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Old And Sold Antiques Digest Article

Glass Characteristics And Identifications

( Originally Published 1940 )



Among the most interesting specimens of early American glass are those known as "off-hand" pieces. These were objects blown by the workmen for their own use, for their employers, or for local people; not for general sale. These pieces usually have an unconventionality about them, because the blower felt free to express his individual talents. Even in glassworks largely confined to the making of window-glass there was usually a "corner pot" from which off-hand pieces were blown.

Aside from the pontil mark, which we have already mentioned, blown glass may be generally recognized by its slight irregularities of shape and by the fact that if blown in a mold, the pattern in reverse will appear on the inside of the vessel, unless the glass is unusually thick.

Old glass also shows signs of wear, usually on its base, and of discoloration due to exposure to light.

The many early American liquor flasks extant are important collectors' items. These flasks were made in many shapes and with various patterns. Most common is the Eagle, with George Washington as a runner-up. But there are great numbers of formal as well as historical patterns: scrolls, statesmen, cornucopias, etc., etc. These have been well catalogued in various books and are readily identifiable by reference.

Another identifiable form of American glass is the cup-plate. This sprang from a widespread American habit of drinking tea from the saucer, particularly prevalent in the early 19th century. Naturally when one elegantly poured one's tea into the saucer the question arose, where to put the cup while drinking from the saucer? The obvious answer was, "... on a cup-plate 1" These flat dishes were made for this homely purpose.

The cup-plate came in with pressed glass, in 1827, and the most precious are those of Sandwich. They are from two and three quarters, to three and three quarter inches in diameter and should not be confused with similar flat dishes, such as toddy or honey dishes, which are of different sizes. Like the flasks, they were given to historical as well as formal patterns: famous steamboats, Henry Clay, log cabins, and so on. Most of them can be dated and constitute a lure to the collector. Some are rare, others common. Once sold for five cents each, certain ones now command high prices and the ebullient enthusiasm of collectors.

The "industrialization" of glass manufacture began with the advent of the glass-pressing process. This greatly curtailed the traditional methods of glasswork and relegated blown glass more or less permanently to the status of a luxury product. On the other hand, it made a marked contribution of its own, introducing certain new aspects of glass craftsmanship.

Deming Jarves, an enterprising young citizen of Boston, after an unsuccessful attempt to subsist as a pottery retailer, procured a job with the New England Glass Company in 1819. The company had been founded two years earlier. Five years later Jarves left the organization and started a glassworks of his own, which he called the Boston and Sandwich Glass Factory. He had originally intended this to be a small craft endeavor. An over-zealous purchasing agent, however, loaded him with more land than he could support, thus forcing him into expansion, and a consequent world fame. He took some former members of the New England Glass Works into partnership and they were incorporated with a capital investment of $300,000. Deming Jarves says in his Reminiscences, that the glasspressing machine was not invented in America, basing the statement on his claim to have seen early pressed glass "salts" of European origin. It is a blurred point, for there was a good bit of confusion among early commentators in regard to blownmold glass and pressed glass. As the case may be, pressed glass was not used extensively until a workman by the name of Robinson invented a glass-pressing machine at the New England Glass Works.

The machine was quickly taken up by the Boston and Sandwich Glass Factory and achieved a rapid perfection. Jarves immediately saw that the new method made possible decorations of much finer detail and complexity than could formerly be achieved in glass. He promptly employed the most brilliant mold-makers in the world. These men cut their designs in wood, from which iron or brass molds were subsequently made.

Thus it can be seen that the mold-makers were the great craftsmen of Sandwich Glass. Clement Bossett, a New Englander, and Newell Hoxie, a Quaker, were most notable among these creative carvers. The Sandwich works produced a "lace glass" the like of which has never been seen before or since, so fine are the lines, so perfect the balance of ornament.

The Sandwich glassworks, in contrast to Dr. Dyott's venture, was one of the rare examples of successful industrial paternalism which occurred during the 19th century. Practically every mem ber of the community of workers that grew up around the factory was as passionately interested in Sandwich Glass as was Deming Jarves himself. There were several reasons for this. The policy of Jarves was to pay his men well, for the times, and not to decrease production or salaries during depressions. As a business man, Jarves had learned that to work his enterprises at anything below full capacity meant increased cost of production. To work at full speed was aways cheaper in actual production cost, even though he continued to pay pre-depression wages. He merely stored his output, when selling declined, and was later able to sell his product for less than his more cautious competitors. Certainty of employment, therefore, must have contributed greatly to the morale of his workers.

Moreover, it was a rule of the glassworks that employees could make whatever pieces they wanted for their own use at no cost. Even the youngest apprentice boys were encouraged to experiment as freely as they chose. In later years a charge was made for the glass by weight, but at a price so low that it was of no individual consequence.

Deming Jarves knew how to capitalize upon the spirit-ofcraftsmanship which exists in all people. Two of Jarves' workmen, Frank Kern and Joseph Marsh, had miniature glass furnaces in the cellars of their own homes where they could experiment during their spare time. Both of them were intensely interested in experiments with glass and were amply rewarded for their discoveries by Jarves. One of his best known workmen was the blower, Nicholas Lutz. Not a little of Jarves' success at this stimulating of enthusiasm was due to the fact that he was extremely interested in glass himself, rather than merely in the profits to be derived therefrom.

Weekly wages at the early Sandwich works were high for the period. The scale was $17 for blowers, $14 for servitors, $6 for footmakers, and $3 for boys. The work was ten hours per day in broken shifts of five hours each. But this was only for four days per week, thus making a forty-hour week. The weekend began Thursday night and ended Monday morning.

The whole town became passionately interested in the making of better and better Sandwich glass. The result was, that for variety of pattern, perfection of material, and general ingenuity of workmanship Sandwich glass has never been surpassed. It flourished from 1825 to 1888.

Patterns of Sandwich-ware of particular American significance were the Eagle, Bunker Hill, American ships, George Washington, Henry Clay, William Henry Harrison, and the log cabins which were adopted as the symbol of Harrison.

It is not to be supposed that all items of pressed glass are works of art. The technique has its run-of-the-mill output and the pressing process remains the basis of the modern glass industry.



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