In this interview, Elaine Henderson discusses the history and varieties of Early American Pattern Glass (EAPG), and gives advice to new collectors. Elaine’s Pattern Glass School is a member of our Hall of Fame.
My mother was our inspiration for collecting pattern glass. She collected it, and she died at a very young age. My sister and I inherited it and my aunt said not to sell anything until we were older. She had some good stuff. My sister called me one day telling me she found a goblet in the pattern that mother had, so I decided to look. The first pieces we found were some wine glasses. Once you find a treasure, it’s what gets you started. You figure out that you can identify something of value that other people can’t.
We started buying about 19 years ago and I can’t exactly remember when I started selling. But a few years later I realized I couldn’t store and have everything that we wanted, and we realized we really liked it. It’s like a treasure hunt. I can go in an antique store and pick out pattern glass in about a minute and a half, so once you spend hours, days, and months learning it and buying it, you have knowledge that allows you to make wise purchases for resale. When we first started we bought the wrong stuff sometimes, so those pieces we call tuition in our education process.
My two sons were in computers, and one of them said that using a database and the Internet would be great for a pattern matching service, and he was right. He was really the guiding force and got me a website thirteen years ago. The Pattern Glass School is the main site and I added the store and other sites to that.
There are a lot more forms that I haven’t completed yet, like butter dishes, creamers, pitchers, covered sugars, relish dishes, or compotes. We didn’t realize when we started how many pieces would be necessary to make a pattern-matching service viable; multiply the number of patterns by the number of forms of patterns and its a lot. I also have a virtual museum where people have sent me photos plus some of my own pieces.
Collectors Weekly: Do you collect all forms of Pattern Glass?
Henderson: We have a lot of forms since it’s such a big collection. My husband used to focus on toothpick holders, so we have more of those than anything. Among other things I focus on pickle casters with original lids and covered mustard containers. They’re hard to find and they’re not too large, especially mustard containers. We also have a lot of toy pattern glass, hundreds of pieces because we buy it and nobody knows what it is (it’s children’s dishes made out of pattern glass). There’s maybe not more than 12 or 15 patterns that matched exactly in the toy sets. There’s a lot of new toy sets made now but we only have the 19th Century ones.
If I’m really looking for something I’ll contact one of 10 or 15 people I know who have large collections and see if they have it. We’ve bought in the filthiest of the low down flea markets and from the highest antique stores in Houston. We’ve bought mostly just in regular antique stores, but they’re going away!
Collectors Weekly: How many forms are typically in a pattern?
Henderson: A couple of patterns were made in almost 100 forms. Many patterns were made only in a goblet or bread plate. Basically, most patterns started with a goblet, some would have some table sets, which are the first serving sets a pattern would have. A table set is a spooner, covered butter, covered sugar, and a creamer. It’s called a 4-piece table set, and that’s the rock bottom basic set.
If there’s more than a table set in a pattern it will have a celery vase. Which is weird, because we’re talking about the 1850s through the turn of the century and it was poor people’s glass and poor people couldn’t afford celery. Nobody can figure out why almost every pattern with more than a table set has a celery vase. It makes no sense, because they all ate tomatoes but there’s no tomato dish. Some people think it was kind of a status symbol, but I’m not buying that, not for every pattern. These people were not that kind of people.
The people who owned pattern glass initially were people of the earth, merchants, farmers, and ministers. My paternal grandfather was a physician in Arkansas and my maternal great grandfather was a minister & a circuit rider (who rode around and performed weddings and funerals in small towns where there was no minister) in Oklahoma. Both of their wives used the same pattern. So that’s the pattern that we collect and I have just about everything made in that pattern. It’s called Feather, also called Doric.
Collectors Weekly: How many patterns are there?
Henderson: Probably about 1300, nobody knows for sure. One thing about pattern glass that’s a given, there are no general rules about pattern glass without exceptions, which makes it hard to learn about. For example, typically a pattern costs more in green, less in clear, and much more expensive in amber stained, because one is more or less common than the other. But there are a few patterns that were most widely made in the amber stain and more in green than clear.
There aren’t many dealers in pattern glass who I would call specialists. Very few pattern glass folks consider themselves “experts” because the subject is so vast and more is continually being learned about it. Hundreds of factories produced it over 60 or 70 years so there were a lot of variations and there have been a lot of reproductions. It’s not something where you can just look in one book, we have 180 books on pattern glass.
Collectors Weekly: Who were some of the big manufacturers of pattern glass?
Henderson: There were hundreds of factories that made pattern glass between 1850 and 1910 and none of them lasted through that entire era. Some of the better known names are Northwood, The U.S. Glass Company, Heisey, Fostoria, Bryce Brothers, Higbee, Ripley, and Duncan. McKee is also a great one, they made the feather pattern. Gillinder and Sons in Philadelphia made some of the best and most popular patterns. I like all of those manufacturers I just named.
Of course the English made pattern glass too, but their patterns are different, more individual pieces instead of place settings or table sets. We specialize solely in American pressed glass. EAPG means Early American Pattern Glass.
