Come to the Table: American Pressed Glass

Text by Amanda Dyer, Assistant Director

Come to the Table showcases American pressed glass in the Forsyth Galleries permanent collection from the American Victorian period, which coincided with the height of the product’s manufacture in the United States. In their earliest designs, pressed glass pieces mimicked the opulent cut glass that was used in the homes of wealthy Victorians. But because pressed glass was much less expensive to make, it was affordable to the middle-class, and pressed glass tableware came to be very popular in middle-class and upper middle-class American homes.

Photo of a pedestal footed, 1903, toothpick holder. Holly Amber pattern.
Photo of a pedestal footed, 1903, toothpick holder. Holly Amber pattern. 988.1.0671

History of Pressed Glass Through the early 20th Century

Although ancient Romans first pressed glass into molds, mechanized pressed glass was first developed in the United States in the early 1800s. The creation of a successful machine press mold was the result of a series of patents, testing, and gradual improvements over the course of a decade, approximately 1820-1830. While the first notable patent for machine-made pressed glass was granted to Henry Whitney and Enoch Robinson of the New England Glass Co. in 1826, the development of the end product was truly an industry-wide effort.  The basic pressed glass process involves a blob of hot glass being dropped into a mold, after which a plunger enters the top of the mold, forcing the glass into the mold’s crevices.

Pressed glass proved to be a very lucrative product for many glass factories, because much less expensive unskilled labor could be used to run the mold presses, and because producing thousands of copies of identical pieces made intricate molds more economical. Like factories of other types, glass factories were traditionally situated near fuel, raw materials, and transportation (at first rivers, and later, railroads). The earliest center of pressed glass production was the glassmaking hub of eastern Massachusetts. But the area where eastern Ohio, western Pennsylvania  and northern West Virginia meet later became the nexus of the pressed glass industry upon improvements in transportation and the development of the area’s coal industry.

Photo of a Bowl, pedestal footed, 1898-1910, Argonaut (Nautilus) pattern, 988.1.0797
Photo of a Bowl, pedestal footed, 1898-1910, Argonaut (Nautilus) pattern, 988.1.0797

During the earliest years of mass-production, pressed glass was designed to replicate the styling and design of intricate cut-glass pieces, enabling middle-class citizens to afford pieces similar to their wealthier counterparts.  While pieces were first mostly sold on an individual bases, by the 1840s factories were creating entire sets of patterned tableware, appealing to the middle-class desire to mimic the conspicuous consumption (the spending of money to acquire goods to display accumulated wealth) of the well-to-do. Manufacturers encouraged this practice by producing enormous tableware sets that included such absurdly specific items as honey dishes, mustard jars and marmalade jars, as well as toddy glasses, claret glasses, cordial glasses, wine glasses and champagne glasses, just to name a few. This trend continued through the earliest part of the twentieth century, coinciding with the American Victorian period.

Forsyth Collections Highlights

Photo of a butter dish, covered, c. 1898, Amberette pattern, 988.1.0700
Photo of a butter dish, covered, c. 1898, Amberette pattern, 988.1.0700

Bellflower

After the early convention of copying cut glass patterns in pressed glass, the aesthetic turned to more charming, slightly understated patterns. One of the most popular of these patterns was Bellflower (aka Ribbed Leaf), which included a finely ribbed body overlaid with simple bell-shaped flowers, leaves and berries. Similar patterns were also produced, including Ribbed Acorn, Ribbed Grape, and Ribbed Ivy.  Scholars consider Bellflower to be the first pattern produced in enough separate pieces to be considered a tableware “set.” This pattern was produced in both a single-vine and double-vine design, and dozens of design variants can be found in existing pieces. Because of these many variants, and because of pattern fragments found at the glass factory sites, it is believed that Bellflower was made by many different factories from approximately 1850 to 1870. However, the only documented evidence of a specific factory manufacturing Bellflower is contained in catalogs distributed by McKee & Brothers of Pittsburgh ca. 1864. The Runyon Collection contains over 170 pieces of this particular pattern, which can be seen both on the luncheon table and in a vitrine in the exhibition.

