. 

Collecting American glass has also changed over the years as the earlier types became harder to find and more recently made glass became popular. There are a number of collecting clubs in the United States, some devoted to a type of glass (the American Cut Glass Association, the Early American Pressed Glass Club, the National Depression Glass Society); some devoted to a shape (there are several bottle collecting groups, also salt shaker collectors, lamp and lighting collectors, etc.) and some to one particular glasshouse (Heisey, Cambridge, Fostoria, etc.). There’s a collecting/research group for nearly every type of glass and most of them have publications and/or websites. There are also a number of museums with substantial American glass collections, and they too have publications and websites.


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