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Old New England Glasshouses



Who invented glass or at what period it was discovered is quite unknown. It is made of sand, lime, and soda, to which other ingredients are added, depending on the kind of glass produced, and the probability is that it originated in Egypt or Asia Minor as long ago as 4000 B.C. Its history in New England dates from the building of a glasshouse in Salem in 164 1. Two years before this Obadiah Holmes and Lawrence Southwick, seeing the need for such an industry, had formed a partnership and the following year enlisted the help of an experienced glassman named Ananias Concklin. They were able to get financial assistance from the town and in due time the first batch of glass was melted and blown into bottles. Production continued erratically for a couple of years and the fires were then drawn. Whether they were ever lighted again or not is a moot question. An attempt was made to reorganize the industry in 1645, and in the opinion of some people glass continued to be made occasionally until 1661. But others believe that the only manufacturing done was between 1641 and 1643. The one thing which seems clear is that the venture was not a success. Few if any of the bottles made at the Salem glasshouse are known to exist.

More than a century later, in 1748, a German named Joseph Crellins promoted a scheme to establish glassworks in the Berkshire towns of Lee and Williamstown. There was a plentiful supply of wood at hand for the furnaces, and the sand of the region was suitable for glassmaking, as we know from its having been used later at the famous Sandwich Glass Works on Cape Cod. But the German glassworkers whom Crellins proposed to employ did not arrive within the time granted by the colonial government for their entry into the province, and the project collapsed.

Undaunted by this failure, Crellins interested a number of prominent Bostonians in establishing a glass industry at Quincy. Elaborate plans were made; an ambitious glasshouse and subsidiary buildings were designed, and a village for the glassworkers was projected. A furnace and a small pot house were actually built, but by that time all the money had been spent and the promoters were glad to lease the property.

More money was poured in by the new proprietors, Joseph Palmer and Richard Cranch, who had even grander ideas than Crellins and his colleagues. For they intended to launch a diversity of industries alongside the glassworks, including a pottery, a salt works, a chocolate mill, a spermacetti plant, etc. They fared no better than the original promoters. They could not sell their bottles after they were blown, and a disastrous fire destroyed much of the property.

Fire also wrecked the first attempt to establish a glassworks in New England after the Revolution. This was at Templeton, New Hampshire, where in 1780 Robert Hewes, a young Bostonian, started a glasshouse, employing Hessian deserters from the British Army for workers. The place had hardly got going when it burned. Hewes rebuilt immediately, but the second furnace constructed of stones which had been hauled by oxen from Massachusetts was affected by a hard frost, and at the first firing came tumbling down. That was the end of the Temple experiment. Few examples of the bottles blown there are known.

This did not put an end to Hewes' glassmaking adventures. In 1787 he organized the Essex Glass Works at Boston, with Charles F. Kupfer, a German glassmaker, and others. The company made crown or window glass of superior quality. Its product, known as "Boston Crown," achieved a nationwide reputation, and was in great demand. The company had been called "The Essex Glass Works" because the furnaces were located in Essex Street, but in 1 809 the name was changed to "The Boston Crown Glass Company," and two years later a new and larger glass factory was built in South Boston. The War of 1812 ruined the business. The Great Gale of September 15, 1815, destroyed the works. A later attempt at restoration of the enterprise failed.

Robert Hewes, incidentally, was an interesting character. He was what was called a "natural bone setter," like the famous Sweet family of New England, and not only reduced fractures, but marketed a concoction known as "Hewes' Liniment" in bottles blown in his own glasshouse. He had many other business interests, and was also a fencing master, instructing many Bostonians in the art of swordsmanship. He was the author of a couple of military books, Rules and Regulations for Sword Exercise for Cavalry and Formations and Movements o f Cavalry, published in 1802 and 1804 respectively. He was still an agile and clever fencer up to a short time before his death in 1830 at the age of seventynine.

There were other early glass factories in Massachusetts, including one at Adams, Chelmsford, Chester, Lenox, and Ludlow, most of them unsuccessful. One or two produced glass for other purposes besides windows, but the chief concern of collectors in these glasshouses is for the "offhand" pieces blown by the workers for their own use from remnants of batches. It was the custom in all glass factories to permit the workers to do this during their spare time.