Amberette

Photo of a castor set with stand, revolving, 1850-1870, Bellflower pattern, 988.1.0318
Photo of a castor set with stand, revolving, 1850-1870, Bellflower pattern, 988.1.0318

The Amberette pattern, produced c. 1898 by the Dalzell, Gilmore and Leighton Glass Co., in Findlay, Ohio, was also known during its

production as English Hobnail Cross, Alaska, and 75 or 75D. The pattern includes a frosted glass ground, with a faceted cross pattern. In some cases, as in the examples in the Runyon Collection, the cross pattern is tinted an amber color. The pattern was also offered in versions with clear glass and with ruby-tinting instead of amber. A report in a January 1898 issue of China, Glass and Lamps called the ware “probably the most original and unique in design of any shown this season.” Later collectors have called the pattern Klondike, perhaps because of the earlier Alaska designation.

Caffey Eying Rare Homer Painting from Forsyth Gallery Collection “Winding the Clock,” by Winslow Homer.

Written by Guest Author Richard Nira

Photo of Dr. Stephen Caffey
TAMU College of Architecture art historian Stephen Caffey

A rare work in Texas A&M’s Forsyth Galleries by Winslow Homer, a preeminent figure in U.S. art history, is receiving its first-ever scholarly attention from Stephen Caffey, assistant professor of architecture at Texas A&M.

“His work captured the complexity of American identity in the late 19th century because, beginning with the Civil War, he was able to represent the conflict between North and South and changing gender roles without taking a stand,” said Caffey.

Photo of Winslow Homer
Winslow Homer

The largely self-taught, Homer (1836-1910) was a versatile artist who worked in a wide range of subjects, styles and mediums.

Last year, after being asked to participate in the Forsyth Gallery brown bag lunch and lecture series, Caffey learned of a Homer piece in the collection and opted to make the painting his lecture topic.

Caffey, who studied Homer’s work extensively in graduate school and is familiar with his catalog, was expecting to see a watercolor from Homer’s Adirondacks series, which depict deer hunting and fishing scenes created for businessmen who felt disconnected from nature because they were working in office buildings on the East Coast.

“As soon as I saw the piece in the Runyon collection my heart leapt because I knew no one had done any scholarship on it at all,” said Caffey. “I didn’t even know it existed.”

Winslow Homer's painting "Winding the Clock"
Winslow Homer’s “Winding the Clock” (click to enlarge)

Caffey has since learned that the piece, “Winding the Clock,” was published only once, prior to an 1881 New York watercolor exhibition.

The painting depicts a single woman in a claustrophobic interior space standing on a stool, blowing the dust off a key she’s holding to a grandfather clock.

“In addition to being technically astonishing because it shows a woman in a white dress with a lot of detail, which is almost impossible to do in a watercolor, it also presents a woman in a way we’d never seen before in American painting,” said Caffey.

Among the topics “Winding the Clock” addresses, he said, are single women in wealthy and well educated households, the potential symbolic meaning of winding the clock and the passage of time.

“The fact that it’s part of the Runyon collection is like finding the Titanic in terms of its potential to improve scholarly understanding of Homer’s work and also to draw attention to the fact that Texas A&M owns this really important and little-known Homer painting,” he said.

Caffey and Nan Curtis, who was director of the Forsyth Galleries at the time, agreed to collaborate on a journal article  which would  detail the painting’s place in the broader series of Homer’s work and do research, partially funded by the Melbern G. Glasscock Center for Humanities Research, investigating its path in private ownership to the Runyon collection.  Since Curtis’ departure, Caffey has continued his research alone.

Caffey‘s effort will involve a trip to the Harvard University library, where the family papers of a Union Civil War officer who originally acquired “Winding the Clock” from Winslow are housed, the Boston Public Library, where a portrait of the officer is located, and Homer’s papers at the Smithsonian Archives of American Art.

