Pressed glass, in its many variations, has been around for more than 150 years, yet many buyers today know less about these decorative and utilitarian pieces than 50 years ago.
In recent years with the rage for high-priced collectibles and folk art dominating the market, it seems that collectors have all but shunned the field of pressed glass. That isn’t to say that rare patterns and colors do not command good prices, but on the whole there is more supply than demand in this area of collecting.
This trend can be partially blamed on the fact that many of the rarest and most popular patterns have been heavily reproduced, and most dealers and collectors just plain don’t buy if the risk of fraud is high. This is further reinforced by the fact that the average dealer or collector has relatively little experience in the dating or identifying of pressed glass. This leads to the Sandwich syndrome, where all pieces of pressed pattern glass are simply called “Sandwich” because this is the one name with which everyone is familiar.
Although Deming Jarves of the Boston and Sandwich Glass Co. is credited with the first practical machine for pressing glass in the late 1820s, there can be no doubt that small-scale pressing operations had been successful in England and Europe as early as 1800. Many pieces of fine early blown and cut English glass are mounted on bases of pressed glass in a form called the “lemon squeezer foot.”
Whatever the origin, we know that the tremendous demand for domestic utilitarian and decorative glassware in England and America in the second quarter of the 19th century was the factor which led to the founding of several large glasshouses with the capacity to press hundreds of pieces daily with relatively unskilled labor. Before this time, hand-blown glassware with cut or wheel-engraved surfaces was so expensive as to be limited to the wealthy. The advent of inexpensive mass-produced glassware made these products available to virtually anyone.
Typically pressed glass was produced by pouring molten glass into a cast-iron mold with the pattern on the inside. The form was created when a mechanical plunger pressed the glass into the mold. The excess glass was removed in a kiln, after which the surfaces were finished and the final product was cooled in a series of kilns so that the glass would not crack from cooling too fast.
The glasshouses of England and America flourished from the 1840s to the 1880s. During this time, many of the artisans experimented with colors, unusual forms and hundreds of patterns. Some patterns were made for only a short period because they never caught the fancy of the public, while others gained such enduring popularity that they are still being manufactured today.
Special commemorative editions were released to capitalize on the public fascination with coronations, inaugurations and other historic events. The trade of mold maker was one of considerable skill and many of the most skilled at this trade were snapped up by competing glasshouses with offers of greater authority or higher pay. This accounts for the fact that the patterns of many of the big glasshouses are the same. A clever manager could tap into the entire line of a competitor by hiring away its best pattern maker. This was an expensive part of the process and occasionally one may encounter a piece of pressed glass with a flaw or a misprint. These were rarely corrected because of the high cost of remaking a mold.
There were literally hundreds of glasshouses in operation during the 19th century and it is important to familiarize yourself with their familiar patterns, colors and other trademarks if you wish to collect pressed glass. There are many similarities between American and English glass, but there are subtle differences which are of vital importance. These include subject, color and form. The best way to learn is to study museum collections.
Robert Croul of Newburgh is the NEWS antique columnist.