Barbara Meek talks about the history of cut glass, the patterns, and the major turn-of-the-century manufacturers. Barbara is the president of the Florida (Sunburst) chapter of the American Cut Glass Association, which is a member of our Hall of Fame.
I started collecting cut glass when I was about 18. My sisters were married, and during the summer, I would go out and stay with them in the Midwest and work. That was back in the late ’70s when you could go to flea markets and you could find wonderful things. Every weekend I would go antiquing with both my sisters, and at the end of the summer, after working, I had some extra money. I decided I was going to buy myself a piece of cut glass.
The finest cut glass was made by American companies, and the height was from the 1890s to about 1908 or so. At that point the format started to change a little bit; it wasn’t the Brilliant cut glass. Initially, I was really attracted to the Brilliant cut glass because it is so thick and the cutting is deep, it reflects the light. I liked the way it sparkled.
I’ve been collecting off and on, depending on my personal situation. When you’re raising a family or have kids in college, you don’t collect so much. There were times when I didn’t acquire very much, and there was a point where I became concerned about fake glass. They don’t really know where it came from, but it started to materialize in the mid- to late 1980s. That’s the reason we do the black light testing and other things.
It’s very hard now to walk into an antique shop and find cut glass like you used to be able to in the ’70s and early ’80s. The advantage of being a member of any collectors’ association is you can find the items you’re interested in collecting. I’m really expanding my collection a great deal because of being a member of the Cut Glass Association.
Collectors Weekly: How did it get the name “Brilliant” cut glass?
Meek: I believe it was actually coined by an early writer on cut glass named Dorothy Daniel. We collect the heavy cut glass, the heavy Brilliant, which has the high grade silica in it. There are also glass clubs that collect some of the early glass, like flint glass, but with the improved formulas of the Brilliant Period, you could get the heavier cuts that weren’t possible with flint glass. Christian Dorflinger of the Dorflinger Glass Company in White Mills, Pennsylvania coined the title “rich cut glass,” and that’s what’s referred to during the period that we call American Brilliant. Starting in about 1872 or so, the Brilliant period went until the Flower period began, which was about 1905.
The early period is mostly flint glass. The patterns are really not distinguished between American cutting houses and European cutting houses, so it’s hard to tell whether you have a European piece during that time or American. In fact, I’ve read that the companies actually sent the glass overseas and back in order to be able to advertise it as being imported. Most of the purchasers thought that they had to be European to be good. This changed in the 1870s and 1880s when Hawkes [see pitcher above] started winning awards at the Paris expos. That’s when American glass manufacturers got to be recognized.
Libbey Glass had a whole pavilion at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, and that’s really what made people truly aware of it. But when I give my lectures around town to women’s groups, I say that I think that the American Brilliant period started earlier, because Mary Todd Lincoln ordered cut glass for the White House.
Collectors Weekly: Who were some of the big cut glass manufacturers?
Meek: There were a thousand companies in 1900 that cut the glass – not that made the glass to be cut, but that actually cut the product. They were scattered around all across the country. But you only had a handful of companies that actually produced the blank. Blanks were produced and cut by Libbey Glass Company. A lot of people recognized that name because after 1895, Libbey and Hawkes said they were going to sign their pieces. They’re still in business, but they’re not producing fine cut glass anymore, it’s more generic.
You had Corning Glass Works, which produced blanks for many of the cutting shops in Corning, NY, including T. G. Hawkes and Company, which didn’t go out of business until the 1960s, and J. Hoare and Company. Hawkes founded the Steuben Glass Company to produce glass blanks for them in 1903, but subsequently sold it to the Corning Glass Works in 1918. Hawkes continued cutting until 1962 as an independent cutting shop. Steuben has been operated as a subsidiary of Corning Glass Works until the present.
H.C. Fry and company produced blanks, and some of the people like Strauss bought their blanks from Europe as opposed to using American blanks. I don’t believe J. Hoare and Company ever produced their own glass. Dorflinger had both a cutting shop as well as the blank producing shop. They would produce glass, and sell some blank pieces to other cutting companies and keep some for their own cutting shops. They did the glass for the White House from President Lincoln until 1921, when they went out of business.
