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Early American glass

August 1, 1941  |  By Helen McKearin; from The Magazine ANTIQUES, August 1941.

FOR MOST STUDENTS and collectors "early American glass" is a comprehensive term indifferent to the factors of time and foreign influence. It bridges the widening stream of American glass manufacture from colonial days well through the mid-nineteenth century, covering all the various types and designs of glass which collectors have netted from that stream. While the term "early," as usually applied to a given piece of American glass, has its own peculiar variability, its implied time element is less general. It refers largely to the period when a given design, decorative technique, or method of manufacture joined the stream of American glass production. While patient students of the last two decades have pinned down many facts regarding these facets of American glass, the multitudinous problems they present are by no means completely solved.

Until the 1920's only two glassmaking centers had been the object of intensive research, that of South Jersey, then associated only with Casper Wistar, and that of William Henry Stiegel at Elizabeth Furnace and Manheim, Pennsylvania. The researches of Hunter and Kerfoot in establishing the nature and characteristics of their output marked these two centers as the fountainheads of two distinct streams of tradition in glassblowing and decorative techniques in America. Subsequent studies have revealed the use of the same methods elsewhere, in the case of Stiegel before as well as after his ventures, and have emphasized the foreign roots of these traditions. In spite of these facts they are labeled Stiegel and South Jersey with the indelible ink of past error and common usage.

THE SOUTH JERSEY TRADITION

When we speak of the South Jersey tradition in glass we refer to individual offhand pieces - by-products, not commercial wares - blown in the many bottle and window glasshouses of New Jersey, New York, and New England. In these houses the blowers habitually exercised their right to the fag end of the pot by blowing useful and ornamental objects for their own households and for friends. Since they were under no commercial compulsion to meet current fashion, they could form their pieces as fancy or taste dictated. The objects they created have the naïveté and peasant-like quality associated with folk art.

The general physical characteristics of these individual pieces are distinctive and unmistakable. They were blown mainly from window and bottle glass. Those from South Jersey were in shades of aquamarine, amber, green, sometimes blue, and also, in the 1800's, in such colors as opaque white and shades of rose and maroon; those from New York State usually in light greens or blue-aquamarine, occasionally shades of amber or olive green, and, rarely, blue; those from New England principally in various ambers and greens, less frequently aquamarine, and, rarely, blue and amethyst. Except for the very occasional use of the pattern mold in Jersey, all pieces were hand-blown. Decorative effects were obtained simply by color and shape or by a superimposed layer of glass tooled into a heavy swirl, swagging, or the so-called lily pad. Frequently an applied foot was crimped and the neck of a vessel threaded. Applied decoration, such as prunts and seals, quilling and rigaree, was also sometimes used on Jersey pieces. Later, decoration was achieved through the use of various color combination in swirled and looped effects. No matter how delicate or graceful the shape and decorative treatment, the thickness of the metal invested the objects with a quality of sturdiness, rather than of fragility.

Many individual hand-blown pieces are found which are obviously in the South Jersey tradition, but are without definite identifying characteristics and unaccompanied by any history. Such articles are usually classified simply as South Jersey type.

While today few would have the temerity to attribute a hand-blown piece to the factory of Casper Wistar, it is nevertheless likely that, when Wistar defied England's ban on colonial manufacture of glass and brought Belgian and Dutch glassmen to his glasshouse established near Allowaystown in 1739, he became responsible for an American glass tradition. It spread next to the second Jersey factory, started at Glassboro by three of the Stanger brothers, former Wistar employees; thence, through the migration of blowers, to the bottle and window glasshouses which gradually came into existence in the early 1800's in New Jersey, New York, and New England. Although there were a few eighteenth-century glasshouses in New York and New England, the majority were established after the turn of the century, as a spreading population and improving transportation created a wider market. Generally speaking, however, they were small houses producing bottles and window glass for a limited, virtually local, trade, and may were short-lived. The offhand pieces - bowls, pitchers, and similar articles - blown by their workmen are today comparative and often of extreme rarity. Some of the finest lily-pad pieces which have survived were blown at Stoddard, New Hampshire, and at houses in the northern and western sections of New York State.

THE STIEGEL TRADITION

The Stiegel tradition in glass design and technique is the antithesis of the South Jersey. In general, it might be said to epitomize skills standardized to conform to the commercial requirements for table and decorative wares. Thus, it embraces a wide variety of types and decorative techniques.

