Published: July 19, 2011
History has long been made in this small city nestled amid the mountain ranges that run through the midwestern portion of this state. From the humble beginning of one of America’s most important glass factories, the Steuben Glass Works in 1903, to the foundation of the Corning Museum of Glass in 1951 and to the recently developed Corning Incorporated product that is fitted to the finest flat-screen televisions on the market today †affectionately known as Gorilla Glass® †Corning, the city, museum and the company, has always been synonymous with the world’s most exquisite glass.
Conceived of as an educational institution and founded in 1950 by Corning Glass Works (now Corning Incorporated), the museum has never been a showcase for the company or its products, but rather it exists as a nonprofit institution that preserves and expands the world’s understanding of glass.
When the museum opened to the public in 1951, it contained a significant collection of glass, glass-related books and documents; there were 2,000 objects, two staff members and a research library †all housed in a low slung, glass-walled building.
Under its first director, Thomas S. Buechner, the museum continued to assemble a comprehensive collection of glass from around the world, and its library acquired rare books related to the history of glassmaking. The summer of 1972 marked disaster when a nearby river overflowed its banks and poured 5 feet of floodwater into the museum. The museum reopened that same year amid extensive conservation, Buechner describing the flood as “possibly the greatest single catastrophe borne by an American museum.”
A Gunnar Bikerts-designed addition was conceived in 1979, creating a flowing series of galleries with the library at their core, linked to the old building via light-filled, windowed ramps. With memories of the hurricane still fresh in the minds of museum officials, the new galleries were raised high above flood level on concrete pillars. An opening celebration took place on May 28, 1980, exactly 29 years after it first opened its doors to the public.
In 1996, under the directorship of Dr David Whitehouse, the museum embarked upon the first phase of a planned five-year, $65 million transformation. Architects Smith-Miller + Hawkinson designed an addition using glass wherever possible to convey the beauty and elegance of the materials in the building itself. The museum’s renovation was completed in time for its 50th anniversary in 2001 and included a new sculpture gallery (now the Contemporary Glass Gallery), a hot glass show demonstration stage and a hands-on Innovation Center.
Today, in clebration of its 60th year as a cultural and learning institution, the Corning Museum of Glass is once again setting the standard for exquisite glass with two remarkable special exhibitions, “Mt Washington and Pairpoint: American Glass from the Gilded Age to the Roaring Twenties,” on view through December 31, and “East Meets West: Cross-Cultural Influences In Glassmaking in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries,” open through October 30,
Mt Washington and Pairpoint glass, which rivaled both Tiffany and Steuben during its heyday in the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries, became one of America’s longest-running luxury glass companies from 1837 to 1957. Working individually and eventually together after merging, they constantly reinvented and reinvigorated the world of glass through creativity in texture, decorating techniques, variety of styles, patterns and coloration.
The earliest glass associated with the companies was produced in southeastern Massachusetts, originating with a small glass house in South Boston founded by Deming Jarves in 1837 in the vicinity of a small hill known as Mount Washington. At some point in the early 1850s, glass produced at the factory first carried the name of Mount Washington.
The factory relocated to the seaport city of New Bedford in 1870, producing a diversified selection of pressed glass, fine cut and engraved glass and lighting. More important, during this period, under the management of William Libbey and renamed the Mt Washington Glass Manufactury Company, it introduced a series of innovative and exotic glass formulas, along with decorative treatments. These efforts firmly established New Bedford as the “art glass capital” of the country and one that rivaled factories throughout the world.
“Although the companies pioneered a range of novel and creative glass styles that experimented with texture, decoration, pattern and color, they have not garnered the same level of recognition as their contemporaries,” says Jane Shadel Spillman, the Corning Museum’s curator of American glass, referring to rivals Steuben and Tiffany. “Through more than 150 objects, this exhibition will showcase the companies’ role as purveyors of innovative luxury items in a period of exuberant growth and prosperity in the United States.” The exhibition focuses the companies’ distinctive output from the years 1880‱930.
One such product was Burmese glass, with its delicate salmon pink and translucent yellow colors. Examples of Burmese glass were sent in 1886 to both President Grover Cleveland and Queen Victoria and they created an instant sensation.
Of particular note from the exhibition is a Burmese vase, circa 1885, shaded from a deep pink at the neck to a yellow at the base. The artist has taken full advantage of the color scheme, producing a pleasing Middle Eastern image with a traveler seated on an Oriental carpet on what appears to be yellow sands at the base with mountains in the background and a camel standing tall in the pink skies, suggesting a dramatic sunset.
Englishman Frederick Shirley was brought in to run Mt Washington’s chandelier department in 1872, and a mere two years later, he was promoted to head up the entire company. In 1878, Shirley introduced Sicilian glass, referred to today as lava glass. It would become the first artistic glassware patented by the firm. Perhaps a marketing scheme, this shiny black glass was said to include volcanic lava among its ingredients. A large ornamental vase with blue and red abstract inclusions, circa 1878, is on view.