Before Hewes organized his Boston house there was glassmaking activity elsewhere in New England. In 1783, the year the final peace treaty was signed between the United States and Great Britain, the State of Connecticut granted to William and Elisha Pitkin and Samuel Bishop a twenty-five year monopoly of the manufacture of glass in the state. Backed by this guarantee of freedom from competition, they proceeded to build and put into operation the Pitkin Glass Works at Manchester, which was then part of East Hartford. This was the first glasshouse in Connecticut.

The monopoly had been granted to the Pitkin brothers at the instigation of their father, Captain Richard Pitkin, who had done the State some service during the Revolution. He had a mill on the Hockanum River, where he made gunpowder for the patriot army. Since the government was too poor to pay in money, the permit to build the glass factory and the monopoly were granted to the sons by way of compensation to the father.

The only natural advantage Manchester had for the glass industry was an abundance of wood for the furnaces. The local sand was unsuited to glassmaking, and the Pitkins had to import it from New Jersey, where they also recruited their gaffers or foremen, their glassblowers, and other skilled workers. The sand was brought up the Connecticut River to Hartford in barges, and taken from there to Manchester in ox carts. As the river was closed to navigation during the coldest months of the year, sand enough to last all winter was shipped in during the autumn.

Hartford was then a port of some consequence. It was the trade center of the Connecticut Valley from its headwaters to its mouth and for a large proportion of the state. It had a thriving trade with the West Indies, to which great numbers of horses and mules were shipped. Return cargoes consisted of molasses, sugar, rum, and salt. Enormous quantities of cider were also shipped to the islands and the Pitkins made the huge glass bottles or carboys in which it was exported. These containers, each with a capacity of several gallons, were used to bring back rum and molasses. For ease in handling, the bottles were made with long necks and the bodies were covered with plaited wicker work equipped with handles. These protective casings were made by the wives and children of the glassworkers.

The cider shipped in this way was not the sweet kind that one buys today in grocery stores or at wayside stands. It had been rectified or racked, meaning that it had been distilled into cider brandy or applejack, which was an extremely popular drink in the West Indies.

The Pitkin glasshouse was almost exclusively a bottle works. Bottles were then made by hand, or rather by mouth. The bottlemaker picked up a lump of semimolten glass on the end of an iron tube and blew hard until he had shaped the kind of bottle he wanted. It must have taken a lot of wind to blow one of the Pitkin carboys. It is said that in the early days of the glass industry in Europe glassblowers used to eat quantities of snails to strengthen their lungs.

In addition to these Gargantuan bottles, the Pitkins made endless numbers of flasks of the swirled and fluted types and many other containers in different sizes and colors. The bottles were generally an olive green or light amber. Although I have never seen one, I have been told by local antique dealers that some were cobalt blue. A Pitkin descendant living in Manchester today has, in addition to one of the large bottles and several regular-sized bottles and flasks, a preserve jar and a witch's ball. This same person also possesses one of the very small souvenir bottles which, according to family tradition, used to be blown and given as souvenirs to sleigh riders who made the glassworks their destination in the old days.

Sleighs were used by the Pitkins to get their wares to market in winter when the Connecticut River was frozen. Normally they were carted to Hartford and loaded on vessels bound for Providence and Salem, whence quantities were shipped to the Orient and other places, near and far.

The Pitkins will always have a place in American glass history, because in design and color many of their bottles and flasks are among the best made in the country. The so-called "Pitkin type" of swirl flask and the "Sunburst" pattern originated in the Manchester glasshouse. These types were later produced at Keene, New Hampshire, but the Keene Swirl flask differs in that the swirl is to the right, whereas that of the Pitkin is to the left. The bodies of these flasks were double-dipped and were thicker than the necks, which were dipped only once. Writers on glassware believe the Pitkins were the first to use this German method of producing flasks.