The general physical features of the glass in the Stiegel tradition are as distinctive as those of the South Jersey. Both lead and non-lead glass were used. The colored metal, largely flint glass, was in shades of rich blues, purples, amethysts, and rarely, emerald green. Shapes were expertly formed and rather sophisticated, faithfully following their English and Continental prototypes. Decoration was widely varied: wheel-cut, shallow stylized engraving, enameling, and expanded pattern-molded designs, such as paneling, ribbing, fluting, and variations of the "Venetian diamond," the latter sometimes in an all-over pattern and sometimes with small diamonds above long vertical flutes.

An aspect of "Baron" Stiegel's glass manufacturing which cannot be too often emphasized is that he brought to America skilled engravers and enamellers trained in Continental glasshouses, and blowers who had practiced the Venetian techniques in the English factories in the Bristol district. Consequently, the Stiegel glass not only had the design and decorative elements of the fine imported table and ornamental wares of the day, but also, as was intended, was so like them that it is frequently impossible to distinguish the domestic from the imported articles. However, at least two, possibly three new pattern-molded designs were originated: the paneled vase and the daisy-in-square and daisy-in-hexagon perfume bottles. No prototypes of these have been found in England or on the Continent. Nor, so far as we know, were these particular perfume bottle designs used in any other American glasshouse.

When students realized the extent of Stiegel's success in producing glass like that of his foreign competitors, and the fact that, after his bankruptcy, his craftsmen naturally continued to use the same techniques and designs in later factories where they found employment, the term "Stiegel type" was coined to designate pieces having the requisite "Stiegel" features but unaccompanied by any sort of indisputable evidence as to origin. It is quite possible that many of the plain and engraved flips so like Dutch glass were blown in early New York City glasshouses or in Philadelphia. It is probable that many of the wines and decanters attributed to Stiegel were made at the contemporary Philadelphia Glass Works which disputed Stiegel's claim of being the first flint-glass manufacturer in America. Pieces with engraved decoration once attributed to Manheim are now known to have been made in the New Bremen glass factory of John Frederick Amelung, in the Philadelphia-Baltimore area, in the Pittsburgh district, and some even in New England. It is thought that some enameled decoration was used at New Bremen. Because of all these facts, "Stiegel" has become, with a few exceptions, a generic rather than a specific term.

During the years following the Revolution and in the early 1800's, the "Stiegel tradition" in pattern-molded glass was carried into the Ohio River and Pittsburgh districts by former craftsmen from Stiegel's and Amelung's glasshouses and by others trained either here or abroad in the same techniques. As the need for glass grew, so did the glasshouses. In a few of these early houses, a limited amount of tableware was undoubtedly blown for local trade, but their principal output consisted of window glass and bottles, the most essential articles in a newly opened country.Although the old German post method of bottle blowing was practiced to some extent, the more common Stiegel method of using one gathering of glass blown in the dip mold (pattern mold) and expanded seems to have been preferred. The pattern-molded bottles and flasks and the household utensils blown in the same molds are now often called "Ohio-Stiegel." The pitchers, bowls, and similar articles in this group, which includes some of the finest and rarest pieces of American glass, were blown from fine-quality bottle glass, and, unlike most of the glass in the Stiegel tradition, have an individual quality. When flint-glass tableware was added to the regular products of existing factories and new ones were established for its manufacture, the Stiegel tradition in decorative techniques was perpetuated. But soon shapes and treatments were evolved which were distinctly Midwestern and American. The advent of the pressing machine in the late 1820's revolutionized the industry in the Midwest, as it did in the east.

BLOWN THREE-MOLD GLASS

Blown Three-Mold is a milestone in the history of American glass manufacturing and design. So far as we now know, it was the first commercial tableware blown in full-size molds and was an independent, perhaps the first, American contribution to glass designs in molded tableware. This glass, blown in full-size three-piece molds, made its appearance about 1820, and was a distinctive American product for many years, probably until about 1835 or a little later. To compete more successfully with the expensive and fashionable imported Irish and English blown glass with wheel-cut designs, our ingenious glass manufacturers devised a means of simulating the cut glass by adapting its patterns to blown glass through the medium of the full-size mold. Though prompted by commercial expediency, they did not stop with mere imitation of a few simple designs; they created many of their own.

Actually, a new type of glass was evolved.The patterns in which Blown Three-Mold occurs fall into three categories, according to their predominating motifs: Geometric, Arch, and Baroque. Designers made the most of the possibilities in combining the simple geometric motifs of vertical, diagonal, horizontal, chevron, and spiral ribbing with each other, and with diamond diapering and the sunburst motifs, of which there are at least nine. Consequently, the majority of the patterns fall into the Geometric group. Three or four of the simplest patterns are found on pieces blown in full-size two- or four-piece molds in Baroque designs, which are included in the Blown Three-Mold group because of their similarity in quality of metal and in design.

