Thursday, May 2, 2013

The Pattern in My Family's Glass

Read the published version of Library Director Charlotte Canelli's column in the May 3, 2013 edition of the Norwood Transcript and Bulletin.

When I was a very young child, my mother whisked my brother and me from Massachusetts to a brand-new life on the Northern California coast. About a month later, a moving van deposited our family’s modest trove of clothing, pastimes and treasures into our new home in Berkeley. As a little girl, I was much more absorbed in my own sorely-missed belongings and I hardly noticed my mother unwrapping her own treasures, tucking them into cabinets and closets.

Nevertheless, over the years, I became keenly acquainted with most of these family heirlooms. The Taft Family Revolutionary War sword and the Bruce Family Civil War medals were displayed with much pride. My great-grandmother’s hand-sewn quilt lay in a chest wrapped in tissue. Six antique glass goblets and a matching pitcher sat front and center in a china cabinet, rarely used.

I admit those glasses never impressed me much. They were stout and thick and bore lines up the stems. Stored in a cabinet, the sunlight never emphasized the fine honeycomb pattern that covered their bowls.

In my late twenties, I inherited the family goblets after my mother’s death. I had plenty of glassware and crystal myself, and the goblets sat ignored at the back of a shelf. Years later, after yet another move, they were left unpacked and all but forgotten.

Not long ago, I rediscovered the goblets. For sentimental and practical reasons, I decided to begin using them. These were my mother’s treasures, and I decided I would find out more about them.

I knew where to start.

With the help of librarians at our library, the Internet and our Minuteman Library catalog, it didn’t take long to discover that there was a wealth of recorded history behind these simple water glasses.

Early American Pattern Glass (EAPG) or pressed glass has an marvelous story in America. Two companies in Massachusetts held distinction in creating pressed glass – the New England Glass Company in Cambridge and the Boston and Sandwich Glass Company on Cape Cod. The latter, in fact, was started by an owner of the former.

A few years after these companies fired up their furnaces, the glass pressing machine was invented. Hot glass was poured into metal molds, and amazing production of tons of glass in began in 1825 and continued through the 1880s. Glass companies opened across the New England and the rest of the country.

Wealthy homes showed off blown and cut glass from Europe. It was expensive with a definite European design. American glass, however, could be afforded by the average family. Middle-class housewives bought hundreds of pieces of this inexpensive glassware in entire sets for everyday use – plates, cups, saucers, goblets, pitchers, sugar bowls and cake stands.

Original EAPG glassware contained lead that gave it brilliance and sharp resonance, or a lovely ring. During and after the Civil War, lead became scarce and expensive. Soon, a lime solution was substituted, and glass factories across the country produced the same pretty pressed glass without the distinctive ring. (The New England Glass Company outside Boston, however, never changed the formula and that glass was always known as leaded, or Flint glass.)

In the late 1880s, a series of debilitating strikes left glass factories across New England without workers or profits. The New England Glass Company was eventually acquired by the Libbey Co. and later moved to Ohio. A few years later, the Boston and Sandwich Company also closed its doors. The original era of clear and brilliant pressed glass ended.

The stem of my heirloom goblets is distinct, and the clear ring indicates that they were made with lead. I spent hours pouring over books in our library and other library collections to find the name of the particular pattern. Over 3000 patterns are believed to have been produced during the half-century of EAPG. Of the honeycomb patterns (a design duplicated many times by dozens of glass factories) there are variations named Pitt, Late Barrel, Vernon, New York, Laredo and Lyston.

I also did research on the Internet. With the additional help of an EAPG specialist/seller, Elaine Henderson from Arizona, I solved the mystery. There in a book, available through the Watertown Public Library, I found my goblet called Bumble Bee Honeycomb. No one really knows exactly where or when they were manufactured, but through my reading it seems to have been produced in Cambridge by the New England Glass Company. The pattern was probably made before the Civil War in the 1850s.

Three women painstakingly researched Early American Pattern Glass beginning in the 1930s through the 1960s. Dr. Minnie Watson Kamm drew and described well over a thousand cream pitchers in her eight-volume series the “The Two Hundred Pattern Glass Pitcher” books, published between 1946 and 1954. Alice Hullet Metz’s two-volume “Early American Pattern Glass” is rich with photographs and description. It was in volume I that I found the Bumble Honeycomb. Ruth Webb Lee is the author of “Ruth Webb Lee’s Handbook of Early American Pressed Glass Patterns”, “American Glass Cup Plates” and “Early American Pressed Glass: A Classification of Patterns Collectible in Sets Together With Individual Pieces for Table Decorations” (editions in 1931 – 1960). She is also the author of “The Sandwich Glass Handbook.”

Because millions of pieces of EAPG were produced for half a century or more, it is not particularly valuable today. EAPG is, however, true American glass that filled the homes of middle-class America and is a treasured American folk art. In the words of Ms. Metz, it is the first “truly American glass” that “played an integral part in American life”.

There are dozens of books describing the era of Early American Pattern Glass in the Minuteman Library catalog ranging from encyclopedias to collector’s handbooks. Price guides are dated, and the most effective way to find replacement pieces and current prices is on the Internet through the Early American Pattern Glass Society or through

Do you have some of America’s early treasures in the cabinets or the cellar in your home? Visit the library’s website and the link to the Minuteman Library Network to put one of these books on hold. You may also call 781-769-0200 and speak to a librarian who will place the request for you.