The Pitkin Glass Works continued to make bottles and flasks for nearly half a century. Competition and the exhaustion of the local fuel supply finally brought its activities to an end about 183o. The ruins of the old glasshouse are still visible-a couple of creeper-clad gray-stone walls with several arched doorways or windows. These are likely to be preserved for some time, as in 1928 the remains of the bottle works with some extra land were turned over by the Pitkin heirs to the local chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution.

Another distinguished Connecticut glasshouse was established at Coventry following the War of 1812, but it did not begin to make a name for itself until 1820, when it fell into the hands of Thomas Stebbins, who was not only a practical craftsman, but an artist with a true feeling for glass. He is credited with introducing the fashion of adorning whisky flasks with the portraits of famous men. His "Lafayette" and "DeWitt Clinton" patterns are presumed to have been made to commemorate the visit of Laf ayette to America in 1825 and the opening of the Erie Canal that same year. Production at the Coventry Glass Works ceased in 1847 for want of wood for the furnaces, but the place will be long remembered for its well-designed flasks of superior "metal."

There were other Connecticut glassmaking establishments besides the Pitkin and Coventry works. There was an early glasshouse at West Willington and later another at New London, but to collectors they are less interesting than the other places because of the inferior quality of their product. Poor materials apparently were used and the workers were forever blowing glass with bubbles in it, or "tears," as they are called in the trade. One thing common to the Connecticut glasshouses, as Rhea Mansfield Knittle pointed out in her book, Early American Glass, was that none produced window glass or tableware. All the Nutmeg glassmakers were bottle men.

Keen competition was offered the Pitkin and Coventry works by two houses which were started in Keene, New Hampshire, after the War of 1812. One was situated on Marlboro Street; the other on Prison Street. Both were window-glass and bottle houses. After rather uncertain beginnings they prospered, the former under the management of Justus Perry, the latter under that of Aaron Appleton and John Elliott. The Keene bottles, flasks, and decanters were, like the Connecticut bottles, made in different shades of green and amber with some bluish ones. Justus Perry also made black bottles. The most noted Keene flasks were the "Sunburst" and the Masonic. There are several variants of both in different sizes. Other well-known Keene flasks are a "Success to the Railroad," blown to commemorate the building of the Boston and Lowell Railroad, and the "Cornucopia, Basket of Fruit." All are rare, and Keene glass is eagerly sought by collectors. The two houses discontinued operations in 1850 and 1855 respectively.

Two other New Hampshire glasshouses were located at Stoddard. They were bottle works, one built in 1844, the other in 1850, and both outlived the Keene houses. The output of the Stoddard factories was colored glass, and the adoption of clear glass for liquor bottles was a grievous blow to the industry. Many mineral-water bottles, however, were blown and shipped to Saratoga Springs. There is much interest in the glass made in the town, not only the bottles, but the offhand examples as well.

In 1839 the Chelmsford Class Works, near Lowell, Massachusetts, founded in 1802, moved to Suncook, New Hampshire, because conditions for glassmaking were believed to be better there than at the original location. The business was continued at Suncook until 1850. The panic of 1847 and the lowering of the tariff on European glass were among the things that shattered this glasshouse. It is supposed that the "Lowell Railroad" bottle was originated at Chelmsford in 1829. It was the forerunner of many other railroad bottles, including the one made at Keene.

All the New England states had glassworks at one time or another, though less glass seems to have been made in Rhode Island and Maine than elsewhere. The United States Census of 1840 lists a dozen glasshouses in the region, distributed as follows: Massachusetts four, Connecticut three, New Hampshire three, and Vermont two. Not a great number, but two of them, the New England Glass Company at Cambridge and the Boston and Sandwich Glass Company on Cape Cod, were among the largest glass manufactories in the country.

The earliest Vermont glassworks were at Salisbury and East Middlebury. They began operations during the War of 1812, when the supply of European glass was cut off, and did well for a short time, but succumbed soon after the war. In the eighteen-thirties the Salisbury works, which were situated on the shore of Lake Dunmore, were reopened and operated for a number of years, but they finally gave up the ghost in 1839.

Meanwhile, in 1827, the Champlain Glass Works was established at Burlington. Like most window-glass factories, it produced bottles as a side line-chiefly of a bluish-green hue. The Champlain glassblowers also produced some of the finest offhand examples made in America. The fuel problem proved too much for this glasshouse, and operations were suspended in 1848.

