Now on View: All that Glitters is Glass

Suzanne Slick, Collection Information Specialist

Martin Blank, American, b. 1962. Repose in Amber. Hand-sculpted glass on steel, 2004. Private Collection. Photo by FWMoA.

Its summertime and that can only mean one thing at FWMoA – lots of glass on display!  Through August 4th we have two stunning exhibits of glassworks by artists Tim Tate and Marlene Rose.  Now on view are also several new dazzling glass sculptures that join Repose in Amber by Martin Blank and Dale Chihuly’s Lily Gold Chandelier in our Karl S. & Ella L. Bolander Gallery.  As the summer progresses, FWMoA plans to showcase a few more of our glass treasures alongside some newer acquisitions!

American glass art from an earlier age is always on display thanks to the American Cut Glass Association’s (ACGA) collection of Brilliant Cut Glass that resides here at FWMoA.  Glass is one of those materials that compels, attracts, mystifies, and amazes.  From Repose in Amber, which spans 54 feet, to the most delicate cut glass champagne flute, our glass-loving visitors have much to see and enjoy.

You may have admired the cabinets full of cut glass during your previous visits to FWMoA, but may not know that several years ago the American Cut Glass Association entrusted us with the care of its collection. Re-homed at FWMoA in 2012 from its previous home at the Forsyth Center Galleries at Texas A&M University, we now house the fascinating collection of glass, glass-cutting tools, and reference library collection. Chosen following many conversations and site visits, though we are not able to display all of the ACGA glass at one time, we rotate pieces periodically alongside some of our own cut glass pieces.

Some of the Brilliant Cut Glass, part of the American Cut Glass Association’s collection, on display in the FWMoA Karl S. and Ella L. Bolander Gallery. Photo by Sue Slick.

From epergnes to celery vases, compotes to perfume decanters, these examples of American skill and ingenuity recall an age of opulence and luxury. There was a time when every American household of substance was judged by its elegant appointments that included a well-furnished dining room with lace curtains, damask table linens, and a complex array of cut glass serving pieces and accessories.  In fact, an entire fashionable home might be embellished with cut glass cigar holders, doorknobs, lamps, and smelling salts bottles, and for fancy dining: ice cream trays, pickle dishes and a knife holder at each place setting! Cut glass was the de rigeur gift for weddings, anniversaries, and other important milestones.  Social climbers did not achieve full status until their dining tables were groaning under the weight of heavy platters, berry bowls, and other glass accoutrements of fine living.

The upper crust’s cravings for cut glass provided work for thousands of skilled American craftsmen and women and hundreds of cutting houses, but it was years before they were given full credit for their quality work. Exposure to the superiority and innovation of American glass companies at the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exposition and in 1893 at the Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition began to dispel the public’s false belief that imported glass was superior to the output of the American factories. When the heads of the largest American cut glass manufacturers learned that dealers of glass were marketing the American glass as imported from England and the Continent, they launched a massive ad campaign to promote American Rich Cut Glass and to hone an appreciation for the excellent home-grown product. The American cutting houses were, indeed, producing superior pieces and many more complex designs than their counterparts “across the pond”.  By the height of the craze, cutting houses had spread from their roots in Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and New York into the Midwest, and even as far as Seattle.

“American cut glass of the Brilliant Period, roughly from 1876 to 1916, was not only distinctive in style but cut sharper and polished more highly than any European glass. It was simply more brilliant.” – Tom Duncan, American Brilliant Period cut glass specialist, and one of the founders of the ACGA.

Indiana was home to cutting houses in Warsaw and Walkerton. My grandfather, Milo B. Slick, was one of the Walkerton businessmen who helped to bring the Central Cut Glass Company to town in 1910 where it employed up to 100 skilled workers and was “well equipped and one of the most modern in its appliances” (American Cut and Engraved Glass by Albert Christian Revi). I have to wonder if any Halley’s Comet patterns were cut in Walkerton in 1910 when the country was mad with comet everything!

Postcard from the Walkerton, Indiana glass plant. From the Slick family archive. Courtesy of Sue Slick.

Sadly, this plant burned down in 1919, but the Warsaw Cut Glass facility still stands.  In fact, the building, constructed of salvaged paving bricks in 1912, still houses an operating glass engraving business that utilizes the original shaft and belt-driven cutting wheels.  You can even sign up for a class to try your hand at this art – worth it just to experience the venerable old plant’s workings!

After the First World War, as the American economy slowed and lifestyles became simpler, the desire for and ability to own opulent cut glass diminished. Pieces were held in families, though, and were passed down as treasures that evoked a time of romanticized gentility and grandeur.  Collectors today are passionate about their glass and proud of their scholarship, diligently studying the patterns and histories of each glittering piece. The members of the ACGA are the champions of preserving and sharing the history of Brilliant Cut Glass, and have made it their mission to educate anyone interested in these beauties of a bygone day.  We’re proud to be the stewards of their treasures and excited to include them in our growing displays of sparkling, colorful, delightful glass!

Some interesting cut glass terms:

Blank refers to the raw, uncut glass form that was manufactured for use by cutting houses or internal use by large manufacturers.

Compote, comport, footed bon-bon all refer to a small footed dish sometimes with a lid. Manufacturers often had their own names for the same type of dish.

Hobstar comes from hobnail. Hobnails were the metal studs that were once placed on the soles of shoes for traction, the hob-shape created by cutting away the surrounding glass is similar to a hobnail though elegantly embellished with myriad decorative and intricate additional cuts. Sometimes an especially elaborate hobstar in cut glass is called a rosette.  The hobstar is one of the most commonly used motifs in cut glass though in many variations and degrees of repetition and intricacy.

Nappy refers to a small serving dish often with a handle.

Punty, Bulls Eye, or Hollow Diamond all refer to a round or oblong-shaped cutting into the glass surface; punties could be used as stand-alone motifs or overlapping designs, often used to create the petals of flowers.

Pinwheels or Buzzstars refer to the design that looks like a spinning pinwheel made of equally spaced mitre-cuts angled out from a central hobstar. The “teeth” of the mitre cuts are reminiscent of the teeth of a buzz saw blade found in the lumber mills of the day.

Leave a Reply