Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Glassware for the Rich and Famous

QUESTION: My mother was extremely proud of her good glassware and china, which originally belonged to her mother. She would lovingly take it out of her china closet for each special holiday dinner. Boy, how those glasses did shine. I’ve always wondered about what type of glassware this was. My grandmother particularly liked cut glass, and these glasses—water goblets, wine, champagne, etc—had delicate floral designs cut into them. Some told me that they may have been made by the Seneca Glass Company, but I’m not sure. What can you tell me about this company and the glassware that they produced?

ANSWER: From the photo you sent, I can definitely tell you that your grandmother had fine taste, for these pieces are definitely by Seneca Glass. By the early 1920s, the company offered a new line of deep-etched glassware. Your grandmother’s pieces most likely were in this group.

In 1891, a group of immigrant glass artisans and businessmen from Germany's Black Forest region settled in Seneca, Ohio. Seeking to take advantage of the opportunities available in the American glass market, they purchased the former Fostoria Glass Company factory and established the Seneca Glass Company, named after the county where the factory stood and the local Indian tribe of the same name.

But the lure of cheap natural gas, free land, abundant quality glass sand within easy reach, and a city subsidy was too much to resist, so the owners moved the company to Morgantown, West Viriginia. in 1896. They kept the name and over time, the firm
developed a reputation for creating some of the finest lead crystal glassware available anywhere.

Embassies used it, Eleanor Roosevelt bought it, and Americans with finer taste and a pocketbook to match loved it. Seneca produced quality, delicate, mold-blown glassware in a wide variety of forms for the next 86 years. It became known for its striking cut glass patterns. Some of the patterns were so complex, they took an experienced cutter 12 hours to complete. Later years, company owners boasted that Seneca had more than1,000 cut glass patterns available.

Popularity grew quickly as the word got out in social circles. Large-scale retail stores all over the country began ordering Seneca products. Over the years, Seneca Glass received orders from B. Altman's and Tiffany's in New York, Marshall Fields and Company in Chicago, Neiman-Marcus in Dallas, the Ritz Carlton Hotel in Boston, and the Sheraton Palace Hotel in San Francisco. Philadelphia's highly regarded John Wanamaker Department Store, placed an order for 218 dozen glassware items, all cut with the crest of the president of Liberia which the company planed to sell him for his executive mansion.

Not to be outdone by private organizations and foreign powers, the U.S. State Department ordered Seneca crystal for 30 American embassies and consulates in 1944 and 1945.

While searching for glassware for a special occasion, Eleanor Roosevelt chose stems in an obsolete Seneca pattern, being sold at the reduced price of 25 cents each. These she chose over patterns offered by the store's staff from famous firms, expensive glassware items priced in excess of $50 a dozen. Mrs. Roosevelt used her bargain Seneca glassware at a State dinner held in honor of England's King George VI.

Mrs. Roosevelt wasn’t the last person associated with the White House to order Seneca glass. Ladybird Johnson purchased peach champagne glasses in Seneca’s Epicure pattern for Vice President Lyndon Johnson. Each glass had the vice president's initials, LBJ, and an Open Road Stetson hat, her husband's trademark headgear, etched on it.  Jacqueline Kennedy also used Seneca glassware in the White House.
Today, Seneca glassware is highly prized and actively sought by an ever-growing group of collectors with impeccable taste.

Seneca’s glassware was handmade and mold blown. Glass blowers produced such glassware by first gathering a small, molten blob of glass on the end of a hollow pipe or rod. By plowing through the pipe and manipulating it in certain ways, a glass worker would pre-shape the slowly cooling, glowing mass. The blower then inserted the pre-shaped "gather" into an iron mold—a mold that a skilled Seneca artisan had produced. Blowing into the pipe forced the hot glass to conform to the shape of the inside of the mold.

Depending on the specific object being produced, several operations could follow. For example, on stemware, the molding of the stem and foot might be done with forms and paddles or an intricate stem might be produced using a mold. Once the glass worker formed an item, he annealed or reheated it and allowed it to cool gradually and uniformly to avoid uneven cooling that would shatter the glass in an oven called a lehr. Other workers would then send the cooled object on for finishing, including the removal of excess glass, grinding and polishing.

One glass decorating technique, the “optic,” directly involved the shape of the interior of the mold itself. The interior of the mold could be shaped in panels, pillars, spirals, swags, and other interesting shapes. These shapes become part of the shape of the body of the glass formed in the optic mold. Seneca used this technique to create a variety of pleasing optics.

Seneca also produced wares decorated with needle and plate etchings and sandblasted decorations. Artisans also used other decorative techniques, including banding and metallic decorations. While elegantly cut lead crystal would be what came to consumers' minds first when they thought of Seneca glass, the company did offer a variety of colored glassware. The quantities of colorful glasses and tablewares available fluctuated over the decades, reflecting changes in public taste. Colored glassware would be offered in larger amounts during the later years, beginning around the 1960s.
Some of Seneca's specific glassware forms included goblets, sherbets or champagnes, cocktails, oyster cocktails, sherries, wine glasses, clarets, and cordial glasses classified as "stemware;" ice teas, hi-balls, old fashioneds, juices, and water glasses grouped as "tumblers;" along with a variety of decorative glassware" or "artware," including bowls, candle-holders, and vases.

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