American glass (antique)

 

Although glass was the first American industry, with the first glasshouse dating back to 1609 at Jamestown, Virginia, that found in average antique shops is of middle and late nineteenth-century production. Eighteenth-century blown glass made at the furnaces of Caspar Wistar of South Jersey, Henry William Stiegel at, Manheim, Pennsylvania, and John Frederick Amelung at New Bremen, Maryland, rates among the rarest of American antiques. Early nineteenth-century blown glass also rates as very rare.

What is available to collectors in the main is pressed glass and late blown pieces. Such glass dates considerably after 1825, when Deming Jarves, using an iron mold, produced a pressed-glass water tumbler at Sandwich, Massachusetts. This process of mechanically forcing molten glass into a mold of carefully executed design, spread from there. Soon it was employed by numerous glass factories, which first centered around Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and then extended westward to Zanesville and other points in Ohio and elsewhere.

By shortly after 1850, Sandwich and the Western factories were making entire table services of what we now know as pattern glass. This type of glass continued to be made right up to the closing years of the century. It included table settings in fully five hundred different patterns and many more designs produced as individual pieces.

Before 1931, comparatively few collectors were interested in pattern glass; the subject was all too confused. Then Early American Pressed Glass, by Ruth Webb Lee, appeared. This book classified and named patterns and listed the pieces known to have been made in the numerous designs. With order and a plan thus provided for them, collectors in all parts of the country found a new interest, and they began assembling table settings in the patterns that most appealed to them. To use a well-worn American phrase, it swept the country. Dealers and collectors specializing in this decorative and varied glassware increased and multiplied until there are now more of them than of all others in the antiques field combined. Even old die-hards who at first dismissed it contemptuously as "just a fad of the depression," now realize that the collecting of pattern glass has come to stay and will probably remain a leader.

As certain patterns increased in popularity, they became correspondingly scarce and costly. This proved tempting to the faker and counterfeits appeared, though not in entire table settings. Making all the molds needed for such a venture called for too large an investment; rather, individual pieces, such as goblets, tumblers, plates and compotes in one or another of the most popular patterns were counterfeited.

They were apparently made on order for some unscrupulous peddlers, without a definite plan of action. A goblet in one pattern, a plate in another would suddenly appear in the shops of less experienced dealers, the goblet being the piece most copied. Some of the best-known patterns in which fake goblets have appeared are "Daisy and Button," "Ruby Thumbprint," "Lion," "Westward-Ho," "Paneled Grape," "Three-Face," "Pleat and Panel ... .. Cherry," "Rosein-Snow," "Moon and Star," "Wildflower" and "New England Pineapple."

Although these fakes do not look too bad at first glance, distinct points of variance from the originals can be seen on closer inspection. Since the molds in which these copies were pressed were not cut with the same care as those of the originals, design details do not stand out with the same sharpness. Moreover the material is the newer and cheaper lime glass instead of the earlier lead glass. A piece of lime glass when tapped with a pencil gives off a dull tone; one of lead glass has a bell-like ring, similar to that of blown glass but not as high in pitch.

Distributors of these pattern glass fakes by no means had it all their own way. As early as 1938, Mrs. Lee's Antique Fakes & Reproductions was published, in which she described and illustrated current counterfeits and the points at which they varied from the originals. A supplement appeared two years later, and complete revision of this work is now under way.

Prices of pieces in the ten most popular patterns-"Bellflower," "Horn of Plenty," "Rose-in-Snow," "Wild Flower," "Thousand-Eye," "Three-Face," "Lion," "Westward-Ho," "Milkwhite Blackberry" and "Daisy and Button" -and some others have now reached such high figures that beginners might think collecting pattern glass is too expensive for them. On the contrary, Mrs. Lee informs me that there are still two or three hundred patterns that are just as good and just as interesting, in which pieces can be bought at reasonable prices by those who will take the trouble to look for them.

