The whaling industry that put this seaport town on the map spawned a number of ancillary industries: boat building, metalsmithing, cordage, sail making, candlemaking and carriage making, to name just a few. By the time the heyday of whaling had passed, few of these remained viable.
Cotton manufacture became that mainstay of the economy. Another survivor was glassmaking, which actually underwent a rebirth in this historic town in the latter part of the Nineteenth Century. By 1900, glass workers in New Bedford numbered 1,000, and glassmaking endured in the city for nearly a century.
The New Bedford Glass Company, established in 1866 by renegade workers from the Sandwich Glass Company, began producing decorative glass pieces. Shortly thereafter, the Mount Washington Glass Company, which had opened in South Boston in 1837 and whose glass works plant had deteriorated, relocated to a new facility in New Bedford. It merged several years later with the Pairpoint Manufacturing Company, which endured until 1938, reopening the next year as Gunderson-Pairpoint. Smith Brothers, established in 1873, decorated and then refired glass for Mount Washington, as did Samuel R. Bowie.
Glass has risen to the fore once again as the New Bedford Museum of Glass, under the direction of Kirk J. Nelson, opens its doors. The museum began life in 1993 as The Glass Art Center at the former Bradford College in Haverhill, Mass. The museum owes its origins to a conversation over the course of a long drive back from the Corning Museum of Glass during which Nelson, a former curator at the Sandwich Glass Museum, and glass conservator Sharon Smith Abbott considered the benefits of a glass museum in New England that would showcase all forms of glass, from all sources and ages, and be easy to reach.
It is the proverbial phoenix: When Bradford College closed in 2000, much of its collection went to the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem. The Glass Art Center retained its own impressive collection, but had no home.
On the recommendation of the late glass authority Louis O. St Aubin, the museum looked to New Bedford and had, by 2005, recast itself as the New Bedford Museum of Glass and a development office was opened in New Bedford, across the street from the New Bedford Whaling Museum. Exhibits were mounted in various sites around town, including the show “Our Nation’s Heritage in Glass” that opened at the New Bedford City Hall in March 2007. That exhibit comprises 500 pieces of American political glass and continues. (The museum’s collection of American political glass is the largest of its kind in public hands and runs to some 1,500 pieces.)
An angel in the person of Jeff Costa of New Bedford Antiques at Wamsutta Place, formerly the New Bedford Antiques Co-op, invited the New Bedford Museum of Glass to sublet space in the 1910 Wamsutta Mills building. The arrangement is mutually beneficial: the museum pays New Bedford Antiques a percentage of the monthly admission fees. Each entity benefits from the presence of the other and the arrangement should allow the museum to achieve financial stability. As Nelson puts it, Costa is investing in the success of the museum. Renovations of the 4,000-square-foot space began last November
Nelson, too, is investing in the success of the museum. Although he credits volunteers, donors, interns and friends for their efforts on behalf of the nascent museum, he admits, reluctantly, that it is he who has orchestrated the project. It is he who has organized the museum, guiding the formation of the collections and setting up in the new space.
We interrupted him on a recent rainy morning as he was hauling lumber he was using to build a ceiling in an exhibit space. He was assisted by his brother Eric, an architect who has designed the space †and aided in its construction. In addition to his time and energy, Nelson has donated objects from his own collection to the museum. The grand opening of the New Bedford Museum of Glass took place over the weekend of September 11.
The museum gift shop opened in 2009, selling antique objects consigned by members, as well as new pieces, and its success allowed the museum to hire its first staff person. The museum’s research library, which features more than 6,000 publications on the subject of glass, is open by appointment.
The museum collections are multilayered and deep, running the gamut from ancient glass to contemporary pieces. The collection includes some 7,000 objects catalogued to date. There is a special interest in New Bedford glass, but, Nelson cautions, the focus is not exclusively local. The collection’s greatest strength, he says, is Nineteenth Century American glass, but the overall focus is on all aspects of glass.
Its mission is to reach as much of the public with an interest in glassware as possible. The museum is well positioned, Nelson says, to appeal to scholars and collectors involved in all aspects of glass.
