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All About Antique Glass
WE WERE talking of characters in books who had impressed us most in our childhood, and right into the midst of the pictures of "Jo" and "David Copperfield," and "Hans Brinker" danced "Marietta, A Maid of Venice," bewitched into life by a dark eyed woman whose delicate perceptions and love of the beautiful are a joy to all of her friends.
"I have always loved Venetian glass since I read about her years ago!" exulted Marietta's admirer. "Oh, yes, it is quite true that I do not know much about it, except. it is exquisite, and the secret of its making was carefully guarded by the great glass-makers of Venice."
As if by magic, her words carried me to The Metropolitan Museum of Art, and I found myself standing again in the galleries where the delicate jewels of Venetian craftsmanship were displayed. And I, making at that time my first visit to the Museum, went no farther, though there were treasures, other than the drinking-cups and vases of Venetian nobles, I had come far to see. I reveled not only in the slender loveliness and the delicate cuttings of the glass, but in the fact that the craftsmen who made these rare objects had left their traditions to the glass-makers of Europe, and, incidently, to the producers of the glass made centuries afterwards in America.
In order that their secrets might not be learned, the Venetian glass-makers virtually were held prisoners on the Island of Murano. Near the middle of the sixteenth century the ban was raised and they were allowed to travel in England, Flanders, Spain, and France. Everywhere they went, they were hailed with enthusiasm. In some places they built their own glass-works or worked in those already established. Though the passing of years has lessened the ideals given to the world by these master craftsmen, their traditions have been far reaching.
We are naturally interested in American glass, but we must glance at some of the old-world types because they were put upon the American market in such large quantities that collectors now regard them as pertaining to the home-life of pre-Revolutionary and Federal periods.
First, let us mention "the best glass" of grandmother's dinner table, the red glassware decorated with vines and grape leaves which the Bohemian glassworks turned out for its foreign trade. These somewhat commonplace products must not, of course, be confused with the pieces of early glass which so plainly show the influence of the Venetian traditions. The last were jewels, designed for the use of nobles, while the ruby table glass with its white scrollings, imported into the United States during the seventies and eighties, was obviously commercial.
I have already spoken of the Bristol glass mug owned by the New York Historical Society, and probably made for the American trade when Vermont entered the union. The town of Bristol in England had, at the height of its business success, fifteen glass houses, or so, turning out myriads of pieces of table-glass, vases, candle-sticks, paper-weights, and other novelties which were extremely popular with American house-wives for many years. In fact, my daughter inherited from her grandmother her wedding toilet-set, made of blue Bristol glass, decorated with lines of gilt and bouquets of flowers painted in mineral paints. To a certain extent, the Venetian tradition was retained in Bristol glassmaking, and imitations of some types of Venetian glass were exploited.
Waterford, Ireland, was also a great glass manufacturing center.
"Some idea of the amount of the output may be gathered when it is known that as many as two hundred workmen were daily at work at the glass-house up to 1820 and that an equal number had been employed for thirty-six years," says N. Hudson Moore. "But the most interesting point to Americans, at least, is that thousands, hundreds of thousands of pieces of this glass were sent to the United States, that Gatchell's account books duly set it down and that American newspapers advertised it for sale. As late as 1820 George Gatchell and Co. announced that they made `every article made of glass for use, luxury or adornment; also chandeliers, lustres, lamps, hall bells, and candelabra in bronze, ormolu and glass. Medical establishments supplied."
It would be impossible in a chapter of this length to attempt a detailed description of English and Irish glass or to speak of the Dutch and German products which stamped marked characteristics on certain types of American glass. I have found, however, that once you are given a hint concerning glass you wander on and on in its study. It is a fascinating subject, and although it is one of the more recent phases of collecting, it has more advocates now than almost any other kind.