Wood was considered the best fuel for glassmaking, but it took immense quantities to keep even a small glasshouse going. Unless the quality was good, the shearers or furnace tenders had trouble. When proper fuel could no longer be obtained near at hand, the cost was apt to be so high as to force a glasshouse to shut down. Even after the industry went over to coal, the New England glassmakers could not compete with the Midwestern manufacturers, who used lower-cost oil and natural gas. The New England Glass Company of Cambridge, Massachusetts, after a long career, was on this account moved to Toledo, Ohio, in 1888, and became the Libbey Glass Company.

The New England Glass Company was started in 1817 when Deming Jarves, the most famous of all Yankee glassmakers, and several associates bought the plant and business of the unsuccessful Boston Porcelain and Glass Company at East Cambridge. By a special act of incorporation the new company was authorized to make all kinds of flint and crown glass in Boston and Cambridge. Crown glass is simply a good quality of window glass, while flint glass, which is made with lead, can be used for all purposes. Flint glass derived its name from the fact that when it was first evolved in England bits of ground-up flint were used in its composition.

Industry today is not averse to taking people behind the scenes. It raises no objection to letting the public see the wheels go round. But it was different in the nineteenth century, when practically every factory was kept inviolate from the curious visitor, and manufacturing processes were deep and carefully guarded secrets. The discovery of the use of lead in glassmaking in the seventeenth century gave England an important advantage in the world glass market. Clearer and more brilliant glass was made with lead, and English glassware was even shipped to the pioneer glassmaking countries of Europe. The secret of obtaining red lead or litharge was as closely safeguarded as the atom bomb.

Without this knowledge the American glass industry worked under a serious handicap. But to Jarves, who was gifted in many ways, the situation was a challenge. Accordingly, in 18 18, he set up an experimental lead furnace at Cambridge, and to the surprise and delight of his colleagues succeeded in discovering the secret at the very first trial. For years afterward he supplied litharge to the American glass industry, and to painters the kind of lead they required.

Born in Boston in 1790, Deming Jarves was only twenty-eight when he made this important discovery. He continued with the New England Class Company until 1825, when he quarreled with his associates and went off by himself to form the Boston and Sandwich Glass Company, which was destined to make American glass history.

There were several considerations which influenced him to choose Sandwich on the Massachusetts Bay side of Cape Cod for his glassworks. It was not, as might be supposed, because the Cape is a sandy place. The silica there is not adapted to glassmaking. In the early days of the glass industry, supplies of sand were brought from Demerara; later from New Jersey, and still later from the sand beds of Western Massachusetts. The chief deciding factor in favor of the Cape was the fuel supply. The country behind Sandwich was rich in timber, which the farmers were glad to cut and haul to the glassworks at fifty cents a cord. Jarves obtained wood rights to more than twenty thousand acres of land. This wood was mostly small stuff only a few inches in diameter. It was cut to fit the furnaces and kiln-dried. Later, when the glassworks finally went over to coal, Jarves built a wharf on Buzzards Bay and the fuel was hauled by rail across the neck of the Cape, a distance of nine miles.

There were, of course, no railroads when Jarves built his glasshouse in 1825, and this was another reason for choosing Sandwich, as adequate transportation facilities were a necessity. The factory was built on a tidal creek up which vessels could come to the plant with sand, taking it away later in the form of finished glassware. It was twenty-three years before the railroad reached Sandwich. When, a few years later, it raised its rates the glass company retaliated by building a steamer named the Acorn, which could cover the fifty-mile run between Sandwich and Boston in a few hours. Both passengers and freight were carried.

In his Reminiscences o f Glass Making, published in 1865, Jarves told how the glasshouse and the homes for the workers were built in record time. Ground was broken in April and three months later, on July 4, 1825, they began blowing glass. Operations were started with an eight-pot furnace, each pot having a capacity of 800 pounds. Less than 7000 pounds of glass were melted a week, but it took between sixty and seventy men to handle this amount of glass. This was increased as the business prospered and soon there were four furnaces with ten pots apiece. The weekly melt rose to over 1 00,000 pounds, and employment was given to more than 500 hands.

