The History of American Glass

by Orva Heissenbuttel
Rainbow Review Glass Journal - April 1975

The history of America's past can be found in American glassware, for Americas first industry produced the most popular category of antiques and collectibles today, aside from coins and stamps.

American glassmaking began in Virginia when Captain John Smith established a glass factory "neare a myle from James Towne" in 1608, a year after the settlement of the new colony. It was not created for the purpose of making beads or trade with the Indians as is generally assumed, but for making bottles for shipment back to England.

The Jamestown factory, like all of the early glasshouses, was short-lived, thus nearly all of the glass used in America before the Revolutionary War was imported. Three glassmakers of the 18th century did leave a tradition of American glass styles however - Wistar, Stiegel and Amelung, all of whom employed skilled craftsmen trained in Europe. Casper Wistar produced bottles, window glass and a variety of household articles from 1739 to 1780 in what is now Salem, N.J. in a style now known as South Jersey.

Henry William Stiegel was the first American glassmaker to specialize in fine tableware which was made at his factory in Manheim, PA from 1769 until its financial failure in 1774. He is credited with making the first cut glass in America, and his wares included flint glass in blue and purple, and engraved and enameled pieces. The last Stiegel glassware was made 200 years ago and thus it must be assumed that most of it is now in museums and private collections, and wares of the type made by Stiegel must be designated "Stiegel type" for many of the later glass houses followed his style, and similar types were made in Germany and England.

John Frederick Amelung was the only glassmaker of the 18th century to sign and date his work thus definite attribution can be made of the glass produced in his New Bremen Glass House in Frederick County, MD, between 1785-95. Of outstanding workmanship, Amelung glass was the first to be made in America to compare with the better European wares, though it could not rival the best.

Although the study of American glass should begin with these early American glassmakers, their glassware is practically unavailable to today's glass collectors. When glass collecting became popular in the 1920s, all early blown enameled and engraved glass was called Stiegel, just as the later mass-produced pressed pattern glass was always referred to as Sandwich.

The serious collector who desires to start a collection of early American glass today must also be a realist and start his collection with Sandwich glass, which dates from the beginning of the industrial revolution in the early 19th century.

The first glass made at the Sandwich factory in Sandwich, MA, was on July 4, 1825, and before they closed the factory on Jan. 1, 1888, they had made every type of glass excepting window glass. Although Sandwich made blown, blown-molded and cut wares through the history of the company, it is their early flint lacy ware, made from 1825-1840, which interests collectors most.

Lacy Sandwich ware derived its name from the many intricate designs which featured a background of finely stippled tiny raised dots. The designs refracted light in a way that gave them a truly lacy look. It was never made in sets like the later pattern glass was, but lacy glass was made in a dazzling array of motifs and colors, the earliest pieces being open salts, furniture knobs, shallow dishes, plates and cup plates.

It has been 87 years since a watchman went through the town of Sandwich, rapping on the doors of glassworkers to wake them for their next shift. Gone, too, is the annual Glassmakers' Ball, when the ladies wore costumes expressly designed for the event, and dusted their hair and dresses with powdered glass.

But the romance of Sandwich glass lives on, brought back to life through the pages of Ruth Webb Lee's books on Early American Pressed Glass (EAPG), and Sandwich in particular, which were first published in the 1930s, and reprinted many times since. Her books are still considered the definitive books on the subject.

The Early American Glass Club is a national organization which had chapters all over the US. Basically a study group, membership is by invitation. However, there are many other glass collector's clubs which have open membership. These include both local and national organizations dedicated to the study and appreciation of glassware made by specific companies, such as Heisey, Cambridge, Akro Agate, Pairpoint, etc. and to types, such as carnival and depression glass.

Carnival glass is a colored, pressed glass with fired-on iridescence, manufactured in America between 1900 and 1925, in nearly 1500 patterns in an attempt to imitate the more expensive glass made by Tiffany and Steuben. When this type of glass went out of style in the 1920's wholesalers began to reduce their stock by selling it to carnivals, fairs, bazaars and church socials to be given away as prizes, hence the name "Carnival." Carnival glass collecting began in the 1950s, and they have the largest number of organized national and local club members, and they have kept up the pubic interest in carnival through a National Carnival Glass Week in October, and by keeping each other informed on rarities, reproduction and history.

Depression, like the earlier carnival glass, was given as premiums, and dates from the beginning of the Depression era to World War II. It was an inexpensive glass which was made in colors, mostly by machine, and became popular as a collectible in the late 1960s. It was the first glass to have an entire show/sale devoted to it.

Heisey and Cambridge glass, like carnival and depression glass, are basically products of the 20th century, but unlike carnival and depression, they represent the wares of specific companies, not eras. Their appeal for collectors stems from the fact that the companies have closed (Heisey in 1957, Cambridge in 1958) and therefore no more will be made. This, coupled with a distinctive trademark, Heisey's famous "H" in a diamond and Cambridge's "C" in a triangle, have made them easily identifiable to collectors, who also appreciate their superior quality.

A national club, Heisey Collectors of America, some 1500 Heisey collectors strong, have realized a goal which they set from their beginning in 1972, that of a museum for their much-admired glass. The National Heisey Museum opened in September, 1974, in Newark, Ohio, in a restored 1831 Greek Revival House. A Cambridge Glass Museum opened in 1973 in Cambridge, Ohio, as a private museum which displays the collection of Harold and Judy Bennett. Both museums are open to the public for $1 admission.

Regardless of what category the glass collector began with, the eye naturally grows to admire and collect examples of the many types of art glass made in America from the latter part of the 19th century up to the present time.

Art glass from the 19th century includes Amberina, Burmese, Cameo, Peach-Blow, Lutz and Vasa Murrhina which again are types of glass, while collectors look for glass made in the 20th century which bear the trademark of factories or artisans such as Tiffany, Steuben, Pairpoint, Durand, Verlys of America, Phoenix and brilliant cut glass bearing the acid-etched trademark of Libbey, Hawkes, Fry and Clark, to name a few.

Collectors also collect the work of modern glass artisans such as Dominick Labino and Charles Lotton, for their output is limited, and each piece is different. Through clubs and specialty shows, collectors of glass grow more knowledgable as they seek to learn more about glass made in America.