Flashback: The Miles Collection of American Glass

April 16th, 2010

This article discusses glass produced in late 19th century, describing popular patterns, types of glass, and notable innovations (such as pressed and Amberina glass). It originally appeared in the November 1947 issue of American Collector magazine, a publication which ran from 1933-1948 and served antiques collectors and dealers.

The sweeping tendency to dismiss all American glass manufactured after 1850 as a cheap commercial product is passing out of fashion. Articles and books on the subject are partially responsible for the change of opinion but the real explanation is that much of this glass has won the esteem of discriminating collectors.

1. Three pieces of American glass that show exceptionally fine detail. Left to right: Opaque white candlestick in the shape of a caryatid, probably made by the Boston Glass Company. Fiery opalescent sugar bowl in the Ashburton pattern, made by the New England Glass Company. Petticoat dolphin candlestick with opalescent rim, maker unknown.

1. Three pieces of American glass that show exceptionally fine detail. Left to right: Opaque white candlestick in the shape of a caryatid, probably made by the Boston Glass Company. Fiery opalescent sugar bowl in the Ashburton pattern, made by the New England Glass Company. Petticoat dolphin candlestick with opalescent rim, maker unknown.

There are numerous collections which support this conclusion, one of the finest just having been placed on exhibition in the American Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. A generous gift to the Museum from Mrs. Emily Winthrop Miles, this collection was formerly shown at Lenox, Massachusetts, for the benefit of the public library there. It comprises more than 100 pieces, including examples of early pressed glass, matched sets of pattern glass and some late 19th century art glass.

Each section has its representative value, an indication of the study with which Mrs. Miles has made her selections, and nearly every piece is in perfect condition, an evidence of the tenacity with which she has persevered in matching sets. When the exhibition is over, about a year from now, many of the duplicate pieces will be distributed among Southern and Western museums.

The outstanding and most controversial feature in the history of 19th century American glassmaking is the development of the mechanical pressing machine. Through the elimination of much time and labor, this machine revolutionized the old techniques of blowing and cutting glass by making mass production of tableware and its sale at low prices. Unfortunately these commercial advantages did not always go hand in hand with artistic merit.

2. Clear bowl, decanter and creamer: Part of a table set made by the New England Glass Company before 1850. The design, the Ashburton pattern, consists of a row of ovals above and between a row of loops. A Pair of 16-inch celery vases and a globular compote in the Thumbprint pattern. Their grace and brilliance are similar to English or Irish cut glass. Probably made by Bakewell, Pears and Company in the '60s.

2. Clear bowl, decanter and creamer: Part of a table set made by the New England Glass Company before 1850. The design, the Ashburton pattern, consists of a row of ovals above and between a row of loops. A Pair of 16-inch celery vases and a globular compote in the Thumbprint pattern. Their grace and brilliance are similar to English or Irish cut glass. Probably made by Bakewell, Pears and Company in the '60s.

It seems hard to believe that even today the exact origin of an invention of such importance to the glass industry still should be a matter of controversy; yet experts, beyond agreeing that the first mechanical pressing machine was probably American, differ greatly as to how and where it came into use. The machine was introduced to glass factories about 1827, and early patent records prove that Deming Jarves, founder of the Boston and Sandwich Glass Company, was responsible for many improvements in its methods of operation.

At Sandwich, molds of brass or iron were cast or chipped to approximate wooden models. The pattern to be produced was on the receiving die, and a mechanically driven plunger forced molten glass into every crevice of this mold, while a cap ring prevented glass from escaping between die and plunger at the top. The finished product depended, of course, on the precise fit of the parts for its perfection, and many early Sandwich pieces are prized because they suggest the difficulties with which early glass pressers had to contend. The successful efforts of Sandwich manufacturers are well represented in the Miles Collection, which includes such uncommon examples as a covered lyre-salt, a caryatid candlestick (fig. 1), and a group of lacy miniatures.

Certain pieces and patterns of mechanically pressed glass scorn proved so popular as well as economical that many factories began to produce large sets of matching tableware. Frequently the designs were derived from European sources, since the cut glass of Waterford and Bristol stood high in American favor, and pattern glass could be molded to refract ray, of light as did European cut glass.

