Collectible Glassware: Early American Pattern Glass
Pressed glass is molded in cast iron, fired at extreme temperatures, and allowed to cool before it is released from the mold. The glass may have two, three, or four seams depending upon the size and shape of the piece. Small items are created with a two-piece mold and larger ones, like compotes, are pressed in a three-piece mold. A four-piece mold is used to make a squared item. The number of mold seams does not indicate the age of the piece, and the seams may be hidden in the pattern.
The history of glassware in America begins in Jamestown. Producing glassware was a labor-intensive process, with much of the work done by hand. Crude molds existed, but the process was time-consuming. Glass blowers could only create one piece at a time. Glassware was expensive and usually only found on the tables of the wealthy.
After the Civil War, as the industrial revolution took hold and many Americans became prosperous, displays of wealth and excessive opulence created a consumer demand for more glassware. By the 1860’s glass making machinery had been improved, and the mass production of high-quality glassware made it affordable for the middle-class family. Setting the table with matching glassware, including plates, bowls, tumblers, creamers, sugar bowls, and other accessories delighted the American housewives.
“Flint” glass is the name given to glassware produced between the 1820’s and the1860’s. Flint had been added to glass formulas since 1670 to create better-quality glassware. Flint was eventually replaced by lead, which gave the glass added clarity, resonance, and weight. The name stuck, however, and flint glass was the finest glassware of the time.
The demand for flint and lead during the Revolutionary War led glass makers to seek a substitute for lead glass. Manufacturers developed formulas using manganese and later selenium. This was known as “lime” glass. By 1872, flint glass was phased out. Some companies advertised white opalescent glass as flint glass in the late 1800’s, but these pieces were lime glass, not lead glass.
Numerous companies manufactured glassware in a huge variety of patterns and several colors. Early patterns were designed to resemble the hand-blown patterns consumers were familiar with. Patterns were simple but as demand grew, they became more intricate and some were designed to imitate expensive cut glass. Some EAPG had additional ornamentation, such as gilding and enameling.
New England was the first region in the United States to manufacture significant amounts of glassware. Leading companies included the Cape Cod Glass Company, Boston & Sandwich Glass Company, Portland Glass Company, and the New England Glass Company. The state of Pennsylvania also manufactured prolific amounts of glassware. Philadelphia was home to one of the earliest glass makers, Gillander, but Pittsburgh became the manufacturing center of the state with such companies as Adams & Company, Bakewell, Pioneer Glass Company, Pears & Company and United States (U.S.) Glass Company. Maryland, Ohio and West Virginia were also home to major manufacturers.
Pressed glass patterns and names would be patented by the manufacturer as they were developed. Each pattern would be introduced in small quantities to test market its popularity with consumers. As a result, some collectible pattern glass is available in only limited patterns or colors, while others are numerous and readily found. It is estimated that there are over 3000 different patterns, although only about 1000 patterns were made in large quantities or full table settings. Companies would create patterns similar to their competitors most popular designs, and many glass companies combined efforts to produce and market glassware. As a result, the same pattern was often made by many different manufacturers.
Carnival and Custard glass are pressed glass that imitated expensive art glass. Simpler designs were the vogue in the early 20th Century, and sleek Art Nouveau and Art Deco patterns became popular.
Around 1920, pressed glass fell out of favor with American housewives, and crystal glassware imported from Europe became the “in” thing. When the Freat Depression hit, and consumers could no longer afford crystal and fine glassware, the production of fine pattern glass declined. Some glass makers went out of business, while others manufactured poor-quality pressed glassware known as “Depression” glass. Depression glass was inexpensive and often given away to consumers as a premium by businesses seeking customers.
After WWII, interest in pressed glass began to wane, although a few companies continued production. A. H. Heisey, Cambridge, Imperial and Fostoria dominated the pressed glass market in the 20th Century, and their enormous variety of patterns and long-term production created a collecting interest that goes beyond their patterned pieces.
Patterns continue to rise and fall in popularity with collectors, and price variation will be encountered, although it is rare to find rapid price jumps in a particular color or pattern. Prices seldom vary by geography when searching for fine Early American pattern glass. Scarcity of the older patterns leads to higher prices. Comparison shop, especially at glass shows, where prices may vary greatly between vendors. There has been an introduction of a large number of reproductions, so beware of “bargain” prices. Some collectors will accept reissued pieces, reproductions or fantasy pieces to fill out their own collection, but be sure these are clearly marked in your collection.