Comparatively few of the many patterns or various molds in which their variations were blown can be positively attributed to a specific factory. Excavations made by Harry Hall White have proved that a few patterns were used at Vernon, New York, for bottle- and flint-glass articles; and the bottle-glass pieces in one or two patterns were blown at Kent and at Mantua, Ohio, at Coventry, Connecticut, and at the Marlboro Street factory in Keene, New Hampshire. As my own studies have proved that the Keene molds were used for clear flint-glass pieces and the factory advertised flint-glass, I believe that clear flint Blown Three-Mold in certain patterns was made at Keene. The comparative rarity of articles in the patterns identified with these factories indicates that the production was not extensive. On the other hand, the number of patterns and of articles molded in them which have been identified as Sandwich indicate that Sandwich must have put out a large line of this ware. The majority of the patterns may have originated there.

While the full-size three-piece mold was used in other countries, evidently only the Irish used patterns similar to our American ones. According to Dudley Westropp, curator of the Dublin Museum, the types were probably introduced from America and production was very limited. The Irish designs were made up of the simplest motifs: ribbing, fluting, and diamond diapering.

PRESSED GLASS

If Blown Three-Mold was the first independent American design in molded tableware, lacy glass was the second. Lacy glass was an entirely new type of American glass made possible by the development of the pressing machine in the late 1820's. And while the artistry passed from the glassblowers to the mold designers and makers, the results in economical production and beauty of pattern justified the means. Many forms show originality, and the beautiful patterns in almost infinite variety were so designed as to enhance the metal's potentialities for brilliancy. Lacy glass may have been inspired by the desire to outshine cut glass but it was not, as is frequently intimated, an imitation of it. The intricacy and delicacy of most patterns could not possibly have been achieved by a cutting wheel.

For many years every piece of Lacy, or other pressed glass, was automatically attributed to Sandwich. There is no doubt that Sandwich did produce quantities of Lacy glass. Lura Woodside Watkins, Doctor Charles Green, and Ruth Webb Lee, studying the fragments excavated at Sandwich by Francis L. Wynn, identified a large number of patterns and articles. However, several contemporary Midwest factories produced similar glass. Considering the acknowledged high quality of their products in other types, it seems hardly logical to infer that their pressed glass output was inferior to Sandwich production in this field. I have found 1837 advertisements of Bakewell & Co., and Curling, Robertson & Co., and Parke-Campbell & Hanna of Pittsburgh, all listing pressed glass, with no clue as to its design.

Of almost equal importance in American glass design are the fine lamps, candlesticks, and vases. While vase forms have been made for centuries, comparatively few lamps with closed fonts fitted with wick burners were made of glass before the advent of the pressing machine. This is true of candlesticks also. At first, the fonts of lamps and bowls of vases were hand-blown or blown in a mold and then attached to a pressed standard. Candle sockets were also sometimes blown. Moreover, the early pressed lighting devices and vases were not made in one section but of two or more parts made separately and joined by a thin wafer of glass. This method, which made possible an almost unlimited variety of combinations of standards (bases) and tops and also of contrasting colors, was both economical and ingenious. As in the case of Lacy glass, undoubtedly all factories equipped to manufactured pressed glass on a large scale made lamps, candlesticks, and vases. We know that the New England Glass Company and the Boston and Sandwich Glass Company were important producers in this field, and even used some of the same designs. Some of the New England Glass Company lamps can be identified by the total absence of mold marks on the plain upper portion of their fonts. Lura Woodside Watkins in her researchers found that Joseph Magoun, foreman of the pressing department at East Cambridge, obtained a patent in 1847 which made possible the pressing of fonts without mold marks. The patent ran for fourteen years (see ANTIQUES, December 1935, p. 242). Consequently, the lamps with this important feature can safely be attributed to the New England Glass Company.

It was probably shortly after 1840 that the popularity of the Lacy glass with manufacturers and the buying public was eclipsed by pressed tablewares of a totally different type of design, one of simple dignity depending largely on form and geometric motifs for decorative effects. Some of the designs, such as the Ashburton, were probably made in the late 1830's. Lacy glass had been in vogue for several years and its mold were expensive to make; as the late 1830's were years of business depression, it is not unlikely that the manufacturers found it necessary to economize on production costs. Moreover, the glass in the new patterns could be safely fire-polished, producing a surface simulating that of the fine glass which was blown and cut. Many fine patterns were produced in which eventually nearly complete table settings could be purchased. The simple designs composed largely of ovals, printies, and flutes were followed by fine ribbed designs, such as bellflower and ivy. Later came more elaborate patterns such as the floral, the westward-ho - by the 1880's their name was legion. They represent the triumph of mass-production methods.

 

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