3. Pair of 16-inch celery vases and a globular compote in the Thumbprint pattern. Their grace and brilliance are similar to English or Irish cut glass. Probably made by Bakewell, Pears, and Company in the '60s.

3. Pair of 16-inch celery vases and a globular compote in the Thumbprint pattern. Their grace and brilliance are similar to English or Irish cut glass. Probably made by Bakewell, Pears, and Company in the '60s.

One such pattern was Ashburton (fig. 2). The New England Glass Company sent a large shipment of this pattern to California in the course of the Gold Rush of 1849, and the design still was being advertised by Bakewell, Pears, and Company as late as 1880. The most plausible explanation why the Ashburton pattern should have remained popular for 30 years, an unusual circumstance in view of the many different patterns put out by American factories, is its dignified simplicity.

Two other early patterns represented in the Miles Collection are Thumbprint (fig. 3) and Diamond Thumbprint, certain forms of which have a grace and elegance similar to that of English or Irish cut glass. The large proportions of a globular Thumbprint covered compote contrast effectively with two small, straight-edged compotes, while the numerous Diamond Thumbprint pieces include all the forms listed in Ruth Webb Lee’s nomenclature.

In addition there is an imposing array of creamers in designs popular before and during the ’70s and ’80s. Among these designs are Smocking, Leaf and Dart, Cable with Ring, Cabbage Rose, Bull’s Eye, Buckle, Hamilton, Saw-tooth, Open Rose, Lion, Princess Feather, Inverted Fern, Ribbed Palm, Ribbed Bellflower, Diamond Point, Loop and Dart, Coin, and Lincoln Drape.

4. Group of opalescent pieces in the Thousand-Eye pattern. This pattern, sometimes confused with Hobnail and Dewdrop, can always be identified by a row of diamond-shaped points below each row of circular discs.

4. Group of opalescent pieces in the Thousand-Eye pattern. This pattern, sometimes confused with Hobnail and Dewdrop, can always be identified by a row of diamond-shaped points below each row of circular discs.

There is, still further, a group of rare forms in other patterns, among them being a Tulip whale-oil lamp, a Three-Face biscuit jar, four Horn of Plenty parfait glasses, a Morning Glory goblet, a Jumbo spoon holder, a Liberty Bell mug with snake handle, two frosted Ribbon compotes with dolphin stems and a 5-inch covered-compote in the Westward Ho design.

Not all pattern glass produced in the ’70s and ’80s is as elegant as that already mentioned. The forms available in the Thousand-Eye pattern, for example, despite folded plate corners and slender goblet stems, are generally sturdy and heavy; such tableware seems to have been designed for conservative rather than luxurious homes (fig. 4).

Both plain and three-knob styles of the Thousand-Eye pattern are found in the collection, and there are six plates in each of the six, eight, and ten-inch sizes. Most of the pieces are lemon yellow but the collection also has some Thousand-Eye glass in the extremely scarce opalescent.

The less interesting the pattern or less graceful its form, the more reliance there was on color to reduce monotony and attract the eye. The happy results sometimes obtained can be judged by the cranberry, opalescent, and rose-opalescent Hobnail glass in the Miles Collection (fig. 5). Most of this glass was produced in the ’80s by the Hobbs, Brocunier Company of Wheeling, West Virginia.

5. Group of cranberry or rose-opalescent examples in the Hobnail pattern. The pointed nodules indicate that they date among the earliest pieces produced in this pattern. Probably made by the Hobbs, Brocunier Company of Wheeling, West Virginia.

5. Group of cranberry or rose-opalescent examples in the Hobnail pattern. The pointed nodules indicate that they date among the earliest pieces produced in this pattern. Probably made by the Hobbs, Brocunier Company of Wheeling, West Virginia.

When an object was taken from the mold the hobnails became opalescent because air cooled the opaque glass of the nodules more quickly than it did the less exposed areas of the piece. However, the varied size and spacing of nodules in some forms of this pattern indicate that much of it was molded and blown instead of pressed to its full size and shape.

A more startling, sometimes even extravagant effect was achieved by the making of slag or marble glass (fig. 6), composed of purple, blue, green, or yellow glass fused with opaque white. It was made in many patterns, both here and abroad, yet thus far it has been found described in only one company catalogue, that of the Challinor, Taylor Company of Tarentum, Pennsylvania. Open-edge plates, a large fluted bowl, and a delicate vase of purple slag lend this group distinction.