Shirley was said to be entrepreneurial, but at the same time also very protective and litigious. He was quick to incorporate new designs into the lineup of wares, and equally quick to voice displeasure if he thought other firms were copying Mt Washington’s wares. Shirley is credited with a total of 27 patents during his time with the glass manufacturer and five separate design patents for various types of glass.
At the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia, the company displayed a 17-foot-high crystal fountain illuminated with 120 gas jets that, to quote a visitor to the fair, “presented a spectacle of fairy beauty almost beyond imagination.”
In 1880, the Pairpoint Manufacturing Company, named after its first superintendent, Englishman Thomas J. Pairpoint, who was considered one of the greatest silver designers in both England and America, was established in New Bedford. Working in conjunction with the Mt Washington operation, Pairpoint provided the firm with attractive silver-plated metal mounts that would be fitted to glasswares. The companies thrived, and in 1894 they merged and the combined firm was renamed the Pairpoint Corporation in 1900.
Marking a period when colorful glass was in vogue in middle-class America, Mt Washington produced other outstanding art glass lines, including “Bronze glass” that suggested the iridescent shimmer of excavated ancient glass. Amberina wares were shaded imperceptibly from ruby red to rich amber. Peachblow, Crown Milano, Royal Flemish, Cameo, Pearl Satin and Coraline glass were as popular among buyers then as they are with collectors today.
A Royal Flemish vase, circa 1893, denotes the opulence of the period with base colorations of opaque to blue to purple overlaid with an extravagant gold peacock that is further decorated in complementary colors.
Lighting became central to Pairpoint’s success in the late Nineteenth Century, first with kerosene lamps, and later, with the invention of the light bulb, the new and visually striking electroliers became popular. Creating elaborate metal bases and intricately and colorfully designed reverse painted shades, Pairpoint took a lead role in the lighting industry alongside other manufacturers, such as Handel and Tiffany. The lamps became immediately popular, especially the mold-blown sculptural shades known as “puffy” versions, usually painted to look like clusters of flowers. An exquisite example on view has a 3409 lamp base topped with an Azaleas shade, produced circa 1900.
Pairpoint Corporation went out of business in 1937. Briefly revived as the Gundersen-Pairpoint Glass Company, it closed permanently in 1957.
Released in conjunction with the exhibition is the lavish reference book Mt Washington & Pairpoint Glass, Volume Two by the late Kenneth M. Wilson and Corning’s Jane Shadel Spillman. This book realizes Wilson’s dream to complete the history of America’s second oldest glass manufacturer, and the historian was able to finish chapters on Crown Milano and Albertine wares prior to his death in 2005. With the assistance of several researchers and various institutions, Spillman was able to include a wealth of information never before published. Available from the Corning Museum Shop, the hardcover edition sells bundled with Volume One for a discounted price of $125, or Volume Two is available by itself at $95.
East Meets West
“East Meets West: Cross-Cultural Influences in Glassmaking in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries” explores influences in glassmaking that resulted from cultural exchange between the East and West, and documents stylistic developments in Western Europe and East Asia during the early modern period. The exhibition consists of 90 pieces selected from the museum’s collection.
The extension of the Silk Road to Italy in the age of Marco Polo (1254‱324) brought Eastern goods to Europe, where such exotica was treasured by influential tastemakers, such as Grand Duke Ferdinando I de’Medici and Elector Christian I of Saxony. Both became enthusiastic collectors of Chinese porcelain, sparking a demand that spread beyond the courts. This growing fascination with porcelain goods inspired imitation, and scientists throughout Europe attempted to replicate the material.
Through a range of museum objects from the early modern period, the exhibition documents the European adoption of traditional Asian styles and iconography, and it examines the largely overlooked impact of Westerners †missionaries, alchemists and craftsmen †in the East.
“Until now, scholars have tended to focus primarily on the influence of Eastern decorative styles on Western markets and objects,” said curator of European glass Florian Knothe. “With this exhibition, we will showcase an incredible cultural and technological exchange that is, in fact, much more textured and fluid, with channels of influence running in both directions. The role of Western craftsmen and scientists in facilitating advancements in Eastern glass manufacturing cannot be overlooked.”
The exhibition explores cross-cultural influences in technology, scientific experimentation and decoration among glassmakers in Europe, China and Japan in the Eighteenth and Ninetenth Centuries, as well as the development of new glassmaking techniques and formulas in the East.
Other special exhibitions currently on view include “Masters of Studio Glass: Toots Zynsky” and “Mirror to Discovery: The 200-inch Disk and the Hale Reflecting Telescope at Palomar.” Not to be missed is the permanent collection of early American glass. More than 45,000 objects are on view at the Corning Museum of Glass, documenting more than 3,500 years of glassmaking history.
The museum is at One Museum Way. For information, www.cmog.org , 607-937-5371 or 800-732-6845.
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