Sunday, June 21, 2015

Museum of Connecticut Glass Open House

Free blown and dip mold New England glass.

 The Museum of Connecticut Glass held one of its monthly open houses this weekend. The Museum has a very limited, all-volunteer staff, but they are trying to have regular public educational events and shows during the warmer months. The main event for June was a spectacular display of early glassware and bottles from the collection of Tom Marshal. Tom has been acquiring his glass since the 1980s, and focuses on primitive free blown bottles and tableware, particularly forms and colors that can be associated with Connecticut, or at least the general New England area. Many of these objects are quite unusual and rare, and it was a treat to see so many in one place. Tom and other Museum volunteers gave informative talks about antique glass and glassmaking, and there was also a bottle sales area set up to benefit the Museum.

Bruce Mitchell and Alan Lagocki talk about glass making and early glass factories in Connecticut in the Museum's barn display area. The famous $3 bottle tables are by the window, with some real bargains to be had.

More of Tom Marshal's pre-1840 Connecticut-ish tableware, utilities and unique "end-of-day" items, in the kitchen window of the Capt. John Turner house.

A small display of later 19th and early 20th Century decorative glass, mostly made by the Meriden Flint Glass Company, from Bruce Mitchell's collection.

Freeblown and pattern molded inkwells, attributable to the Pitkin Glass Works or possibly other contemporaneous Connecticut factories. The "Pitkin hat" at left is a bit cracked, but one of the few known examples of an exceedingly rare and desirable end-of-day type item.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Awesome Seventeen-Eighties Work Escape Wayback Weekend

The Pitkin Glass Works ruins.
 The 1783~1830 Pitkin Glass Works ruins were open to the public this weekend, in conjunction with Manchester Pride Week and the Connecticut tourism open house day. It was a rare chance to see the ruins up close, although they are located in a residential neighborhood and can be viewed from the street over a fence at any time. The Pitkin factory is the oldest of Connecticut's glass works, and also, by some fluke of history, the only early Connecticut glass factory where significant portions of the factory building itself are still standing (there are still some visible foundations at the site of the Westford Glass Company, but all of the other factories have been completely leveled).

Waste glass drips and broken bottles in a bald spot in the lawn on the Pitkin grounds. The glass is mostly olive-green-amber, but notice the two light blue-green shards at center, examples of an uncommon but legitimate Pitkin color.
Even on the surface of the soil around the ruins there are occasional pieces of glass and other factory waste. Early glass works were pretty messy affairs, apparently, and Pitkin debris can be found all around the area. Several neighbors stopped in during the open house to talk to the staff of the Manchester Historical Society and donate pieces of glass that they had unearthed when gardening or having old oil tanks removed.

Excavations inside the walls of the factory ruins, with some possible foundation stones exposed.
A number of archaeological digs have been conducted at the Pitkin Glass Works, including extensive investigations by Fredrick Warner and his students from Central Connecticut State University in 1984 (summarized in A History of the Pitkin Glass Works by William E. Buckley), as well as more recent and ongoing excavations carried out by Manchester middle school students.

Stones and old bricks exposed by school group excavations.
The walls of the Pitkin factory building are primarily made of grey gneiss. The local bedrock in most of Manchester is Triassic sedimentary "red beds" and basalt, so construction materials were probably carted in, perhaps from the quarries at Bolton Notch, east of Manchester.

Artifacts excavated at the Pitkin site by Tom Duff. Two pontiled bases of Pitkin-type pattern molded flasks in olive green; the side of an umbrella inkwell in dark olive amber; and a large fragment of a ceramic pot for melting glass.
Archaeological excavations at glass factory sites provide some of the strongest evidence for attributing particular products to a given glass works. Pitkin-type flasks, with swirled or broken swirl pattern-molded embossings and blown in the German half-post method, are indeed fairly abundantly represented among shards from the Pitkin Glass Works. Extremely similar flasks were also blown at other contemporaneous New England glass works, however. Tom Duff has an interesting shard in his collection of Pitkin materials, picked up near the ruins many years ago, that is clearly from a Coventry Lafayette figured flask. Glass factories incorporate old broken glass, or cullet, into new batches to hasten melting, so the Lafayette shard was probably left behind from a pile of broken bottles collected from the community for recycling. Care must be taken when interpreting finds from factory sites; clear patterns certainly emerge and provide solid links between certain types of bottles and certain factories where multiple fragments of those bottles have been recovered, but odd one-off shards could be misleading.

Tom Duff's display of glass factory tools and New England bottles representative of the likely products of the Pitkin Glass Works.
Representatives of the Manchester Historical Society and the Pitkin Glass Works organization were on hand to answer questions, with displays of bottles and other artifacts. Tom Duff brought in Pitkin-type flasks and inkwells, as well as figured flasks, case gin bottles and other glassware typical of the goods that were likely produced by Pitkin. He also had blow pipes and other glass house tools, including a ribbed iron mold used to make pattern molded glass, along with a modern teal-colored Pitkin-type flask blown in his mold by Pairpoint Glass on Cape Cod. The 32 rib mold was recovered from a warehouse in New Jersey, but could conceivably be an eighteenth or early nineteenth century antique from New England.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Lafayette Flask Mold

GI-85 "La Fayette Covetry C-T" / liberty cap flask, with mold. Photograph copyright 2002 Corning Museum of Glass.
The early Connecticut figured flasks were among the first bottles that were blown in two part metal molds, which allowed for complex designs and inscriptions that were impossible with more primitive dip molded or pattern molded glass.  It was once thought that none of the molds used to make figured flasks had survived to modern times, presumably all having been scrapped and melted down. However, in the 1980s, half of the mold for the Coventry Glass Works pint Lafayette / liberty cap flask was discovered in the Willimantic River in Mansfield Depot, Connecticut, near the Coventry town line. The mold is brass, with some cast iron components, and is in surprisingly good condition for something that had been sitting in a river bed for 150 years. 

The Willimantic River, looking north from Route 44 in Mansfield
The location where the mold half was recovered was near where Route 44, the old Middle Turnpike, crosses the Willimantic river. According to Noel Tomas of the Museum of Connecticut Glass, people have been back with metal detectors and thoroughly searched the area, but they were unable to find the other half.
The Coventry / Mansfield town line, on the west side of the river.
It's interesting to think about how the GI-85 mold escaped recycling, only to wind up getting thrown into a river. The site where the mold was found is only about two miles east of the Coventry Glass Works district, and both locations are right on the Middle Turnpike, the major thoroughfare through the area at the time the glass factory was active. Was it carelessness, or petty sabotage by a disgruntled employee? Was the mold dumped during the 1820s, or long afterwards when someone was cleaning old junk out of their basement? What happened to the other half of the mold? There is probably no way of knowing the answer to most of these questions. It's just possible that the rest of the mold will turn up some day, though: the Willimantic River gets fairly wide and deep just downstream of the Middle Turnpike, for example, and could conceal all sorts of things in its muddy bed.