To produce the blank, they had to heat the molten material, which is the sand and the potash and the lead. They had a crew of people: one person would actually gather it, put it on a blowpipe, and then hand it to the chair of the whole group, who would start to blow in it. Then he’d pass it to other people who would bring little bits of glass. It was a little gang of people with young boys, 14 years old or so, doing the apprentice work.
Once companies got the blank glass, they would have a gang of cutters, from a rougher, who would make the initial cuts, to another individual, who would make the finer cuts, and then to a polisher. As early as the turn of the century, it was discovered that having a group of men – as opposed to one man who had to change his cutting wheels constantly – was an economical way of producing a piece of cut glass.
“Companies sent their glass overseas and back in order to advertise it as imported.”
The interesting thing about these cut glass industries is that they worked together. Even though cutters were paid more in the U.S. than the country they immigrated from (most of these cutters emigrated from France, like Christian Dorflinger, or Ireland and Germany) they did have grievances. Mostly pertaining to work conditions. The belt that propelled the cutting wheel had a strap that went up to the ceiling, and sometimes those would break. Glass also would break and fly, so the injuries in the cut glass industry were severe. They did not have any insurance like we do today when you work, so they had to band together. If a person was injured or if death occurred, they would reimburse the family or the worker.
The cutters also wanted to limit the number of apprentices to one per cutting gang as opposed to two or more. It took 7 to 12 years to become a cutter, and they wanted to limit that so it wasn’t quite so long before you could get your Journeyman’s license. So they did have slowdowns at these companies, particularly in the 1890s, and if a company was having a slowdown, another cutting company would actually produce the glass for them. If Hawkes was having a slowdown, they would ask Dorflinger to cut them some glass to fill their orders. It’s a little different than what we would think of today.
Collectors Weekly: Were there different patterns in cut glass?
Meek: Yes. Like today, when you get married, you go to the store and you pick out your china pattern and your silver pattern. The same was true for your cut glass pattern. Each company had a series of patterns. Many of the contemporary writers around the turn of the century would advise the young gals to pick out more of a generic pattern of cut glass, a glass that you can mix and match, because glass was often broken and was very expensive. That’s why it was called rich cut glass. It was rich in that it was expensive to produce, expensive to buy, and it looked very lovely.
Cut glass became popular because it reflected the light on the table. At that time, they were using candles and oil lamps and later gaslights, so they needed the glass to send light across the dining table. It reflected the colors of the flowers and the lights from the candles and shimmered it across the table.
There were a lot of patterns made when Halley’s Comet was coming by. They picked a lot of color pattern names for that. The Russian pattern was called that because the Russian ambassador chose it for his table service. I consider it a generic pattern, because if it got a little nick on it, no one would ever be able to see it on your dining room table. It was a staple pattern that continued for many years. I can’t begin to tell you how many pattern names there are; probably in the thousands. Patterns were patented, and we get a lot of the information today from the patent records. Many patterns were quite similar, just different enough to be able to patent.
A pattern is made up of a series of motifs. There are so many different motifs: Hobstar, strawberry diamond, punty cut, which is a very plain, round cut that’s plain in the center. These are combined to form a pattern.
Some people collect by pattern. My hope chest had green cameo Depression glass, and that’s the only pattern of Depression glass that I have in my collection, nor do I want any other Depression glass patterns. There are collectors that will say, “I only want Libbey Sultana.” Some people only collect Strauss Imperial. Other people will collect only rare patterns. I tend to not be a pattern person when it comes to collecting cut glass, but there are people that will want the very rare patterns or very expensive patterns, like Aztec. Then there are panel patterns and something called a trellis pattern that people talk about a lot.
Aztec was cut by Libbey and Panel was cut by Hawkes. They were quite expensive when they were made, and are therefore rare today, which makes people want to collect them. My personal collection tends to be more shapes. I’m intrigued by the fact that they made a toupee stand in cut glass besides baskets and other things. I go after the more unusual items.
