Published: November 9, 2010
From its earliest documented production at Jamestown in 1608, American glass was coveted for its utility and beauty. From the simplest stubby forms to the most sophisticated molded examples, early glass is prized both for the ingenuity it represents, its technological developments and its array of colors. Today’s collectors treasure the irregularities of the preindustrial products that testify to the artistry of the particular maker †especially those produced in New Hampshire.
Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century glass made in a relatively small pocket of New Hampshire is the subject of the current exhibition on view through February 19 at the Peterborough Historical Society, “New Hampshire Glassmakers 1780‱886.”
Five towns that cut a swath across the southernmost pocket of New Hampshire were important glassmaking centers, supplying New Hampshire and a good part of the entire Northeast with high-quality window glass, bottles, flasks and other domestic necessities. They were Temple, Keene, Stoddard, Lyndeborough and Suncook. The combined output of these glassworks was prodigious and the products that survive are prized by collectors and institutions today. The exhibition showcases some 200 New Hampshire glass examples from numerous major public and private collections.
Prior to the establishment of glassworks in the colonial landscape, New Englanders had relied on products imported from England and Ireland, with some minor reach to Continental sources. Bottles and window glass were early necessities and imports were costly. As early as 1629, the Reverend Francis Higginson of Salem wrote to friends planning to emigrate from England cautioning them to be sure to “furnish yourselves with glass for windows,” among other essentials to life in the young colony.
Wherever they could take root, glassworks and potteries sprang up, but their vitality was not assured. Conditions were harsh and fire was a constant hazard. Like the phoenix, though, glassworks opened, operated and then ceased production or were taken over by different owners. Factory owners and glassblowers were a relatively cohesive group, migrating from factory to factory as opportunity called, bringing their techniques and expertise with them. Skilled glass blowers were few and highly sought after. The craft was practiced frequently by several members of the same families and practitioners were paid relatively well.
In New Hampshire, Robert Hewes built the New England Glassworks on Kidder Mountain near the hamlet of Temple, but not until 1780. The works burned shortly thereafter and a new one was erected in 1781 with some support from the town in the way of tax relief. It did not help; the Temple glassworks ended in late 1781. While production was short-lived, the Temple glassworks was among the first to produce prized free-blown crown glass, a window glass made without lead.
The highly versatile Hewes, in addition to his glassmaking talents, was a tallow supplier, a butcher and soap maker, a fencing master and teacher of broad sword and exercise, a surgeon and a bone setter. From Temple, he was next heard of in Boston and later in Connecticut, where he was supervisor of the Pitkin works, advertising the production of crown glass.
Two hundred years later, a three-year archaeological dig at the Temple site excavated much of the Eighteenth Century factory village and more than 200,000 glass fragments that shed light on early experimentation and technological innovations in glassmaking. The shards were smaller than an inch, but significant: a few were able to be pieced together to make object identification possible.
It is the 35th anniversary of this archaeological industrial excavation that spurred the exhibition, presented by the Historical Society of Temple, along with the Peterborough Historical Society and the Historical Society of Cheshire County. The exhibit comprises glassware, tools, photographs, drawings and artifacts detailing the glass industry and its ramifications between the Revolutionary War and the Industrial Revolution. Personal items, such as buttons from American and English military uniforms, provide further documentation of early New Hampshire politics and life.
One entire gallery of the exhibit presents finds from that dig. The exhibit is curated by five individuals whose varying disciplines make for a well-integrated presentation. They are Anne Lunt, president of the Temple Historical Society and chief organizer of the exhibit; David R. Starbuck, professor of anthropology and sociology, who was co-director of the dig at Temple; Alan F. Rumrill, executive director of the Cheshire County Historical Society in Keene and collector, author and researcher on Stoddard glass; Michael George, glass historian and major collector of New Hampshire glass, who found his first bottle at 9 years of age; and Michelle Stahl, executive director of the Peterborough Historical Society, the exhibit venue.