Glass-making was one of the first crafts to be attempted in the American Colonies. In 1608 the English colonists of Jamestown, Virginia, under Captain Christopher Newport, started a glass-making project which was afterwards repeated under the direction of Captain John Smith. Some beads of lovely colourings, a few fragments of bowl, and some window glass, preserved in the Pennsylvania Museum and School of Industrial Art, are mute witnesses to this venture. Bottles, window glass, and other products were made at Salem, Massachusetts as early as 1638. Two Dutchmen, Jan Smeedes and Evert Duyckingk, were working at glassmaking during the years 1654 to 1656, while in 1683, an English glass-maker, Joshua Tittery, from Newcastle-on-Tyne, was plying his trade. A member of the Pennypacker family in 1707 started a glass-house at Schwenksville in Pennsylvania, and in 1732 we hear of two factories in New York.
But the outstanding date of American glass making was 1739, when Caspar Wistar, the producer of the first flint glass, opened a factory in New Jersey in a town which afterwards received the name of Wistarburg. Wistar was really a manufacturer of brass buttons with a business in Philadelphia. He was a shrewd man of affairs, and, recognizing the need in colonies for a glass factory, he brought over expert artisans from Holland to teach "his son and himself and no one else" the secrets of glass-making. The Wistar factory produced such ordinary useful articles as window glass, lamp chimneys, table-wares, bottles for holding liquors, as well as scent bottles and vases.
Caspar Wistar's lovely fine glass was one of the channels through which beauty came into the homes of our ancestors. It is exquisite in shape and coloring and is eagerly sought by collectors. The clear green, in all of its shades, as well as the characteristic blue of almost a turquoise cast, are in great favour, while the amber, the rare brown, the delicate canary yellow, found in small pieces, and the opalescent colorings are beautiful. Twocolored glass, dipped in one color and then decorated in whorls and waves with another hue, was a product of the Wistarburg factory. The glass-works were in operation until the War for American Independence crippled colonial industries.
The story of William Henry Stiegal, the maker of what is now the greatly sought for and most valuable of American glass, reads like a romance. He was a living example of the epic in which America delights the poor boy seeking his fortune in a new country or an unknown section of his own and from it wrenching a fortune by his own prowess. But, alas for poor Stiegal, there was an anti-climax to his story, for he fell from his established place in the sun and passed his last years in bitter poverty!
The young German came from near Cologne to Philadelphia when he was but twenty-one years old. Two years later, in 1752, he made a long stride in the commercial world by marrying Elizabeth Huber, the daughter of an ironmaster in Lancaster County. He made a fortune from the iron business, and then proceeded to spend it in princely style. His title of "Baron," by which he is now known, was no doubt honorary and given to him by his fellow townsmen to designate his superior wealth and ostentatious habits.
Later the "Baron" went into the real estate business and promoted the town of Mannheim. Now came the question of a profitable business for the new town. Stiegal had learned the principles of glass-making in his home-town in Germany, so he decided upon that as a fitting craft. With half-a-dozen workmen, he opened his first glass house at Mannheim, to be followed by another in which a hundred men of different nationalities were employed. By 1765 he had a splendid business and was turning out his products in great amounts.
But Stiegal was extravagant and lived beyond his means. We are told that his goings and comings in his ornate coach from his fine house in Mannheim were announced on all occasions by blasts from cannons! His business of glass-making was short lived, and in 1774 he was sold out completely, so he was making glass a little less than ten years. It is sad to relate that the master craftsman and spendthrift eked out the last meagre years of his short life by turning his hand to almost any occupation that would bring him in a little money.
Stiegal glass has been found in remote places in the South, all through the Middle Atlantic States, and in New England. I saw my first piece, years ago, when as a little girl, snugly tucked into a starched white pinafore, I went to supper with my mother's elderly cousins. And, can you believe it, I always drank my milk from a "pretty painted glass" gaily adorned with decorations in brilliant reds, blues, yellows, and white! Years later I learned that this glass was "Stiegal" of the type made under the "Baron's" personal supervision and decorated by a method typically German.
