Tuesday, April 18, 2017

The Purity of Milk Glass



QUESTION: I just purchased a service for eight of milk glass dishes made by Westermoreland Glass of Pennsylvania at an estate sale. The set seems complete and came with serving dishes, a meat platter, and beautiful hand-painted dessert plates. It’s a stunning set, but I know nothing about it. What can you tell me about my set?

ANSWER: Your set of dishes only dates from the late 1940s or early 1950s, so it isn’t that old. By this time, the Westmoreland Glass Company specialized in making opaque white milk glass and was the leading manufacturer of it in the country.

In 1889, a group of men purchased  the Specialty Glass Company of East Liverpool, Ohio. They relocated the firm to Grapeville, Pennsylvania, to take advantage of the area’s abundant supply of natural gas. By the following year, two brothers, George and Charles West, had begun to oversee the production of tumblers, goblets, pitchers, and glass novelty items.

George and Charles West eventually became majority stockholders in the company.  They decided to buy out the Ohio founders and enlisted the help of Ira Brainard, a financial backer from nearby Pittsburgh, and changed the firm’s name to the Westmoreland Specialty Company.

Brainard’s son, James J. Brainard, became an officer in the company in 1924. At that time, Westmoreland mainly produced glass tableware, mustard jars, and candy containers.

Operation of the factory ran smoothly for nearly 30 years. During this period, Westmoreland produced virtually every type of glassware, from inexpensive pressed glass to pricier cut glass. Disagreements between the two brothers eventually resulted in George leaving the company, which Charles ran on his own. Around the same time, Charles changed the name of the company to Westmoreland Glass Company to eliminate the confusion among consumers about what a “specialty” company might actually produce—adding the word “glass” made the company’s mission clear.

Throughout World War I, the Westmoreland Glass Company manufactured and distributed intricately molded, candy-filled glass jars in the shapes of automobiles, trains, and even revolvers to newsstands and dime stores across the U.S. The jars were made of high-quality milk glass, or opal, a signature material that distinguished Westmoreland glass from its competitors.

In the 1920s, Charles added a large decorating department, which allowed for the distribution of impressive crystal and decorated ware. But it was milk glass that kept the company in the black. Indeed, over 90 percent of all Westmoreland glass produced between the 1920s and 1950s was milk glass.

In 1937, Charles West retired and sold his interest to the Brainard family, which controlled the company until 1980. In the 1940s, the Brainards phased out the high-quality hand-decorated glass and began to produce primarily milk glass. James J. Brainard’s son, James H. Brainard, took over the firm upon the death of his father.

Thanks to their high level of craftsmanship, many considered Westmoreland milk glass pieces to be the finest in the country. Many of the patterns produced in the 1950s  capitalized on the material’s earlier popularity. Among the most successful patterns were Paneled Grape, Old Quilt, Quilted, English Hobnail, Beaded Edge, and American Hobnail.

The Beaded Edge pattern was Westmoreland’s own creation. It can be found in both plain and decorated milk glass.  Beaded Fruit was the most popular hand-painted decoration for these wares. There are eight different fruits represented—apples, pears, plums, strawberries, blackberries, cherries, grapes, and peaches. Items bearing these fruit decorations are usually harder to find.

Hand-painted birds are another decoration that Westmoreland used on its Beaded Edge wares.  The dessert plates in this set would have been a special order, so they’re scarce today. Some Beaded Edge wares also featured floral decorations.

As the 1950s drew to a close, though, the popularity of milk glass waned. Westmoreland struggled through the 1970s, and by the time the 1980s rolled around, the company needed a new owner to stay afloat. The enthusiastic David Grossman purchased Westmoreland in 1981, but despite a valiant effort to revive the business, interest in milk glass just wasn’t there. On January 8, 1984, almost 100 years after its founding, the factory shut down.

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