Tips of the Trade
American Pattern Glass
David McCarron and ANITIQUES ROADSHOW host Dan Elias talk American glass in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
Blue Sandwich star spooners are very rare.
Turning glass over often reveals wear patterns.
Victorian glass is often more "finicky" than its predecessors.
Something for Everyone
America earned its political independence in 1776, but when it came to glass, it was largely still dependent on England until the early 1800s. English glass was either hand-blown or hand-pressed, and both took time and human hands to make—expensive ingredients both.
Ornate or simple, affordable or dear, there's usually a lot more to this glass than meets the eye
All that was to change after a New England glassmaker named Deaming Jarvis, founder of the Sandwich Glass Company, developed a new way of making glass: mechanically pressing molten glass into molds. "It completely changed the game," explains ROADSHOW appraiser David McCarron, of the Frank H. Boos Gallery in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. "Glass was then mass-produced." The new process revolutionized glassmaking, becoming the preferred glassmaking process for over 100 years, and has left a vast and varied collectible field known as American pattern glass.
"One of the things that makes American pattern glass such an attractive collectible is that there is a very wide range to choose from," says David. "There were about 1,500 patterns made in America, and about half of those were made as an entire setting."
The American-pattern glass collecting field is unusual in that it embraces glass collectors at either end of the financial spectrum. "There's something for the beginning collector, and there's something for the sophisticated collector," says David. At the low end is the late Victorian Liberty Bell goblet, which sells for $20 - $30. A Sandwich star spooner, in blue, a rare color, has sold for $2,500. At the top end of the market is an American Pattern Glass Sandwich ink stand that David sold for over $40,000 in early 1998.
However, most pattern glass hunters can have their pick of the vast majority of pieces for less than a few hundred dollars. These prices—and the practicality of these table-tested and time-worn pieces—mean they don't have to be protected in a locked hutch. Says David: "It's very usable glass, as long as you don't use it with abandon."
Originals vs. Reproductions
In the genre of American pattern glass, older usually means more valuable. "A basic feature of glass is that it breaks," says David. "And the longer a piece has been around, the more likely it is broken or damaged. That's why older pieces cost more—they're more rare."
One of the challenges for the pattern glass collector of any expertise is to determine just how old a piece is. No clues are provided by marks, because 19th-century glassmakers did not put marks on pattern glass (glassmakers began putting marks on brilliant cut glass at the end of the 19th century). Confusion is compounded by the American pattern glass reproductions that are still being made today, which also lack marks.
To distinguish between reproductions and original pattern glass, David suggests a simple test: turn the piece over and look at its bottom. "All the rubbing against a table has left a lot of wear," David says of a 150-year-old Sandwich Star Spill vase, typical of old glass. "So it's not a reproduction."
More Than Meets the Eye
David suggests two other guideposts for distinguishing early 19th-century pattern glass from later periods: the glass' style. "The older pieces are more stylistically sparse because the early 19th century was a more classic period," David says of these simpler pieces. "As the Victorian period came into full bloom, things became a little more finicky and the patterns are more complicated and cluttered." Glassmakers started to add these elaborate Victorian decorations in the mid- to late 1900s.
The more scientifically inclined can use a more rigorous test to determine age. The Civil War, it seems, not only divided the country, it provided a firm dividing line for American pattern glass. What was then called flint glass—now called leaded glass—was pressed prior to the Civil War. Lead was siphoned off for more deadly purposes during the Civil War, such as bullets. Glassmakers compensated for their missing ingredient by devising new formulas for unleaded glass.
It's hard to see the difference, but you can hear it. "Flint glass has a very distinctive ring," David notes, ting-ing the glass with a flicked fingernail. "The non-leaded glass makes a very dull thunk." Which just goes to show: there's lots more to American pattern glass, whether ornate or simple, expensive or affordable, than usually meets the eye.
To learn more about pattern glass, David McCarron recommends:
The Toledo Museum of Art in Toledo, Ohio
The Corning Museum of Glassin Corning, New York
The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City
The Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan
Sandwich Glass Museum in Sandwich, Massachusetts
The Chrysler Museum of Art in Norfolk, Virginia
Dennis Gaffney is a freelance writer in Albany, New York. He has been a regular contributor to ANTIQUES ROADSHOW Online since 1998.