Glassmaking was a major industry in the late Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century New Hampshire and the glassworks were usually the largest employers in the area. When the War of 1812 interrupted trans-Atlantic commerce and the ready but expensive supply of English and Irish glass, it lent a boost to the American glass industry. While the early product was usually black or in shades of olive green, later developments resulted in high-quality and aesthetically desirable objects. The level of decorative detail and the range of form increased over the years in competition with more costly cut glass articles imported from England and Ireland. As consumers became more affluent, their tastes and demands broadened.
The output ran to bottles for water, food, snuff, medicine, ink and spirits, and included vessels of all sizes and shapes. In the years before the Civil War, the patent medicine business brought $3.5 million each year in New York, Boston and Philadelphia. Those elixirs required a large and steady supply of bottles, supplied readily by New Hampshire glassworks. These glassworks also supplied domestic objects: window glass, rolling pins and tableware.
Glassmaking was one of the few industries that employed women alongside men. They made the leather and wicker baskets that protected the glass vessels from breakage. Such protection was essential as rough roads and unreliable transport compromised safe delivery of the product.
The Keene Glass Works was the earliest Nineteenth Century bottle glassworks in New Hampshire. Founded in 1815 by Henry Schoolcraft and Timothy Twitchell, it produced free-blown glass bottles and flint glassware: tumblers, wines, decanters and pitchers advertised as having lower cost than and quality equal to imported glass. The Keene Glass Works persisted only until 1817 when it was taken over by Justus Perry, who operated it as a flint glass factory.
The New Hampshire Glass Factory began the cylinder glass process of producing window glass at the Marlborough Street works in Keene in 1814. A year later, the factory was turning out the first blown three-mold glass decanters and inkwells in the area.
In addition to window glass, the glassworks at Keene produced ribbed and figured flasks, flint glass, inkstands, decanters and a range of bottles: snuff bottles, spirit and medicine bottles, chestnut bottles, demijohns and carboys, even bowls, at three separate locations in the city. Bottles and flasks produced at Keene are distinguished generally by swirled and broken swirled ribbing, ribbing and diapering, sunbursts and pairings of eagles and cornucopias, eagles and urns and eagles and Masonic elements. They appeared in light green and aquamarine shades, although black spirit and medicine bottles were made, along with examples in amber and olive-amber shades.
New owners in 1825 changed the company name to the Keene Window Glass Factory; in 1832, it was called Adams and Company and it endured until 1855 when the glassworks burned.
Another glassworks appeared in Suncook Village in 1839, a migration of the Chelmsford (Mass.) Glass Company, which then became the Suncook Glass Works. Crown glass in a light blue-green color and some distinctive offhand domestic wares, including a glass chamber pot now in the collection of the Corning Museum of Glass, were made at Suncook. The glassworks remained in operation until 1850.
Five glassworks operated in Stoddard, N.H., beginning in 1842 and lasting until 1873: Joseph Foster’s Glasshouse, begun in 1842, was taken over by the Granite Glass Company, founded in 1846, in 1850. The New Granite Glass Works established in 1865 lasted until it was destroyed by fire in 1871 and the South Stoddard Glass Company began operations in 1850 and made glass until 1873, which marked the end of glassmaking in the area.
Joseph Foster made black glass bottles, and the Granite Glass Company continued the production of black glass and introduced figured flasks. The South Stoddard factory made spirit and water bottles and flasks and a few jugs, including an example with an applied lily pad decoration. Much of the product was of olive-green or olive-amber. The New Granite Glass Works made bottles and flasks in a variety of sizes, also mostly in amber and olive-amber colored glass. Umbrella inkstands were particular to Stoddard.
The Lyndeborough Glass Company was established in 1866 and remained in business until 1886. It made blown three-mold olive green and olive-amber colored glass and also developed a distinctive pale blue glass based on the nearby trove of quartz, which allowed for a lighter color glass. The output was prodigious: within a year the Lyndeborough glassworks turned out between 6,000 and 7,000 bottles each day. The company supplied bottles for Moxie Nerve Food, C.I. Hood’s Sarsaparilla and the highly alcoholic Lydia E. Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound. Every household required glass articles, but as the Industrial Revolution set in, blown glasswares were eclipsed in favor of large scale standardized manufacture.
The catalog New Hampshire Glassmakers: 1780-1886 is available. For information, www.peterboroughhistory.org or 603-924-3235.
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