The collection ranges from a core-formed Eastern Mediterranean unguent bottle with a pulled herringbone decoration from about 600 BC to pieces by Frances and Michael Higgins, Maurice Heaton and Dale Chihuly, with nearly every period between represented.
One entire gallery is devoted to more than 300 pieces of vaseline glass donated by Carol D. and Richard M. Bacik. The museum’s latest acquisition is a collection of 400 antique marbles, many of which are German. They were donated by glass enthusiast Jean Wilson.
A good selection of early American pressed glass is also part of the museum collections, some of which is from the collection of the late Kenneth M. Wilson, author and curator of American glass at the Corning Museum of Glass and past vice president of the New Bedford Museum of Glass. Among the objects of particular interest are examples with lemon-squeezer feet, which Wilson studied extensively. Before his experiments, it was assumed that lemon-squeezer bases, like those made by Thomas Cains, were made with a plierslike device. He tested the theory that lemon-squeezer bases were made with a plunging dye and created several examples at the Pairpoint glass factory in nearby Sagamore using a hand-held plunging die. Wilson’s lamps from 1989 and research tools have been donated to the museum and are on view along with early examples.
Mount Washington Sicilian lava glass, patented in 1878 by Frederick Shirley, head of Mount Washington, is said to be the first American colored art glass. It was made when brightly colored glass chips and enamel were laid on the surface of the newly blown glass and then refired. Robert Bryden made enamelware or lava glass in a similar way: volcanic slag was added to the batch of glass in its softened state.
When the remaining inventory of the Gunderson-Pairpoint company, successor to Mount Washington and then Pairpoint, was sold off in 1958, six pieces of unusual mosaic glass made around 1958 caught the eye of Delmas DesLandes of New Bedford, who bought them. The glass was a translucent dark ruby glass, almost black, and flecked with colored glass chips, enamel and bits of cane. Mosaic glass is also called enamelware. Those six items have been donated to the museum by DesLandes’s son Eugene in memory of his parents, and they are on view.
The museum’s collection of Sandwich glass is particularly strong. One piece of note is a cut overlay cigar holder in red and clear that was made at the Cape Cod Glass Company in about 1865. The piece descended in the family of James Danforth Lloyd, who was responsible for the mixing of ingredients and the development color at the Sandwich factory. The museum acquired the item from a descendant.
A previously unrecorded ink desk set found its way to the museum last summer and is thought to be French. It may have been used as a prototype, with modifications, for Sandwich desk sets. Another desk set in the collection is of mottled opalescent blue pressed glass and was made by the Boston & Sandwich Glass Company in about 1830. The construction and decoration of the two sets differs in interesting ways.
Certainly one of the more arresting pieces on view is the cut-glass throne chair made in the late Twentieth Century in the style of F.C. Osler of Birmingham, England, which supplied glass furniture to Indian royalty for their palaces. It is made from colorless cut glass, with a serpentine crest with a central fan, columnar stiles and faceted legs, and it glitters.
The museum also owns other examples of New Bedford glass made at the Mount Washington and Pairpoint factories. The selection comprises Amberina, Burmese, Peach Blow, Crown Milano and Royal Flemish; reverse-painted Pairpoint lamps and even blown ware made at the close of the last local glass factory in 1957.
There is also a group of mold-blown vases, circa 1885, by the Mount Washington Glass Company and decorated with Kate Greenaway images by Smith Brothers. Art glass by Tiffany and Steuben, Eighteenth Century English tableware and a Seventeenth Century diamond point engraved Dutch wine glass are part of the museum holdings and tools; a press and molds round out the collection.
A significant selection of glass from the Bennington Museum is on a five-year loan while the Vermont museum reorganizes its galleries. Those objects include beehive and lily pad glass; Sandwich Glass, including a paperweight by Nicholas Lutz; and one of two known Pittsburgh creamers marked R.B. Curling & Sons.
The New Bedford Museum of Glass is at 61 Wamsutta Street. Museum hours are Monday through Saturday 10 am to 5 pm; noon to 5 pm on Sunday. For information, 508-984-1666 or www.nbmog.org .