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Pressed Glassware

( Originally Published 1919 )



Perhaps if I hadn't bought my "five-cent sugar-bowls" at that Vermont auction I never would have begun to collect pressed glass, and so become interested in one of the most genuine, attractive — a little naive, too — American industries of the early nineteenth century. And then this article would never have been written, for, you see, I hadn't in-tended to buy them at all. What my soul was craving was a delicate Spode cup lying all unnoticed among the rubbish of an "odd lot." Apparently I was its sole discoverer; when it was put up for sale, I said "five cents," not another bid was made, and as I stopped to examine my china treasure, I found that I had been even luckier than I thought, for the two quaint sugar-bowls were oddly charming, and grew more so every time I looked at them.

My white glass candlesticks (on page 33) came next in order of purchase. Discovered at a little hill-side auction in New Hampshire, I bought them for a dollar and a half. I have never seen any quite like this pair, with their clear, white curves, rounding bases, and pewter sockets to hold the candles, the last a most unusual touch. Now they stand on my Empire sideboard, just the right lighting arrangement, for the silverish sockets are in tone with the pewter on the wide mahogany top, and the glass matches the pressed handles of the sideboard. The dolphin candlesticks — a much more recent acquisition — are an even stronger Empire note, for you must remember that the Empire period meant the revival of antiquity in furniture, and that the dolphin was used as a constant classic symbol in decoration. These candlesticks are not white, but as yellow as if they had been cut from a block of clear amber; and if you are gracious enough to recall the color-scheme of my dining-room, you will realize how harmonious they must be on the mantelpiece against that graygreeny-brown background.

But, even after my first candlesticks, I don't think I quite took my glass-collecting as a serious art, a quest to scour the countryside for, until in a little, old attic, hidden away in a dusty blue bowl, I found three "Benjamin Franklin" cup-plates. I knew that they were cup-plates because they were just the same shape and size as the dark-blue "Cadmus" design, which a dealer had just told me was worth twenty-five dollars. But that these odd little glass plates, which our prudent grandmothers used to set their cups in when they drank their tea from the saucers, had any particular value, I was utterly unaware. Remember, I was very young at the game, and when they were offered to me at ten cents apiece, why, I took them. No, my conscience doesn't prick me a bit; I was a mere child at collecting in those days.

And then, by some chance, I ran across Edwin A. Barber's book on "American Glassware," and found that my "Benjamin Franklins" were among the rarest of a lot of historical cup-plates. Let me quote this great authority directly: "These interesting little obmects were pressed in metal moulds by means of a plunger. It is believed that they were made in England since we have no knowledge that pressed-glass designs of this character were produced so early in this country." Then followed a long list, and my fired ambition made me unable to rest until I, too, owned all these cup-plates.

Sit down beside me on the sofa, won't you, and let me tell you about them in their order; for "these interesting little objects," as Professor Barber calls them, collected here and there through Vermont and New Hampshire and Massachusetts, and costing, perhaps, ten or twelve dollars, are worth to-day fifty by a dealer's estimate.

I am beginning with the "Stamped Eagle," be-cause it is the oldest cup-plate of all, dated —you can see the figures faintly — 1831. A shield is em-bossed on the eagle's breast, and overhead is a circle of stars, the border being a conventional leaf and fleur-de-lis design. The "Unstamped Eagle" comes next, set in a scroll border, and clasping defiant arrows; you almost expect to find the militant "E Pluribus Unum" stamped underneath as you frequently see it in the bureau brasses. I am particularly proud of this cup-plate because I have never seen it in any collection but my own, and I think it is undoubtedly rare. My third trophy, acorn-bordered, bears as central design a solidly square log-cabin, with the words "Tippecanoe" and "Fort Meigs" printed above it.

The next cup-plate — usually described by dealers and catalogues as "The Log Cabin with the Flag and Cider Barrell" —is my most cherished little dish, probably because it was so hard to get and eluded me so long. I had pursued its veriest shadow, and, for an eternity, the most tangible evidence that I could find that it existed for me was one with a nibble as large as the Hatter made in his teacup, bitten out at the edge. And then I saw it advertised in Libbic's auction-list, and I shaped my life accordingly. It was the last day of the sale, and I hurried through a luncheon-party, I gave up the gilded chance of hearing Yvette Guilbert sing her "Noels," and I sat and sat in that crowded auction-room until my blessed cup-plate was announced. For me the mean-time is a blank; Syntax plates and Bennington dogs, even Sunderland lustre creamers, passed unnoticed. If any of you ever saw that engaging French farce done over into a musical comedy and called "The Pink Lady," — saw and recall the part where M. Dondiddier, the antique dealer, is told that the twentieth snuff-box has been found,—you will understand my emotions. They were as his when the missing cup-plate was put into my trembling hands. And I have a curious theory about this piece. I think that it may have been "made in America," for a rubbing from a medal on the fly-leaf of an old school-book shows precisely the same design, and the inscription above reads "Free Soil School," below "The Hero of Tippecanoe." I think, too, that it must have been a characteristic American illustration of the time. A logical fifth is the "Hero" himself, a profile portrait of Harrison, with the date of his birth, 1773, and the datc of his presidency, 1841. Henry Clay is, on the sixth cup-plate; a small head with a much more elaborated border than most of these patterns show, and, as it has been said, the head might be almost anybody, Julius Caesar, for instance, it is so conventionally classical.