Between the time that Jarves of the Boston & Sandwich Glass Company made his first pressed-glass tumbler and the time when his factory turned to pattern glass, there was a lapse of nearly thirty years. It was during this period that the lacy Sandwich was produced, long the aristocrat of machinemade glass. Its designs and the silvery quality of its stippled background are what give it the beauty that appeals so much to collectors. It was always made of reasonant lead glass and there have been only a few very poor and easily detected counterfeits. Examples of lacy Sandwich rank among the expensive items of antique glass. Collectors should be careful not to acquire pieces that are badly chipped or that have been ground down and polished to eradicate either a large chip or a bad break.

Glass somewhat similar to lacy Sandwich was produced during the same period at Baccarat, France, but the designs used there were distinctly different.

Along with lacy Sandwich, the Boston 9c Sandwich Glass Company and a number of other houses made a distinct type of glass tableware between 1820 and about 1840 that is now called blown three-mold, so named from the method of its making. A charge of molten glass on the end of a blowpipe was inserted into a hinged mold. The glass worker blew until the charge expanded to the point where the mold design was impressed on it. Then the mold was opened and the object, still attached to the blowpipe, was removed for finishing in the manner customary with blown glass. Designs were mostly geometric, since this mold-blown glass was primarily intended as a less expensive substitute for Irish and English cut glass, then being imported into the United States.

Decanters, goblets, wine glasses, sugar bowls, jars, plates, bowls, tumblers (including flip-glass size), celery vases, salt cellars and sirup jugs were among the principal pieces made for table use. Other items included inkwells, lamps and miniature pieces. Blown three-mold examples are desirable, but expensive and can occasionally be found in antique shops. The best detailed discussion of this type of glass can be found in American Glass, by George S. and Helen McKearin. This comprehensive volume includes over a hundred and twenty-five line drawings of design elements of this mold-blown glass.

There has been a small amount of counterfeiting in this field also, but such fakes can nearly always be identified by two tests. The copies are distinctly heavier than the originals, and if the fingers are passed over the inner surface, that of a copy will be smooth; with an original, ridges and hollows corresponding to the design of the exterior will be felt. In choosing examples of mold-blown glass, the collector should be alert for partial cracks, known as heat checks. These are apt to occur when a piece is subjected to too great changes in temperature.

A collector of my acquaintance had several pieces of such glass displayed in a window on shelves made for the purpose. One winter night the thermometer dropped to a record low of thirty degrees below zero. The next morning he found most of his choice pieces marred in this way, due to the intense cold.

Stoppers of decanters should fit snugly and correspond in design. In the case of a dome-covered sugar bowl, the glass of both cover and bowl should be like in texture, color and tint. If not, it is an assembled piece, consisting of a stray bowl and an odd cover that happened to be of the same size.

At the time American glass factories were making the pattern-glass table settings already commented on, they were also producing some very interesting candlesticks, lamps and vases by the same method. They were made in clear and colored glass and sometimes of two contrasting colors. The semi-opaque white and pastel shades were used. Most of the lamps were designed for whale oil and had the two-tube circular burners used with that fluid. A large proportion of the candlesticks were of the dolphin type. Some of the later lamps with flat kerosene-oil wicks and glass shades were made in pairs as mantel decorations. Vases were also fashioned for this purpose, some with pressed-glass bases and blown-glass containers. All are highly collectible antiques and command high prices.

A considerable number of whale-oil lamps have been reproduced for the interior decorator trade. These copies are not as well shaped and the quality of glass is different and heavier. Candlestick copies are all of the dolphin design. They are of a poorer quality of glass than antique examples, being about that of window glass. Also, they were apparently cast in a single mold; in the originals the candle holder was always made separately and fused to the base. This joining can be seen, and it will be noted that the seams or mold marks are not in perfect alignment. If the lower side of the base is examined carefully, another clue will be found in the fine scratches that go in all directions on the surface. A copy either has none of these or, if any, they are parallel because they have been put there with a file or an emery wheel.