On view is an unusual covered hen-dish in purple marble glass which makes an interesting comparison with some animals in opaque white glass probably manufactured by McKee Brothers of Pittsburgh (fig. 7). From cow to cat the McKee barnyard is complete, and jungle beasts such as the lion and elephant are present as well. Dishes similar to these pieces were later issued by the Westmoreland Specialty Company of Grapeville, Pennsylvania, as mustard containers.

6. Notch-edge platter and a pair of dolphin candlesticks in purple Marble glass. Their careful designing suggests that, contrary to general belief they are not "off-hand" pieces made by individual workmen at the end of the day for personal purposes.

6. Notch-edge platter and a pair of dolphin candlesticks in purple Marble glass. Their careful designing suggests that, contrary to general belief they are not "off-hand" pieces made by individual workmen at the end of the day for personal purposes.

Introduction of the pressing machine did not bring glass blowing to an end; indeed, the device was bitterly opposed by veteran glass blowers. These artisans, largely foreign-born, had brought with them to this country techniques and practices which were the fruit of long apprenticeships at home.

“On discovery that I had succeeded in pressing a piece of glass,” wrote Deming Jarves in 1827, “[they] were so enraged for fear their business would be ruined by the new discovery, that my life was threatened…There was danger of personal violence should I venture in the street after nightfall.”

By 1845, less than 20 years later, pressed glass was a common sight in American households; so it is evident that the opposition of the blowers gave way to acceptance, even participation in the creation of the new wares. The Sandwich Company, for instance, was a leader in the manufacture of threaded glass, excellent examples of which are to be seen in the Miles Collection. Dusk-rose, amber, or opaque in color, with an expanded diamond pattern, these pieces have an air of fragile grace. Application of the threads must have required much skill and patience.

7. "Barnyard" group of opaque white animal-carved dishes, probably made by McKee Brothers of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

7. "Barnyard" group of opaque white animal-carved dishes, probably made by McKee Brothers of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

One successful experiment at the New England Glass Company that proved very popular was Amberina glass (fig. 8). The rich contrast of color is said to have been discovered by accident when a worker dropped a gold ring into a mixture of amber glass he was blowing. On reheating the glass he found that the parts which had fused with gold turned red.

Manufacturers had long been interested in producing ruby glass through the use of gold, yet pieces that retained an amber hue always had been discarded as imperfectly reheated. Joseph Locke, realizing the commercial possibilities of reheating one part of an amber glass object containing gold metal and thus producing a ware which would shade from deep amber to rich red, patented the process in 1883.

Two covered punch bowls, a lamp, an open punch bowl, six cups and a ladle in the collection indicate why Amberina glass became popular enough to stimulate competition from other factories. One controversy was amicably settled when the Mt. Washington Glass Company agreed to forego use of the term Amberina, adopting in its stead “Rose Amber” to designate the New Bedford product.

8. Pair of sweetmeat jars, a cracker jar, a tumbler and a mug in Amberina glass. The shading is from light amber to ruby red. The jars, molded and blown in an Inverted Thumbprint pattern, possibly were made by the New England Glass Company after 1883.

8. Pair of sweetmeat jars, a cracker jar, a tumbler and a mug in Amberina glass. The shading is from light amber to ruby red. The jars, molded and blown in an Inverted Thumbprint pattern, possibly were made by the New England Glass Company after 1883.

Another experiment at the New England Glass Company led to improvement in the method of making Pomona glass. A large punch bowl in the collection is composed of two distinct surfaces; the ribbon rim is pale straw color, while the base appears finely stippled. For a long time this latter effect was obtained by covering the bowl with wax through which delicate lines were scratched, then giving the piece an acid bath to affect the unprotected area. In 1885, Joseph Locke introduced an acid resisting powder which could be dusted over the surface of a piece before its subjection to acid, and this new technique quickly supplanted the laborious etching process.

One of the most popular late 19th century wares combined the fragile texture and color of Pomona glass with the more formal elegance characteristic of the Diamond Thumbprint days. This was the well-known Satin glass (fig. 9). A core of opaque glass, usually white, was blown in a pattern mold. While still hot, the core and its round or lozenge-shaped cavities were coated with a thin layer of transparent colored glass. A crystal plating was next applied, and the final step consisted of an acid bath to give the piece a finish like satin. Wide variations of color were possible if one chose to reverse the platings.

