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American Glass Makers

( Originally Published 1940 )



Glass, more than any other substance used by man, has qualities that verge upon the miraculous. The miracle of glass begins in the fact that such dead sub stances as sand, soda, and potash, when heated together, can suddenly metamorphose into a material that is gleaming, transparent, lustrous, and beautiful. The continuation of the miracle lies in the almost infinite workability of glass in the molten state. When highly fluid it can be cast; when viscous it can be rolled like dough, blown into a bubble so thin that it will float on air, or drawn into a thread fine enough to be woven into a textile; not only can it be poured into molds when in the fluid state, but when viscous it can be blown in, or forced with a mechanical plunger; with various simple tools it can be worked into almost any conceivable shape or design. By the addition of drab metallic-oxides it can be made to assume the most luminous and varied colors.

Glass is not a primitive necessity, as urgent to the settlers of America as the products of the house builder, the cabinetmaker, and the potter. Yet paradoxically enough, the first real manu facturing venture in America was a glassworks at Jamestown, in 1609, Following the course of American glass manufacture, and the personalities of the craftsmen and speculators involved in it, will lead us through one of the most extraordinary stories of early America, peopled with some of its most singular figures.

The celebrated Captain John Smith, of the Virginia settlers, returned to Europe after his first American visit and wrote a book in a rather highly imaginative manner. He was in the posi tion of a real-estate promoter whose claims cannot be verified, at least for some time. The book was read by many persons, and it so inspired a group of young English aristocrats that they formed a company, "The London Company," got together several ships and set sail for Virginia. They called the voyage, with simple candor, "the venture of the purse." In 1606 they arrived and planted themselves about fifty miles from the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay, calling the spot James Towne, in honor of the reigning King.

This was an enterprise of gentlemen, and it had a tragic fate. Fully equipped with jewelled swords, lace collars, velvet breeches, silver buckles, and plumed hats, they found themselves hopelessly inadequate. They had leisure class manners and habits, with a thorough contempt for labor. They had come to pick up the gold they supposed to abound in forest and glade. Unfortunately the gold proved to be mica, and these fine-feathered Englishmen were unwilling to soil their hands in tapping the gold of the real resources lying all around them. Rather than degrade themselves through manual effort, they traded their guns to the Indians, ate the available food, caught dysentery, and starved to death pitiably like dumb but elegant beasts. Within two months their number was reduced from 105 to 39.

In 1608 a second company of seventy was sent over from England. In this group there were four bankrupt English jewelers and goldsmiths, eight Dutch and Polish glass blowers, and two women.

Although glass was still a rarity in England, enterprising business men were beginning to be aware of its possibilities. One of the main problems in its manufacture was fuel. This was be fore the use of coal, and covered glass-pots, so that huge quantities of wood were required to furnish the tremendous and prolonged heat. Thus it seemed that America, with its limitless forests, was an ideal spot for a glassworks.

The Dutch and Polish immigrants set to work at once, put together some sort of a furnace, and began to make glass. How much, for how long, and of what quality is not known. Some of it was shipped back to England, the first industrial export of America.

But there was still a preponderance of gentlemen among the settlers. The glassworks, along with the rest of the Colony, failed to prosper. There were eight skilled glassmen, but no one to fell trees, dig sand, or saw wood.

In 1620 the London Company launched a promotion scheme. They organized three "rolls" and invited subscription to them. One "roll" was the project of shipping a large number of Eng lish girls, pure and uncorrupt, to the Colony. Another was for the "Guest House," and a third was for the "Glass House." The girls were "sold" to the Colonists for from 100 to Zoo pounds of tobacco each. The six Venetian glass blowers of the third "roll" set to work to found a new glass industry.

This time there was really a perspicacious scheme behind the attempt. It had occurred to the London Company that by means of scintillating and brightly colored glass beads the In dians could be limitlessly cheated out of land and furs. It was a part of their idea to keep these products sufficiently scarce, however, to preserve their trade value. With this in mind the six Italians set about the manufacture of all manner of little pieces of pierced glass. The same year brought the first shipload of African slaves. Also, an iron furnace was started and, in general, things began to prosper.

The end of the second Jamestown glassworks is not known. Some historians believe it was destroyed in the great Massacre of 1622, when Chief Opechancanough killed 350 Colonists in his first surprise attack. Indian graves still reveal an occasional glass bead with a strong Venetian influence in design.

In 1641 the first northern glass-house was built at Salem, years before that town went on its famous and ghastly spree of witch-burning. This was the period when manufacturing was forbidden to the Colonies by the Companies who had promoted them, and by the home government. The Colonists had already begun to be angered at the exorbitant prices of imported goods and the arrogant prohibition of their own endeavors. They stubbornly set about a variety of manufactures, as often as not receiving the support of their local governors.