Colorful Victorian ornamental pieces are another type of American glass found in antique shops. These are mostly small vases, fancy baskets, pitchers and similar items. Usually they have handles or applied ornaments done in clear glass or in a contrasting color. Except for such large and ornate objects as epergnes, they are not expensive. Collecting them began only a few years ago.

More expensive, and collected for a much longer time, are glass paperweights. These hall- or bun-shaped pieces all have highly decorative arrangements of colored glass embedded in a clear glass casing. Some are of flowers, fruits or butterflies. Others are mosaic patterns formed of short pieces of multi-colored glass rods and are known as millefiori weights.

These paperweights were imported from France, England and Bohemia. They were also made by skillful craftsmen working at such American factories as the New England Glass Company of Cambridge, Massachusetts; the Boston 9c Sandwich Glass Company; the Gillerland factory in Brooklyn, New York; and the factory at Millville, New Jersey, where Ralph Barber, who worked as late as 1905, made his Millville rose paperweights. These are the most prized of American weights, and a fine example is considered cheap at a hundred and fifty dollars or more.

Because of their small size and high value, and because a skilled glass blower needs little more than a spirit lamp to fashion the colored decoration before it is "cased," a good many instances of individual fake weight-making have been discovered. The poorest of these are some bunlike mosaic weights and some floral ones, made in China during the early 1930's. They can be recognized by the low quality of the casing glass, which in some examples has the greenish cast common to beer or soft-drink bottles. These bases are also left rough and creased instead of being ground and polished. Collecting paperweights is fascinating, but one should first see and study representative examples of genuine weights until perfectly familiar with their workmanship and superior colors.

American historical flasks and early squat bottles, made mostly in the eighteenth century, appeal to a number of glass collectors, principally men. Most of the historic flasks were made from about 1810 to 1860. Their decorations include portraits of military and political heroes, portrayals of notable events, and Masonic emblems. They are to be found in a wide range of shapes, sizes and colors. Rare examples are anything but cheap, but other interesting ones can still be bought in many shops at fair prices.

About 1925 to 1930 some counterfeit flasks were made, but they are now well known. Among these fakes are the houseshaped "Booze" bottle, a "Success to the Railroad" flask, and two calabash-shaped bottles, one with a profile head of Washington, with "Father of His Country" lettered above, the other with a full-face bust of jenny Lind, with her name lettered above, and "Fislerville Glass Works" beneath. Other fakes are a flask with a cornucopia on one side and a basket of flowers on the other; a pint-sized one with a profile of Washington, lettered "The Father of His Country" on both sides, for which no original is known; and a half-pint size with a horse and cart, lettered "Railroad" above and "Lowell" beneath, and having a spread eagle on the reverse. There are also a tall, square, house-shaped bottle, a counterfeit of the Plantation Bitters bottle that lacks the lettering of the original, and a number of copies of the large eight-sided pickle bottles with gothic-shaped panels. Made for the giftshop trade to serve as lamps bases, these are of heavier glass, which lacks the distinct greenish cast of the originals.

In the days when it was good manners to drink tea from a saucer, many glass cup plates were made. Their patterns ranged from portraits of distinguished Americans and records of events to floral and geometric motifs. Serious collecting of these cup plates is a highly specialized endeavor, and very rare examples bring stiff prices. A few examples, however, add interest to any American glass collection. Some genuine ones that rate as "common" can be bought reasonably.

Cup plates have also been copied, but in only a few designs. Most of these were made to sell as novelties by dealers in modern glass, and are not exact as to design details. All are of the dull-sounding lime glass. Among the few that rate as fakes, are the Bunker Hill design in which the drapery element lacks tassels; a Henry Clay profile facing left, with smaller lettering and faint border design; a butterfly with six-petaled flowers on the border; a steamboat design, with "Benjamin Franklin" in plain lettering and lacking the walking beam over the paddle wheel; and a plain-centered cup plate with the thirteen-heart border but with a plain rim on the base instead of one in rope form.

Basic antiques

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