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The Dartmouth
May 27, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Lecture illustrates glass history

Unfortunately, as much as the Hood Museum tirelessly advertises its excellent art events, attending a lecture on American glass is simply not at the top of most people's Saturday to-do lists. Surprisingly, it should be. This past weekend's guest lecture "Treasures of American Glass through Four Centuries," by Kirk Nelson, executive director of the New Bedford Museum of Glass and a leading expert on American glass, was highly educational in the best possible sense, but also visually engaging and interesting to boot. Nelson's obvious enthusiasm for his subject kept the audience involved through a combination of striking images and anecdotes ranging from yard sale finds to Czechoslovakian forgery scandals.

To be honest, I expected the event to consist of a dry talk with image after image of identical clear glass pitchers. My very real experience with art lectures on topics that are innately less interesting than, say, King Tut or Genghis Khan, has been less than thrilling. I definitely did not expect four centuries of American glass-making history to be an exception to the rule, but I was pleasantly surprised by the depth and breadth of American glass's historical connections, the diversity of the glass works and especially Nelson's "Antiques Roadshow"-esque storytelling abilities.

Nelson began his talk at the most logical starting point, the American colonies. Since the British viewed the colonies as suppliers of raw materials and a market for finished goods, American glass companies were slow to start and few and far between, Nelson said, with only a couple glassmakers such as Henry William Stiegel standing out from the European-dominated market.

Stiegel glass is in fact bitterly contested today, as certain pieces were unmarked and history revealed that large quantities of what was previously deemed Stiegel glass was actually European-manufactured and almost worthless. I also found that the glass was particularly interesting given the wild personality of its maker; Nelson told of Stiegel's extravagant lifestyle. According to some, he was known to have his servants fire cannons whenever he left the house.

Though the American glass industry started slow, it began to bloom in the early to mid-1800s with the establishment of classic American companies such as the Boston & Sandwich Glass Company, Mount Washington Glass Works and Steuben Glass Works.

These companies set the standards in quality and innovation as well as publicity, especially on the part of Mount Washington Glass Works Manager Frederick Shirley. The advertising genius managed to use a wedding present for American president Grover Cleveland to advertise the company's wares, and also to personally associate Queen Victoria with her own pattern line. Shirley was an innovator in glass designing, and he also fought lawsuits over unique color and heat developments that led to startlingly beautiful and vibrant glass design.

Nelson's presentation of images of these unexpected colors and shapes elevated his lecture to a much higher spot on my appreciation spectrum. Where words sounded unimpressive, images made an effective statement. The exciting deep tone of Burmese rose faded to a creamy opaque yellow captured the spirit of exoticism, and the purity of copper "electric" blue, combined with the patterns and lucidity of the glass pieces themselves, was almost poetic.

There were, however, pieces that did not live up to their descriptions, namely the hideously tacky, yet popular and highly prized dolphin candlesticks made by the Boston & Sandwich Company. An absolute nightmare of bad taste, the clunky holders featured a square single or double base and a contorted and misshapen dolphin figurine topped by a plain cylindrical holder. Though unsightly, the candlesticks do have an interesting history attached to them. According to Nelson, forgers in the early 1900s ordered replicas from a factory in Czechoslovakia that were eventually mixed in with originals and featured in reputable museums until after the 1970s when a small discrepancy revealed the forgeries. Thankfully, the dolphin sticks were unique in their ugliness, allowing the quality and the artistry of the other featured pieces in the lecture to shine through.

In all, Nelson's lecture was an exceptionally successful example of the type of art education that makes shows such as "Antiques Roadshow" so effective: A combination of beautiful, original pieces, interesting historical significance and the stories of real people.

Several of the pieces featured in the lecture (including the dolphin candlesticks) are currently on exhibit at the Hood Museum's "American Art at Dartmouth: Highlights from the Hood Museum of Art."