Stiegal glass is a subject worthy of study by all amateur collectors who are interested in American arts and crafts. The best permanent exhibits of the work of both Wistar and Stiegal are in the Metropolitan Museum in New York and in the Pennsylvania Museum and School of Industrial Art in Philadelphia.
The average collector cannot hope to own many pieces of Stiegal, but he should learn to recognize it when he sees it. The etched and engraved glass is distinguished for its beauty of workmanship and its brilliancy. Stiegal of course manufactured clear glass, which included the various types of table outfittings. His colored glass is lovely. Perhaps the best known is the blue, varying from the shade of the Bristol works to an almost indigo hue. Two shades of green were made. The pale green is found more often than the brilliant shade. Purple glass was produced as well as a warm amber which is extremely rare.
As I have said before, glass-making, like other American industries, suffered during the War of the Revolution. When Independence was gained, the country began to turn its attention to the normal affairs of life again and pleas were sent out to promote agriculture and manufacturing. Let me quote from "Hints to Manufacturers" by Mark Leavenworth, published in 1788.
"The making of glass has been the subject of an exclusive grant," he wrote. "The grantees have never made any, because they did not understand their own business: not because they wanted workmen who understood theirs. The grant is, or will be forfeited, before they will ever make any. The grantees have always been calculating to make the crown window glass, which of all glass work, is the most difficult and expensive.The business of making the bottles is much less; and people, who understand the business, could much easier be obtained. If they wished to extend their business into the white glass, there is no article which they might not better attempt than window glass; decanters, tumblers, chandeliers, sconces, phials and wine glasses, all pay a freight beyond all proportion greater than the window glass. But, after all, the bottles would be the greatest object to more than one glass house; for if we could have them at a reasonable price, the sale would be vastly more extensive, and our farmers would be much benefited by it."
The true antiquarian is ever on the outlook for clues leading to new information in regard to the customs of our forefathers. When the well-known Massachusetts collector, Miss Evanore O. Beebee first came to Wilbraham, fifty years ago, she was offered, from time to time, flagon-shaped bottles of a peculiar brownishgreen color. They invariably smelled of camphor. In each case she was told that it was a "Ludlow Bottle," and that some ancient Aunt Maria or Grandma Prouty had "allus kep' it for camphor and set great store by it."
After a time, Miss Beebee had accumulated a set of these Ludlows, and she realized that they were unlike other bottles and wondered why they were termed the names bestowed upon them. Legend responded that the town of Ludlow, Massachusetts, had once held a glass factory, that the citizens of the nearby towns used to visit the works and that it was a pretty custom to blow for each caller a special bottle which was taken home and given to the "women-folks" for holding camphor. As to when the factory flourished, where it stood, or what had become of it during the passage of years, nothing was known. This mystery was a, challenge'to the collector and she set forth to discover "Ludlow!" For a while sly fun was poked at her. But in following her plan of interrogating every one from the town of the suspected glass-factory, she at length secured a lead. One ancient dame remembered playing, as a child, with bits of broken glass found near her home, and being told stories of a great "hot pot full of melted stuff which poured out into pretty things." Reckoning back, it appeared that all this must have happened before the Revolutionary War.
The aid of an expert, Mrs. Martha W. Vyth, of Springfield was secured, and the county records of that city and of Northampton were searched for the owners of that section of land. After a long search, the probate records afforded help in the form of an inheritance deed. The mythical factory became a fact, having, in truth, existed before the War for Independence was fought. The original grant was given to the Sikes Family, where it remained until slightly later than i800. The looming war, inattention to business, and lack of competent employees all contributed to the abandonment of the experiment. Lack of good sand was probably as forceful a hindrance to its prosperity as any other cause. The Ludlow bottle never attained even a peep at perfection, and on that account may always be positively identified by any collector today. To Miss Beebe's efforts the one-time factory owes its present existence as a matter of history, and now the Ludlow works are listed by modern glass collectors as a matter of course, while the fortunate discoverer possesses what is probably the largest number of Ludlow bottles belonging to any one person.