A lot of companies changed their names over the years because they changed owners, went bankrupt, or burned. A lot of factories burned, because of the production process and they had wood buildings. Many factories started up in New England on the coast, in Massachusetts, and then they jumped out to Pennsylvania, mostly to Pittsburgh. Then they followed the Ohio River Valley into West Virginia, Ohio, and Indiana.
“Nobody can figure out why almost every pattern with more than a table set has a celery vase.”
The precursor to pattern glass was the first manufactured product in America, back in the 1700s. You don’t find that glass anymore, it’s in museums. But it wasn’t really pattern glass because it was blown not pressed. In the 1820s, they invented the pressing glass machine, but the kind of glass they made at first was crude, really thick and wavy. They used it for drawer pulls. It had so many impurities in it that they used very busy patterns and most of it has dots all over it. It’s called lacy glass because of the dots, there was no smooth, clear section of it. It was crumby glass, usually chipped when it came out of the mold, so if you find lacy glass without chips, it’s very likely a reproduction.
Then in the 1840s they started making some higher quality pieces of glass that people could use, making it possible for poor people to own glass dishes. It was cheaper to make than blown glass. Rich people had glass from Europe, but poor people drank out of tin cups and ate off wooden plates. It’s so interesting to me about how it must have made the women feel to have their first glass dishes after only having tin. There wasn’t any other glass so the only competition was from other manufacturers. Even when patterns were patented, other companies had no compunction about stealing them. They frequently copied popular patterns and that accounts for variations in some patterns.
Collectors Weekly: What is “sun purple”?
Henderson: Flint glass was the first glass pressed. They used the flint as a clearing agent to made the glass clearer. It would be a greenish color and they figured out that if they put lead in it, it would clear up the color cast. They did that in the 1840s and 50s. In the 1860s, during the Civil War, the lead was needed for bullets so somebody came up with the idea of using manganese to clear the glass instead of lead. It was much cheaper and available. They did not know that the inclusion of manganese caused the glass to turn purple if it was exposed to ultraviolet light from the sun. They used that formula for 50 years.
At some point somebody realized that old glass turned purple in the sun over time and decided it was fun and pretty. Eventually people figured out that those germicidal lamps in labs could do the same thing as the sun in a matter of weeks instead of months. It became a fad and it grew in certain parts of the country, not back east, but out in southern California and Arizona, they started doing thousands and thousand of pieces. People back east didn’t know about it, and it was sold as an antique for high prices. It started in about the 1970s and didn’t get really big until five years ago. Basically sun purple is a ruined American antique, it’s irreversible, and a travesty to history to alter an antique. But, people are becoming educated, I’m getting the word out and it’s slowly going away. I’ll keep going until it’s gone.
Collectors Weekly: How do you identify reproduction pattern glass?
Henderson: In clear glass, the main clue is it doesn’t glow yellow under a black light in a dark room. But the inverse of that statement is not true. If it does glow yellow, you can’t tell if its old or new. The second thing is the weight. Reproductions are usually heavier than the original. Also, reproduction glass feels slick and oily compared to old glass, so if you run your finger over it, it’s not going to be sharp.
Most reproductions are easy to tell if you have an old piece and a new piece. The trick is to be able to tell when you have just one piece. You have to feel a lot of glass, it’s a tactile expertise you get from experience. A lot of dealers in the Early American Pattern Glass Society, many of whom are sadly going out of business, were so good to mentor us as beginners. Bill & I spend a lot of time building our web site to help people new to the field, out of respect for those who went before us.
Collectors Weekly: Where do you do most of your research?
Henderson: Books. There have been some really good books on factories. Those are the best books, about individual manufacturers, because the writers confine themselves just to the patterns from those companies.
There are a lot of books on forms, too. And books on patterns that reflect historical events like political events. There’s a pattern called Liberty Bell made by Gillinder in 1876. There are also patterns named after states, most of the states that were states back then have a state pattern named after them.
The closest thing to a pattern glass bible that people go to for values and information are the Reilly & Jenks books – the first edition is from the late 1980s and the second is from 2002. There are some really terrible books about pattern glass and some really good books about pattern glass. I have pointed out both the good and the bad in our web site book store.
Collectors Weekly: Any advice for someone just starting to collect pattern glass?
Henderson: Go to PatternGlass.com and read “Ask Granny” and go to Pattern Glass School. Buy a couple of the good books. Then buy pieces that you think are good and research and study them. I started with the Metz books, they’re the best to start with because they’re just goblets, and there’s really good advice about the patterns and designs. I’d only buy from dealers who know pattern glass, but there are not a lot of dealers who are very knowledgeable.
Collectors Weekly: Anything else you’d like to mention?
Henderson: I want to stress the sun purple issue, that it’s out there and that people are still altering history. It’s a crisis in the pattern glass world because pattern glass is going away, and turning it purple is making it go away even faster.
Also, I’ve also had some really funny stories and good friendships made through collecting and dealing. Some women call me and tell me their life stories and I don’t even know them. It’s such a small world. It’s a fun thing, I help a lot of people and a lot of people help me.
(All images in this article courtesy The Pattern Glass School)