After the Civil War, the Union officer told Homer he wanted to buy “Winding the Clock” after seeing it at Homer’s studio, where he was arranging a portrait session. Homer agreed on the condition the sale was completed after the 1881 New York watercolor exhibit.

Caffey said Homer began to attract attention internationally with a painting called “Prisoners From the Front,” displayed at the 1867 World’s Fair in Paris, which drew raves from French art critics.

“It depicts a Union commander with a group of Confederate prisoners,” he said. “In precise and nuanced ways he conveys the complexity and the ambivalence of the lingering tensions inherent after the Civil War.”

Homer’s not saying, continued Caffey, that the Confederate side is “right” or the Union side is “right”.

“What he’s saying is ‘this is a really complicated situation, so let me articulate that complexity in a way that’s permeated with ambivalence,’” said Caffey. “In his work,” he said, ‘I’m not advancing any sort of argument about it, I just want to observe it and present it to you.’”

Many in the U.S. are unaware of Homer’s stature in art history —a reflection, Caffey said, that’s characteristic of the field.

“Art history emphasizes the most obscure, the most esoteric, and most isolated,” he said. “It’s an interesting distortion we really don’t experience in any other type of history, where you always look at what was most popular, most influential, most widely understood.”

Because Homer was working in a traditional academic style, he wasn’t highly regarded by the intelligentsia, the avant-garde,” said Caffey.

The piece was recently on display,  during the grand opening of the newly renovated Forsyth Galleries, located on the 2nd floor of the MSC.

The research project was noted in the Museum Education Monitor, which tracks and records research and resources in museum education with an aim of enhancing the development of theory and practice in the field by academics and museum professionals.

Posted September 2, 2011 in ArchOne: The Newsletter for the Texas A&M College of Architecture. Reprinted with edits by permission of Phillip Rollfing.

Website:  http://one.arch.tamu.edu/news/2011/9/2/homer-painting/

The Marion E. Byrd Majolica Collection

Here are some selections from the Marion E. Byrd Majolica Collection, currently on exhibit at the Forsyth Center Galleries until November 3rd, 2012.  The Majolica (muh-jol-i-kuh) pottery presented in our exhibition dates to the 19th Century and was mainly produced in England during the reign of Queen Victoria.  It was originally conceived as an imitation of Maiolica pottery produced during the Italian Renaissance and imitates its bright colors and playful style.  However, Victorian Majolica pottery also features molded surfaces, a greater range of subject matter (including animal, floral, or whimsical scenes from fairy tales), and food vessels shaped like the food they were meant to hold.

Majolica Fish Vase, Marion E. Byrd Collection, Forsyth Center Galleries

Majolica pottery burst onto the scene in the 1850s and became instantly popular, especially with the growing British middle class created by the Industrial Revolution, as it could by manufactured cheaply and sold at a lower price.  A large number of pottery companies responded to the increased demand for Majolica.  Along with Mintons, Wedgewood, Trent, Royal Worcester, and many others produced Majolica.

Asparagus Dish and Underplate, Marion E. Byrd Collection, Forsyth Center Galleries

Around the time of Queen Victoria’s death in 1901 the market had been so flooded by Majolica pottery that production waned sharply and was quickly superseded by the Art Nouveau movement.  The Byrd Collection is a recent acquisition for our Gallery and displays the range of colors, forms, and subjects that Victorian Majolica pottery presented throughout its production history.

Plate by Villeroy & Boch, Marion E. Byrd Collection, Forsyth Center Galleries
Plate with bird motif, Marion E. Byrd Collection, Forsyth Center Galleries
Fish-shaped plate, Marion E. Byrd Collection, Forsyth Center Galleries
Parrot-shaped pitcher, Marion E. Byrd Collection, Forsyth Center Galleries
Umbrella Stand, Marion E. Byrd Collection, Forsyth Center Galleries
Baby shoe with sand finish, Marion E. Byrd Collection, Forsyth Center Galleries
Multicolored dish, Marion E. Byrd Collection, Forsyth Center Galleries