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Birds and Beasts of Glass
Bird and animal motifs were common throughout the Victorian period and appeared in various forms, from the cast-iron deer on well-kept lawns to the embroidered antimacassars on the armchairs inside the house. Among the articles most popular at the time and prized today by collectors were covered glass dishes in the shape of birds and animals. These date from the latter part of the Victorian era and were for the most part made in and around Pittsburgh.
The idea was not new. Covered porcelain dishes representing animals originated in China and were later made in Europe at the Dresden factory and by the potters of Staffordshire. Such dishes were popular in America from about 1790 to 1820 but were too expensive to be in general use. In the 1870's several glass factories in the midwest began making a covered dish in the form of a hen on a nest . These dishes, manufactured in pressed glass, were turned out in quantity and sold for as little as ten cents for one of small size. They were commonly made in three sizes-three, five, and seven inches being the length of the nest.These can still be found in todays Antique Shops, and Flee markets.
The design proved such a great success that pattern-glass manufacturers introduced other bird and animal forms. Roosters and farm animals are listed as a "Farmyard Assortment" in trade catalogues of the period, although such unlikely subjects as swans, fish, and eagles were included. A duck and a robin were among those current in the 1880's, as well as dogs, cats, rabbits, lambs,horses, and finally, after the domestic scene was exhausted, lions and other wild beasts.
Of them all, the hen on the nest remained the favorite and continues so today. A close second was the duck which was also made by a number of western glasshouses, among them the Atterbury Glass Company, M'Kee Brothers, United States Glass Company, all of Pittsburgh, and the Central Glass Company of Wheeling, West Virginia, where the hen on nest made in the 1880's. Known as a covered egg dish, this seven-inch example was filled with a dozen fresh bantam eggs and given in 1885 as a wedding present to a young school teacher in Vermont by the grandmother of one of her pupils. It has been the prized possession of her family for over seventy years and is still without nick or chip, perhaps because for the first fifty years it was used only once a year-for the traditional boiled eggs of the Easter breakfast.
These dishes were also made in clear glass, in opalescent white and satin finish, in turquoise, olive green, caramel, and opaque blue. Sometimes the hen or rooster is opalescent white, hand-painted in naturalistic colors, while the nest is straw-colored. They were originally intended as table accessories-the largest for boiled or scrambled eggs, the smallest for condiments or sweetmeats. From the latter use doubtless came the idea of selling them to the manufacturers of mustard and spices as fancy containers for their products. Many of these premium items were in milk glass and opaque blue.
Although covered glass dishes in animal forms were mass-produced, they were so attractive that they have survived where many a more costly piece has not. The hen on the nest is still being made but both the design and the workmanship of the modern pieces lack the charm of the old examples.