Monday, January 7, 2019
Let's be Crystal Clear
QUESTION: When I was in fifth grade, my family went on vacation in the lakes region of New York State. While we were there, we visited the Steuben Glass Factory. I marveled at the clear crystal figures and lovely bowls and vases, decorated with delicate engravings. Ever since then, I’ve wanted to collect pieces of Steuben glass, but I have no idea where to begin. Can you help me?
ANSWER: You were right to be enamored of Steuben glass. The company produced some of America’s finest art glass.
Frederick Carder and Thomas G. Hawkes founded Steuben Glass Works in the summer of 1903 by in Corning, New York, which is in Steuben County, from which Carder and Hawkes derived the company name. Hawkes was the owner of the largest cut glass firm then operating in Corning. Carder was an Englishman (born September 18, 1863) who had many years' experience designing glass for Stevens and Williams in England. Hawkes purchased the glass blanks for his cutting shop from many sources and eventually wanted to start a factory to make the blanks himself. Hawkes convinced Carder to come to Corning and manage such a factory. Carder, who had been passed over for promotion at Stevens and Williams, consented to do so.
Carder produced blanks for Hawkes and also began producing cut glass himself. Carder loved colored glass and had been instrumental in the reintroduction of colored glass while at Stevens and Williams. When Steuben's success at producing blanks for Hawkes became assured, Carder began to experiment with colored glass and continued experiments that were started in England. He soon perfected Gold Aurene which was similar to iridescent art glass being produced by Tiffany and others. Carder followed Gold Aurene with a wide range of colored art glass that Steuben produced in more than 7,000 shapes and 140 colors.
Steuben Glass Works continued to produce glass of all sorts until World War I. At that time war time restrictions made it impossible for Steuben to acquire the materials it needed. Corning Glass Works eventually purchased the company and made it its Steuben Division. Carder continued as Division manager without any real change in the company's operation except that he now had reporting responsibilities to Corning Glass Works' management. Corning's management tried, mostly unsuccessfully, to limit the articles that Steuben made to only the most popular. Production continued until about 1932.
The Great Depression limited the sale of Steuben, plus its popularity waned. In February 1932, Corning appointed John MacKay to Carder's position, and Carder became Art Director for Corning Glass Works. At that time, Steuben produced primarily clear art glass.
Corning Glass Works appointed Arthur Houghton, Jr. as President in 1933, and under his leadership Steuben changed artistic direction toward more modern forms. Using a newly formulated clear glass developed by Corning which had a very high refraction index, Steuben designers developed beautiful, fluid designs.
Scandinavian techniques, combined with newly developed optical glass composition, replaced it. Steuben hired architects and designers who worked closely with glassworkers. Before then, the engravers had worked at home.
Sculptor Sidney Waugh was among the first to use the new figural engraving techniques for Steuben, with his crystal “Gazelle Bowl.” He created a series of decorative pieces using copper-wheel and diamond point engraving, similar to Scandinavian style.
The themes during this period included "balustrade" designs for water goblets and candlesticks, footed bowls and serving pieces. Decorative forms included wildlife pieces representing owls, penguins and other birds in smooth stylistic forms. Some pieces, such as the Ram's Head Candy Dish, playfully included clean lines crowned by an ornate design (a ram's head, complete with a ruff) on the lid as an homage to its classic earlier pieces.
The company also entered into the field of larger show and presentation pieces celebrating various scenes, such as its cut-away design featuring an Eskimo ice fisherman above the ice and the fish below. In some cases, artisans used sterling silver or gold plating over a metal finish, such as the golden "fly" atop the nose of a rainbow trout. Each piece is signed simply with Steuben on the underside of the object.
World War II cut production of Steuben glass. The company didn’t produce lead crystal pieces until the 1950s. By the mid-1950s, Steuben had begun producing free sculptural pieces.
Toward the 1990s, the company also began production of small objects—"hand coolers"—in various animal shapes.
Items from this period were also noted for their careful and elegant packaging. Before boxing, each Steuben piece was placed in a silver-gray flannel bag (stitched with the Steuben name), and then placed in a presentation box.
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