In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, glass makers in both the the United States and Europe, often ended their workday creating a variety of objects from the leftover materials used for making other glass wares.
Glasshouse whimsies were non-production pieces, not part of the regular glasshouse production process and had no connection to the glass company. Although there was little opportunity to create objects for home or just for pleasure, one of the few benefits afforded glassblowers at the consent of the owners was the use of the virtually worthless materials comprising glass for purposes of creating end-of-day or between shift whimsies. Master craftsman were allowed to “play” with glass on their own time and create objects for their own use, enjoyment, or simply to improve and show off their great skill and control over molten glass. Generally one of a kind pieces, glasshouse whimsies have several nicknames including “end-of-day,” “lunch-hour” pieces, and in England, “friggers.”
A variety of objects were created including chains, sock darners, doorstop turtles, bells, horns, pipes and of course whimsical canes. Given their fragile nature, canes were rarely used for walking, although they were occasionally employed ceremonially in parades (see picture below). Glass canes are rarely documented to their maker. Many factory glass workers would work on Saturdays ahead of parades, to make canes for all the boys to carry that worked at the factory. This was true in both England and the United States throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, especially in American Labor Day parades by members of the American Flint Glass Workers Union. The boys could keep the canes.
Glass workers had a difficult life, with the heat, smoky, dusty, air and the pressure to produce. Pay scales were often equated to the volume produced. Most glass blowers retired before the age of 60.
The many whimsies of aqua color were probably products of a window glass or bottle factories. Bottle glass was usually aqua due to the natural iron in the sand, which discolored the glass. Window glass may have been chemically treated to produce a somewhat clearer glass. Seldom was green, amber, cobalt blue or ruby red available to the workers of these bottle and window glass factories. The more colorful whimsy items may have originated in larger glass works, which had many pots and possibly several colors available at one time.
A major problem a worker faced when he made a whimsy was preventing others from taking it. The item had to be cooled overnight, so whoever was first to get to work the next morning had the opportunity to grab the whimsy, if he were so inclined. Most workers expected their whimsies to disappear and were surprised when they were still there for them in the morning.
There are two general types of glass canes, the first fashioned from solid lengths of glass frequently featuring decorative twists along the shaft and most often having crook or L-shaped handles. It was not unusual for the inner core of glass to be to be encased in an outer layer (or layers) of different colored glass. The second type of glass cane is a hollow baton with a rounded knob handle. This form was often made of clear glass and decorated with spiraling stripes of assorted colors along its length.1 Many more solid canes were made than hollow canes. Some hollow canes were made with an interior coating. The interior coating was accomplished by one of several methods, some by powder, some actually by plaster. Some were lined in gold or silver. Moisture from air deteriorates these coatings, and it is always important to keep the holes plugged. Many coated canes were made in the Pittsburgh area. 2
Glass production in the 19th century/Berkshire Glass Works
Berkshire Glass Works was one of the dozens of Massachusetts glass house that sprang up during the course of the 19th century in American. Quartz sand (silica) used for glass making, was mined in the Cheshire region beginning in the first decade of the 1800s as it was recognized early on as being very fine and pure (97 to 99.6% pure silica). In approximately 1845, exceptional sand was discovered in Cheshire beneath the ruins of the 1812 Cheshire Crown Glass factory, and its discovery led to the founding of the Berkshire Glass Company, located in Lanesborough, Massachusetts. The extraordinarily high purity of this sand could create glass that was almost colorless (most clear glass has a slight green tint caused by iron in the sand and easily visible at the edges).
The initial product of the Berkshire Glass Works was common window glass, with the first cylinders blown at the Berkshire Glass Company in 1853. The company also produced blown-glass bell jars for clocks and other display items. By the end of the decade following the Civil War, the Berkshire Glass Works began to expand its products from only clear blown window glass and by 1865 had started blowing colored window glass. In late 1869, Berkshire Glass Works started to produce plate glass. During the 1870s, they became the first glass factory to produce colored cathedral glass and were also one of the earliest in America to blow antique glass used in the creation of stained-glass windows. Glass production as a decorative art peaked during the 1870s and 1880s.
One of the greatest impediments to the success of glass making in American prior to the turn of the twentieth century was the difficulty in obtaining inexpensive fuel to fire furnaces. From the time of the first glass house in America at Jamestown, Virginia in 1608 until the beginning of the third quarter of the nineteenth century, that fuel was wood. The close availability of wood was far more important to choosing a glass house site than was the source of sand. Many glass houses failed when their local forests had been completely consumed in their furnaces. In Berkshire County, both sand and forests were plentiful. Until the mid-1870s the furnaces of the Berkshire Glass Works were fired first with wood and later with a combination of coal and wood. In 1874 the company began making gas for use in its blast furnace by burning coal oil or petroleum to produce gas. After 1880, natural gas became accepted as the perfect fuel for melting glass and today, most glass manufacturing plants are near major sales markets and pipelines carry petroleum and natural gas to the glass plants.
In the last decades of the 19th century, there was a tremendous explosion of “art glass” with its most notable producer Louis Comfort Tiffany who, beginning in the late 1870s, began to experiment with new types of varicolored and textured glass. In 1893 he added blown glass to his decorative media.
After 1890, the development, manufacture, and use of glass increased rapidly. The science and engineering of glass as a material became much better understood, with the ability to tailor glass to meet an exact need. Machinery was then developed for precise, continuous manufacture of sheet glass, tubing, containers, bulbs and a host of other products. New methods of cutting, welding, sealing and tempering, creating better glass at a lower cost, occurred from that point onward.
Further history regarding Libbey Glass, members of Toledo Local 81 of the American Flint Glass Workers Union who carried glass canes at the Labor Day parade, symbolic of their trade, after parading, workers often traded these parade cane whimsies for refreshments at nearby saloons. As a result, many Toledo saloons, before prohibition, had back-bar displays of glass canes. The last time union members officially dressed and marched in a Labor Day parade was in 1941.
1. Snyder, Jeffrey B., Canes and Walking Sticks – A stroll Through Time and Place.
2. The Whimsey Club, Dale Mershon, www.whimsey.org.
3. Sloan, Julie L., Patriquin, William J., The Berkshire Glass Works.
4. The Whimsy Club website: www.whimsy.org.
5. The Years of Cut Glass Supremacy 1893-1918, P. 75.
6. Blake, Joyce & Murschell, Dale., Glasshouse Whimsies: An Enhanced Reference.