Collectors Weekly: What types of objects did they make out of cut glass?
Meek: For the table, anything that could be served cold or room temperature. Heat destroys a piece of cut glass. So does changes in temperatures. They couldn’t just throw a piece of ice cream on a tray; they had to gradually bring the temperature of that tray, and they could not all of a sudden take that ice cream tray and throw it in some hot dishwater because it would pop or break or crack. But they made anything – desk items, dressing table items, table items. They had casserole dishes with a cover on top. They had caviar dishes. They had cake plates. They had fingerbowls.
Cut glass was an appropriate gift to give to a bride. Every table wanted to have cut glass. You were socially correct if your table weighed a ton and cost a million. When you got married, you had to have a punchbowl set and your glassware, your tumblers or your goblets, decanter sets, ice bowls that often had a plate underneath so that the table could be protected from the condensation of the ice, sugar and creamers, and all the bonbon dishes. They made some utensils in cut glass where the handle was cut glass and the utensil part was sterling or silver plated.
Collectors Weekly: Did all cut glass objects come in sets?
Meek: Certainly your decanters with the goblets and the tumblers to match came in sets. Your candlesticks usually came in sets of two or four. With your berry bowls, you’d have a big bowl, and then you’d usually have six smaller bowls. For some reason it seemed like sets like this were usually in groups of six. Pitchers with the tumblers to match were usually sets of six tumblers with the pitcher. Your number of guests at a dinner table should be somewhere between three and 12.
Collectors Weekly: When did the use of cut glass fall out of fashion?
Meek: Cut glass became unpopular during World War I, as it was considered unpatriotic to have frivolous things like cut glass. Most of the manufacturers, with the exception of Corning Glass Works, could not get the raw materials. Dorflinger got sand from France and potash from Germany, so they weren’t getting their product. Corning Glass Works could get raw materials because they had a contract to service the federal government with generic tumblers and glass products. So they were able to get the glass.
So in 1900, you had lots of cut glass companies, but World War I took a huge chunk out of these companies and then Prohibition closed them up. By 1921, Dorflinger had to close down because people no longer could use their decanters and liquor glasses, and that was really the industry’s bread and butter.
You never had cocktails before dinner during the Victorian era. After dinner, the men would stay at the table and have their whiskey or cognac while the ladies would go back into the parlor or their libraries and have coffee so that the men could have men’s talk. That started to change after the 1900s. About 1905, some very avant-garde society ladies would offer what we call cocktail before dinner.
Tastes changed, and the manufacturers adapted. The heavier glass that was produced prior to 1900, the American Brilliant period, became less fashionable after the turn of the century in the Edwardian period, and the manufacturers started to produce lighter, thinner glass. These are the engraved pieces with the flower and nature motifs. They didn’t stop using lead, they just were able to make it more delicate. The ladies whose mothers had the real thick, heavy cumbersome glass wanted it lighter and more engraved. It took four years longer to learn how to engrave than it did to be a cutter.
With Prohibition in 1921, glass got packed away into people’s cellars or attics, and it wasn’t until about 1950 that people started to bring it out and sell it. By the ’70s, you had even more of an influx, and that’s why a lot of people consider the ’70s the heyday of being able to find wonderful items at these flea markets and antique stores and garage sales. That’s when the Cut Glass Association was formed, about 1978, with a handful of collectors. Now we have several thousand members.
Collectors Weekly: Is colored cut glass uncommon?
Meek: I have no colored cut glass in my collection. Right now a lot of people are collecting colored cut to clear. There were companies in America that did cut colored glass, and from my readings of these hundred-year-old ladies’ magazines, Good Housekeeping, Ladies’ Home Journal, Harper’s Bazaar, and some others, colored glass was not thought of very highly for the dining table. It was fine to have as accent pieces in the home, but as far as on the dining room table, it was not something these writers were telling the new middle class to do.
After the Civil War, people became wealthy. They were entrepreneurs. They were professional businessmen. They had moved to the city, and they acquired some money. Women’s entertainment styles had to emulate the positions that their husbands had acquired in the business world. To do this, they read all these etiquette cookbooks that actually went through how to set the table. These ladies’ magazines and these columns would tell them what they should wear to coordinate with the table.