In the beginning, the form of American manufacture most dreaded by the home government was that of textiles. Arms and gunpowder probably ranked second, with liquors running a close third. The glass industry in Europe did not amount to much at this time. Also glass was too fragile, took up too much space, and was too definitely in the luxury class to be a profitable export to the hard-driven Colonists. Therefore there was not much opposition to the glass industry. In the case of Jamestown, the ill-fated glass industry had been a Company-managed project.

The chief difficulties of the American glass manufacturers arose, not so much from political opposition, as from practical local causes: lack of proper clays, sands, and alkalis, and, above all, the lack of skilled workers.

The Salem glassworks was founded by Lawrence Southwick and Obadiah Holmes, who later took into partnership Ananias Concklin (or Caukdayne). They were beset by financial difficul ties at the outset, received a certain amount of subsidy in the form of a public loan, but nevertheless failed completely in a very few years.

The failure was tragic in more than a commercial sense, for one of the members of the original partnership was meted out a cruel and ironic reward for his efforts. This was Lawrence Southwick, a Quaker, and a man of infinite gentleness. In the dead of winter, without food or any kind of supplies, he was banished to a barren island off the coast and left to starve and freeze to death; all because of his Quaker faith in a Puritan stronghold.

In the growing port of New Amsterdam, three DirectorGenerals had betrayed their Company in a greater or lesser degree, when the one-legged Stuyvesant arrived in 1647. He was a man after the Company's own heart and successfully defended the Colony against the Colonists until 1664, when the arrival of a British fleet relieved him of this responsibility.

It is not certain in what year Johannes Smedes came over. He had probably been here quite a while when, in 1654, he was allotted an area of land on which he erected a glassworks. The bordering path soon became known as Glass-makers Street, so it is probable that there were enterprises other than Smedes'. After a few years in America, Johannes simplified his name, becoming Jan Smedes. He retired from the glass business in the same year that Peter Stuyvesant "retired" from the Governship. He probably made "bulls-eyes," of which we shall hear more later, for the Dutch windows and doors, as well as bottles for Dutch brews and all the customary hollow ware for the tidy Dutch homes.

Glass-makers Street eventually became Smee Street, then Smith Street, and is now William Street. Jan Smedes continued to be a leading citizen, under English rule, and in 1670, a year before his death, was appointed Road Commissioner. Cornelius Dircksen and one Jansen, who had been previously apprenticed to Smedes, started glassworks of their own. How they prospered is not known.

Evert Duycking, who came to America in 1638, made window glass in New Amsterdam and was a leading citizen. Duycking was a general artisan and was succeeded in 1674 by one of his assistants, Jacob Melyer, whose progeny are said to have made glass "unto the third and fourth generation."

Little is known of the glassworks apparently located on Chester Creek, in Delaware County, Pennsylvania, in 1638.

Caspar Wistar, son of the electoral huntsman to Carl Theodore of Bavaria, came to this country in 1717 and commenced the successful manufacture of brass buttons. He married Quak eress, Catherine Jansen, and himself became a Quaker. In 1739, with the aid of four Belgian glass blowers whom he had imported, he launched a glassworks near Allowaystown, New Jersey. His son Richard, born in 1727, learned the business from the ground up. But the effects of the Revolution, the loss of skilled workmen, and the fact that glass was still more or less a luxury product, was too much for the Wistar enterprise and it failed in 1780.

The Wistars were responsible for the special type of early American glass known as "South Jersey." This is distinguished generally by being wide and generous in form. It is the most truly "American" glass made prior to the 19th century.

One of the characteristic types of decoration identifying these graceful bulbous forms was the superimposing of a layer of glass, usually of the same color. The finished object was dipped into molten glass to a depth of about one third. Then, while still malleable, this was cleverly dragged up at various points thus forming an uneven additional thickness which began at the bottom. The winding of spiral threads around the necks of carafes was also characteristic of the South Jersey glass.

The Wistars at one time employed several members of the Stanger family. The Stangers later launched a glassworks at Glassboro, New Jersey, in which nine members of the family were employed.

Glass enterprises were attempted, during the 1 8th century, near the towns of Quincy, Lee, and Braintree, and other locations in Massachusetts, all of which were unsuccessful. Robert Hewes made a glassmaking attempt at Temple, New Hampshire, in 1780. There were others, before the second quarter of the 19th century, in New Hampshire, New York, New Jersey, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Ohio.

Among all the early American glassmakers, three stand out as cases so extraordinary as to repay detailed investigation.



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