The museum, with its collection of exquisite blown, molded and pressed glassware, is as much a delight for the eyes of antiquers and collectors as it is for history buffs who can feast on Sandwich's industrial legacy.
What made Sandwich artisans famous for turning sand into glass was the way their factories changed glassmaking, mass-producing prized glassware ever more cheaply for a new, hungry market of middle-class Americans who couldn't afford imported glass from Europe.
But Sandwich was known for far more than utilitarian tableware for newly wealthy Americans. Glowing amethyst vases, finely etched glassware, paperweights with delicate glass flowers in their center and "whimsy" items such as walking sticks crowd the museum's shelves and display cases.
"The scope of what they produced was much more than just candlesticks," museum curator Nezka Pfeifer says, pausing in a room crowded with lamps, glasses and bowls carved with dragonflies, horses and people.
Sandwich was a town built on glass and became famous for the innovations of Deming Jarves, the founder of the Boston & Sandwich Glass Co.
Glass factories were spread across the Northeast, from Maine to Pennsylvania, when Jarves bought the cheap marshland in 1825 just a few miles from where the Cape Cod Canal would be dug a century later.
He chose Sandwich because the land was both inexpensive and close to Boston, and there was abundant firewood to stoke the furnaces. Ironically, it was not because of the Cape beaches that glassmaking prospered. Cape sand had too many oxides, and so sand was brought from New Jersey and, later, the Berkshires.
Jarves was a marketing genius, opening his glass factory July 4, 1825, linking his own factory's fortunes with the red, white and blue of national pride, Pfeifer says.
Part of his genius, Pfeifer says, was his understanding that middle-class people craved what the rich had, and so if he could find a way to mass-produce glass one of the most valued items in households of that that time, along with textiles and metalwork he would profit handsomely.
"The upper classes, the wealthy people, could have glass shipped over, but the middle-class people, the bourgeoisie, in small towns and rural areas, could have afforded this," Pfeifer said. "It was keeping up with the Jonses."
At the peak of Jarves' enterprise in the mid 19th century, there were about 500 workers, men and women, adults and children, in the factories known as Jarvesville. Along with some skilled craftsmen brought in from Britain, they turned out millions of pieces each year.
The process involved superheating the sand into 2,100 degree molten glass, then cooling it to about 1,800 degrees. When the glass was ready to be molded, the process resembled a carefully choreographed dance, as the sweating workers moved swiftly to blow, mold, and assemble the delicate pieces before they cooled and hardened.
But Jarves is best known around the world for his patents for glass pressing, which began in America in the mid-1820s. The molten glass was pressed into a patterned mold without ever being blown, increasing production enormously while cutting down labor costs.
Bill Lorne, 48, of West Palm Beach, Florida, visited the museum on an antiquing trip to Massachusetts. As he looked longingly at a rainbow-hued array of salt shakers, he said he rarely sells Sandwich glass in his business because it's become so rare and valuable.
"You don't see it. You don't find it. There's people out there looking for it all the time. It's being gobbled up by all the collectors," he says. "This is better than money in the bank right now."
While the last glass was blown in Sandwich in 1907, largely a casualty of the shift in the industry to the coal-rich Midwest, glass is still remembered as the cornerstone of the town.
The museum, which has seen attendance decline over the years, is now poised for a dlrs 2 million expansion. It will include a theater, new exhibits and a demonstration furnace for blowing glass.
"We're setting the stage for understanding the context of glass in American history," says museum director Bruce Coursen.
During a recent trip to the museum, Sue Ann McCabe, 62, of Long Island, New York, stood in front of a window, marveling at a carved ruby goblet sparkling in the morning light.
"There's so much intricacy that's gone into this," she said. "It's just amazing. They took such pride in what they were doing."