These writers felt that colored glass was garish and would conflict with any type of dining ambiance that they wanted to create, with the exception of the fingerbowl. They felt that fingerbowls would be very appropriate to have in color because it would camouflage the particles that would be left in the bowl, which I find quite humorous. They also thought that a colored hock wine glass was attractive on the table, but those are really the only two items they felt should be of colored cut glass.
Collectors Weekly: You said it’s getting harder and harder to find cut glass?
Meek: Old cut glass, yes. But I there has been more and more glass made in Czechoslovakia. The early cut glass that we collect, it’s very hard to find. A lot of it is being circulated among collectors, although there are still people who have a prized piece that has been in their family since the 1900s, handed down. Those pieces often have been used, so they’re going to have a lot of chips and may even be broken.
Collectors Weekly: What is the difference between wood-polished glass and acid-polished glass?
Meek: Wood polishing with stone or wood was a time-consuming and expensive process. A piece of glass that’s acid-polished was literally dumped into an acid bath and polished instantly. Cut glass at the time was expensive, but you could find inexpensive pieces that maybe were not as detailed or had some inclusions when the piece was being formed – a grain of sand or other material remained in the glass or whatever. You had it at all price levels, and that’s where you get into your different patterns. Some patterns took more work to produce and better quality glass than other inferior, lesser quality glass, simpler cuts or whatever.
Collectors Weekly: What sets cut glass apart from other types of glass, like Depression glass, for example?
Meek: Depression glass doesn’t have lead in it. Depression glass tended to be pressed glass that was done in a mold and pressed by machine. What makes the difference is the composition of the raw materials, the formula. Depression glass pieces also tend to weigh quite a bit less than cut glass.
Reproductions became a big issue in the ’80s. It was really the association that has brought this to light. They had chemists and they had attorneys and they had collectors that were interested and tried to come up with ways to authenticate a piece of glass. In the 1980s when they were trying to reproduce pieces of cut glass in the 1890s patterns, they could not reproduce the formula of the original cut glass companies. That’s why with black lighting if it fluoresced a greenish color, they could tell that it was the early glass as opposed to a more just reflecting the purplish color of the blacklight. You often find with a piece of cut glass, it’ll say, “black light tested.”
Collectors Weekly: Are there any books you could suggest for people interested in cut glass?
Meek: The Cut Glass Association has reproduced a series of the cutting house catalogs with the help of the Rakow Library at the Corning Museum. If you have a piece and you think it’s from a certain cutting house, you can go to those catalogs, which the ACGA sells, and actually identify the pattern. So that’s a very good source, and they have other good books listed on their website. Jane Spillman has written several books on cut glass. As far as the history of the time frame that cut glass was made, I like American Cut and Engraved Glass by Swan. Also, there’s Bill and Louise Boggess, who did a book called Identifying American Brilliant Cut Glass. That is one of the Schiffer books.
Collectors Weekly: Any other advice on collecting cut glass?
Meek: I think if they’re really interested in collecting, they should join the association. That’s the first thing they need to do. If they have a piece they’ve gotten from their grandmother or their mother – in this case, I’m sure it’s now grandmother – they need to respect it. It’s not being done today, not in that quality, and by respecting it, I mean they have to be very careful that it does not get exposed to changes of temperature, because it will break. You cannot take it from direct sunlight in your window and have your air conditioner blowing on it because it’s going to be hot on one side and cold on the other. It’s going to pop the glass.
The other thing I would suggest is to not keep liquid in it. The Surgeon General said a few years ago that lead will seep out of the glass and so it’s not healthy to drink from cut glass. So don’t leave liquid in that decanter because the Surgeon General says it’s not healthy. I visually enjoy my glass, so I leave it out for visual enjoyment. If I want to have the flowers in it, I will use a silk flower as opposed to natural flowers, because I don’t have to worry about the water.
(All images in this article courtesy Barbara Meek of the American Cut Glass Association)