9. Group of Satin glass illustrating the many patterns and colors obtainable by using varied colors and platings. Vase at upper left shades from blue to pink; the bowl next to it is purple; the small vase, pink. The lower left pitcher shades from white to deep rose; the vase next it, ivory to pink; the right-hand pitcher is deep blue.

9. Group of Satin glass illustrating the many patterns and colors obtainable by using varied colors and platings. Vase at upper left shades from blue to pink; the bowl next to it is purple; the small vase, pink. The lower left pitcher shades from white to deep rose; the vase next it, ivory to pink; the right-hand pitcher is deep blue.

Although art glass preserved the tradition of glass blowing it did not in most cases preserve the high standards of earlier workmanship. With the introduction of the mechanical pressing machine, the privilege of artistic creation passed from worker to mold designer, and pressed glass came to depend for its success on pattern, form, and color as distinct from craftsmanship.

Too often a desire for commercial advantage caused the mold designer to pattern his glass with the criteria of cost, quantity and public appeal most prominently in mind. Manufacture of enormous amounts of glass in repetitious patterns was the result, and the fact that 19th century art glass became commercialized under the strain of competition was an inevitable consequence.

There is a tendency among critics of American glass to over-emphasize this loss of high professional standards. Their criticism seems unfair as well as unfortunate, for many fine pieces exist amid the quantities of inferior glass produced by 19th century manufacturers. If any vindication of the lifetime efforts of men like Deming Jarves is needed, the Miles Collection supplies it. The skeptic who views its contents should find them illuminating, while the collector who appreciates beauty of pattern and color in American glass is certain to feel satisfied.

This article originally appeared in American Collector magazine, a publication which ran from 1933-1948 and served antique collectors and dealers.

4 comments so far

  1. Lisa Hoyns Says:

    I have two pieces of what is called thousand eye glass. I believe they are sugar and creamer,but to me they are pretty tall to be a sugar and creamer. I acquired them from my deceased grandmother who was given them by her husband. I would like to know if they have any worth? Thank you

  2. DoRi Miles, Pattern Glass Editor, eapgpatterns.com Says:

    The Thousand Eye description needs clarification, it’s not all one pattern. Pieces with three-knob finials and the folded-corner plates are by Adams & Co., not made in opalescent. The opalescent pieces shown are by Richards & Hartley Flint Glass Co., Tarentum PA. However, that name can be misleading, they are not flint. Flint as part of the company name meant colorless glass at the time. The lemon-yellow is called canary in the ads from Adams & Co. LISA: Families were large back then, there were many pieces to a table setting, the standard Victorian covered sugars and the creams were substantial. I’ll check the Show & Tell gallery to see if you posted pics there.

  3. Bea Morgan (Salt shaker Lady) Says:

    Hi Dori,
    Haven’t seen you in many a year. I am still living in Ct., still doing some shows, but working and raising my 6 kids took over most of my life. Now that I am ready to retire at 78, I will be doing more. I think about you sometimes, especially when I use your old pattern glass book. I still think of you as the expert, even though I have been selling a lot of pattern glass for over 40 years. I still do the Extravaganzas at Shupp’s Grove, and just wanted to say hello, I saw your name in connection with the EAPG club, and was happy to see you are still out there and active. Hope to see you again sometime. Are you still living in the same place in Crown Point?

    Best Ever, Bea Morgan
    Sandy Hook, Ct. (Yes, that Sandy Hook, the shooting site of the School is about 1/4 mile from my house. 5 of my six kids went there, and 5 of my 9 grandchildren.) I’m still doing salt shakers, but never wrote my book, since Ralph Lechner did his, I backed off, but would like to do one after I retire. I also do toothpicks and other small stuff.

  4. Kathy Ellison Says:

    I bought what I thought was a candy dish at a thrift store and when I got it home and removed the tape from the center of it where I thought it would separate it did not. It looks like it should separate to be a lid and base but is not cut. Do you possibly know what this would be called. Its very pretty clear cut glass a pointed top and it is 20 inches around and 11 inches tall to the tip.
    Thanks for your help, Kathy


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