Sunday, August 16, 2015

Museum of Connecticut Glass August Open House

Set of the three sizes of Willington pickle bottles.
 This weekend there was another open house at the Museum of Connecticut Glass in Coventry. The weather was hot, sunny and humid, and this time of year half of the local population is probably on vacation at some mountain lake or Cape Cod beach house, so attendance was apparently down from previous events. Still, there was a pretty steady flow of visitors through the Museum.

Me in the Captain John Turner house, with some of the displays.
 The displays this time included figured flasks and other glass from eastern Connecticut glass works, with quite a few Coventry flasks that were of special interest to some of the neighbors of the Museum who stopped in at one point. The exhibit area in the Turner house stayed pleasantly cool for most of the day; the brick walls were constructed in an old English style and are very thick, so the building takes some time to heat up even on a sunny mid-August day.

Amber utility bottles: the whiskey cylinder (middle left) is embossed "Willington Glass Works," the demijohns and beer bottle are in the style of Willington glass, but could be from Westford or elsewhere in New England.
The Willington Glass Company had an extraordinarily long run, from 1815 to 1872, so it is somewhat surprising that the types of glassware that can be attributed to Willington with any degree of confidence are quite limited, and mostly date to the final 20-30 years of the company's operations. There are the well-known square cathedral pickle bottles, a couple of base-embossed cylindrical whiskey bottles, some late figured flasks with simplistic eagle designs, an electrical insulator, one variant of a sarsaparilla bottle, as well as paneled blueberry bottles and a few other styles of utilities that are generally associated with Willington. That's about it, aside from a few individual items linked to Willington by family tradition, for whatever that's worth. It seems as if for much of the history of the factory, production was dominated by generic unmarked demijohns, snuff bottles, beers, flasks etc., of types that could also have easily been made at any of a number of other New England glass works. It would be interesting if future archaeological investigations at the site could find evidence of other distinctive Willington products; one wonders if some of the early, pre-1840 figured flasks of unknown origin might have been made there. 

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Sandwich Glass Museum

I was out on Cape Cod for the weekend earlier this month, and had a chance to visit the Sandwich Glass Museum. The Boston and Sandwich Glass Company (1825-1904, in various incarnations) is a bit outside of the scope of this blog, and outside of my own core antique glass competencies, but the museum was impressive and seemed worthy of a post.

Three mold decanters, hat-shaped salt cellars and more. Yes, there is apparently period documentation indicating that glass hat "whimseys," at least the Sandwich ones, were originally intended to hold table salt.
Almost all of the output from Boston and Sandwich was lead glass (a.k.a. flint glass or crystal), made with very pure silica sand imported from New Jersey, New York and the Berkshires in Western Massachusetts. This recipe yielded a clear, perfectly colorless glass, that was used as-is to make some items, but frequently doped with metal salts to create a range of artificial colors. The Museum included an entertaining display with audio and some animatronic elements to explain the process of making colored glass.

Classic Sandwich Glass cologne bottles, bear-shaped pomade jars and whale oil lamps. Note the wooden pattern used to create the metal mold for a paneled cologne bottle, at upper left.

A case full of Sandwich paperweights, including some leftover glass flower parts that were never embedded.

Refined and delicate threaded glass tableware.

An imposing window display of larger Sandwich Glass items, including celery vases, lamps, bowls and candlesticks.

Shards excavated at the factory site, with interpretive signs matching them to extant antique glassware.

That's me working the press at the glassmaking demonstration area.
In addition to extensive displays of antique glass, a modern glass gallery, and special exhibits on various aspects of the workings of the glass factory at Sandwich, the Museum also has a functioning furnace for glass blowing. The gas-fired furnace is run continuously for years at a time, as it takes weeks to come up to temperature if it is shut down for maintenance. There is a single pot of glass inside, which the staff used to make a whimsey, a free blown tumbler and a pressed glass plate, all formed using traditional tools and techniques.

The Sandwich Glass Museum is a really impressive and informative source of information on nineteenth century glassmaking in Massachusetts. At some point in the future, I would hope that the Museum of Connecticut Glass could be developed to a similar level of excellence.