Tuesday, November 27, 2012

‘Tis the Season for Cranberry

QUESTION: Every year at Thanksgiving, I bring out a set of eight sparkling pink glasses that used to be belong to my great-grandmother. They seem so festive and add a holiday note to our dining table. Can you tell me anything about these glasses?

ANSWER: Your glasses are made of cranberry glass, a very special type of glass favored by Victorian hostesses, especially around the holidays. Not only is this glass appropriate for the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays, but it’s also a popular collectible. In fact, some pieces are worth too much to be used for fear of breakage.

Although glassblowers had been making colored glass since ancient Egypt, it was Johann Kunckel, a 17th-century German chemist from Potsdam, who came up with the red color by adding gold chloride to the clear crystal. During the 19th century, English and American glassblowers experimented with adding less gold choride, resulting in a pink glass which the Americans called “cranberry.”

And thanks to the virtuosity of these glassblowers there seems to be an endless variety of shapes and patterns of this glass on the market. In addition to tumblers and water pitchers, there are salt cellars, sugar shakers, cruets, jars, jugs, decanters, celery vases and finger bowls. Among the widely used patterns are "Swirl," "Coin Dot," and "Daisy & Fern." Some of the most rare and expensive items found from this time period are beautiful lamps and other lighting fixtures.
As with any collectible, cranberry glass can also be an investment. Pieces that sold for less than ten dollars a generation ago are now worth hundreds of dollars. Because of the natural fragility of glass, antique cranberry glass has become relatively scarce, though it does turn up in thrift and antique shops,  flea markets, and auctions.           

Although cranberry glass had peaked in popularity by the end of the 19th century, manufacturers produced it in quantity through the 1930s. The last two companies to make this unique glass—The Pilgrim Glass Corporation and Fenton Art Glass —went out of business early this century. Pilgrim Glass Company produced beautiful blown cranberry glass ranging from various vases and baskets to candle holders and sold them in department stores and gift shops around the country until 2001. At the time if the company's closing, cranberry was its most popular type of glass. Fenton Art Glass marketed new cranberry glass, featuring opalescent decoration with coin dots, daisy patterns and numerous other styles, through retailers around the country until it closed in 2011.

Cranberry glass has always been made in craft production rather than in large quantities, due to the high cost of the gold and the delicate mixing process required. Glassmakers dissolve the gold chloride in a solution of nitric acid and hydrochloric acid, known as “aqua regia.” Gold in the batch reacts with intense heat to create the beautiful cranberry color. A glassworker called a “caser” attaches a “bud” of this glass mixture to a blowpipe. Then the glassblower stands on a platform with the mold below his feet and blows the molten glass into the mold to create the desired shape. Afterwards, another glassworker places the piece in a “lehr” or annealing oven where it slowly cools to room temperature. Most cranberry pieces are hand blown or molded and often contain small bubbles and striations.