A great range of interesting objects was produced at Sandwich. Nothing which could appropriately be made of glass was overlooked. Quantities of tableware and many other things were turned out in assorted designs and colors. Plates, pitchers, punch bowls, tumblers, salts, mustards, jugs, bottles, decanters, candlesticks, lamps, chandeliers, inkwells, miniature hats, toy dishes, and different kinds of ornaments were made at this Cape Cod glasshouse. One branch of the business made special glassware for chemists and apothecaries.

Not long after Jarves had launched his enterprise a Yankee invention revolutionized the whole glass industry and caused its rapid expansion. This was the introduction of pressed glass. Hitherto all glass had been blown, just as it had been for centuries, but by the new process the molten glass was pressed into the mold instead of being blown into it. This was a speedier and cheaper method of manufacture which dealt a severe blow to the glassmakers of Europe. They could not compete with the new mass-produced American glass.

Deming Jarves claimed the credit for this invention, but this was disputed by two workers of the New England Company at Cambridge, and the question is one that is still argued, some people supporting one side, some the other. The truth seems to be that experiments were carried on simultaneously in both places and both met with success at about the same time. The controversy got into the courts when Jarves endeavored to patent a press he had improved. In the ensuing contest the Cambridge technicians won.

Although blown glass is more desirable than pressed glass, because of its superior brilliance and luster, the pressed glass of Sandwich is in special request by collectors because of its excellent quality and admirable design. The person responsible for the form and proportion of the Sandwich output was Hiram Dillaway, who for years was Jarves' head moldmaker. The molds used were brass. Dillaway's use of the dolphin motif was particularly meritorious.

Of the various raised designs used on plates, those showing famous persons and events of American history were extremely popular and still are sought for by collectors. Even the small cup plates measuring only three or four inches in diameter sometimes carried historical designs. Stacks of these plates were made at Sandwich in the days when people customarily poured the contents of their teacups into the saucers to cool, and to save the table linen placed the cups on small plates specially made for the purpose. The vogue for cup plates, which it is believed originated at Sandwich, lasted more than twenty-five years.

To meet the public demand, colored glass was made at Sandwich beginning in the eighteen-thirties. Deming Jarves, being a chemist, carried out his own experiments with singularly happy results. The richly colored Sandwich ruby glass is especially fine. It was also at this time that most of what is called "Sandwich lacy glass" was made. By the stippling of a background of a conventional design a lacy effect was imparted to the glass. Both cut glass and etched glass were likewise manufactured on a considerable scale at Sandwich.

For more than thirty years Deming Jarves continued as the guiding genius of the Boston and Sandwich Glass Company. A man of extraordinary ability, not only as a glass technician, but also as a business executive, he nevertheless had the temperament of an artist and in 1858, at the age of sixty-eight, suddenly resigned and went off on his own to build another glasshouse, just as he had done at Cambridge when a young man. But this time he did not go far. He erected his new works in Sandwich near the old plant, and invited the whole town to a clambake to celebrate the opening. He called his new enterprise "The Cape Cod Class Company," and offered higher wages than were paid by the older glasshouse.

In 1837 Jarves had organized the Mt. Washington Glass Company at New Bedford for his son George, and the Cape Cod Glass Company he intended for his son John, but John died during the Civil War, and Deming Jarves himself passed away in Boston the night of April 15, 1 869. When news of his death reached Sandwich the next day the fires of the Cape Cod Class Company were allowed to go out and were never relighted.

The New Bedford plant closed the following year, but the Boston and Sandwich Glass Company continued operations until 1888. That year the workers went on strike. Warned by the management that if they did not return to work the business would be liquidated, the strikers, thinking the company was bluffing, persisted in staying away. This was a mistake. The plant was closed down and never opened again. Several attempts were made by some of the old hands to carry on the industry, but these efforts were unsuccessful. That same year W. L. Libbey moved the New England Glass Company from Cambridge to Toledo and glassmaking in New England practically ceased.