The row below shows at the right the three Bunker Hill plates; all more or less alike to the layman, all blessedly different to the collector, and one of them, the third, remarkably hard to get. The first three are my cherished ships; two those early " Walk-inthe-Water" boats, the Benjamin Franklin and the Chancellor Livingston. They were among the first Hudson River steamers; do you suppose it was that same Franklin that was "snagged at St. Genevieve in 1822"? The Chancellor Livingston, named for. one of the drafters of the Constitution, a thorough-going friend and patron of Fulton in his navigation projects, is shown, also, by Enoch Wood on one of his blue platters, but I like mine better. As it sails to its horizon of stars and hearts it is the statelier ship. The last of these cup-plates is called the "Cadmus"; why, I do not know. Like Henry Clay, it might be anything.

The other four are not in any sense historical, but I am showing them to you because they are such standard patterns; the Valentine and the Butterfly being particularly well known. Of the leaf-border design I have six, and let me give you a hint if you, too, have half a dozen. They make the most at-tractive individual almond dishes in the world.

And mine are all in the white glass, a fairly wise limiting, you see, for these cup-plates are also made in deep sapphire blues, emerald greens, topaz yellows; and, to continue this jeweled comparison, opal-hued effects. But while such variety is excellent as showing range, and most desirable in a museum, I really think the white more charming for intimate and private use. Yet, as I write with such composure, I am envying, and I can't help it, a friend who, going out to buy a bureau, not only captured it, but se-cured besides a lovely and lambent blue Chancellor Livingston for twenty-five cents.

Long before I had collected all these cup-plates I had decided that modern cut-glass was showy and rather vulgar, quite out of place in my demure little eighteenth-century cottage. I may have been helped to this conclusion by many maids, optimistic washers of dishes, who broke nearly all my wedding presents. When I surveyed the ruins, I made up my mind that I would never buy any more, but collect instead this early pressed glass, and, as our professorial purse grew more ample, add Stiegel and etched glass and that rare old Waterford to this foundation. You can see that I have been blessed; my friends give pressed glass to me; people bring it to sell to me, and now I have over fifty pieces, and more to come; a lovely set way out in the country must waiting for me to go for it; and I am pursuing a Washington plate and a cake-basket.

My salt-cellars are charming, don't you think? The upper pair are decorated almost in the feeling of the Sheffield grape-design, and the lower outer pair somewhat resemble a Louis Seize set in silver that my sister found at the rag-fair in Paris. Some of the designs are fine enough to be almost like magnified snow-flakes: the little individual salt-cellar and tiny plate at the left in the large group are like that. My cake-dish is somewhat coarser in texture, but it still suggests, in its strawberry-and-thistle design, the names invariably given to this glassware: "lace," which explains itself, and "snake" from the stippled effect resembling a snake's skin.

Perhaps the two rarest pieces are the oval dish with handles, and the jar with the delicate tracery of landscape medallions and a diamonded base that makes you think of that Stiegel-looking glass made in Southern New Hampshire. The platter — it is about ten inches long —belongs to the full "Tippecanoe" period, and, in my experience, is almost unique. The handles are of ground glass and represent sleeping deer; and, if you look closely at the centre, ground-glass, too, you will see that the Wild West, as America then understood it, is there depicted: mountains in the distance, a log-cabin, fleeing deer and buffalo. The jar, perhaps, has more artistic charm, but the platter out-values it in naive unusualness.

I cannot go into the definite details of each treasure, but I do hope that you can trace on the larger pieces the really classic designs, set in medallions almost Adam in effect: a blowsy Venus leading a chubby Cupid, — that 's on the wide-mouthed vase, — and on the jammar such a stern Minerva! They, too, carry on the feeling of antiquity as expressed in the Empire period.

The full-blown Goddess of Love also reminds me of one of my smaller collecting tragedies, too tiny, perhaps, to be called anything but a grief, but still real. Only in one little hillside town have I found this particular pattern, and I think it must have existed once early in the nineteenth century as a complete set. Three pieces were already mine, and the fourth, a large cake-plate, had been promised me if the owner ever broke up housekeeping and went away. And then, by night, stealthily she fled, taking with her my cherished dish and my Collector's Paradise was temporarily topsy-turvy. You know how you can want things! I am not a bit ashamed to tell you that it took all my Christian fortitude not to hope it would get broken.

Will you like my glass as well as you did my stencils, I wonder' After all, it has much the same feeling — that "folk feeling" of the early nineteenth century, full of vigor and stamina. It may not merit the term "beautiful," but surely it is quaintly pretty and engaging. Besides, as yet it has not been imitated, and it is still fairly easy to acquire — two distinct blessings. . And more than all this, these pieces of pressed glass are the fragile symbols of our stirring thirties and forties, and, as such, worthy a place in any collection of Americana.

NOTE.— Since writing this article, I have found twelve other historical glass cup-plates: two variants of the Henry Clay pat-tern; two other Hudson River boats, the "Frigate Constitution" and the" Fulton Steamboat," both with octagonal-edges -, two more Log Cabins, General Ringold of Palo Alto fame; and five more eagles. And my "made in America" theory has been thoroughly proved; for further investigation shows these historical glass cup-plates to hawe been pressed at Sandwich, Massachusetts, early in the nineteenth century.



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