A look back into Massachusetts glassmaking past

If you crave a creative time that lingers on in a charming Cape Cod village, the Sandwich Glass Museum offers enthusiasts more than 5,000 objects to enjoy.

The museum, built in the region's traditional gray clapboard and brick style, is a three-dimensional encyclopedia of early American glass history. Autumns can be sunny and pleasant here.

Deming Jarves (1790-1869), a Boston businessman and former agent of the New England Glass Company, East Cambridge, Mass., founded a small factory in 1825 in Sandwich. The factory was incorporated the next year as the Boston & Sandwich Glass Company, with an influence soon felt around the world. Sandwich itself began as a 17th-century farming community, But for glass-making, its forests provided wood for fuel, marsh hay for packing in crates and the Boston market was 50 miles away by water.

Jarves soon had boats carrying Sandwich glass to Bean City. He also hired many skilled glass workers from East Cambridge and elsewhere, including England. They all settled in Sandwich, where their designs had a distinct English look. There was, though, a major drawback.

The local sand — silica is the principal ingredient in glass — contained too much iron oxide and other impurities for fine results. So this factory and others that soon sprang up here had to import sand from New Jersey and western Massachusetts. This was a factor in the Sandwich industry's eventual failure. Besides sand, lead oxide, which gives glass its sound when tapped and its luster — as well as about 30 percent of its weight — also had to be shipped in. That also bode ill despite the high quality and diversity of Sandwich's products.

But founder Jarves knew what he was doing when he imported James Danforth Lloyd, a Welshman working with his brother in Birmingham, England. Lloyd had a flair for colored glass. He introduced at Sandwich glass objects in cobalt blue, light pink opal, ruby, gold and alabaster hues. They helped Boston & Sandwich rise above its competitors and spread its fame.

By 1850, the firm had offices in Boston and San Francisco. It was shipping around the world and employed more than 500 people. Then Jarves, at age 67, after an argument with the board, left the firm in 1858 and started the Cape Cod Glassworks; it employed 200 workers when he died 11 years later. Lloyd accompanied him to the new factory but later left for a railroad job and died in 1920. His legacy can be seen in many of the Sandwich Museum's objects. Here glass items are often displayed in showcases lit naturally from the rear since they stand in front of the museum's windows. In this way the object can be studied and enjoyed as they were originally intended to be seen in 19th century homes.

The story of Sandwich glass' demise is unfortunate but dramatic, according to Nezka Pfeifer, museum curator. "There was a labor strike that proved to be unresolvable. Also management and workers in Pittsburgh glass industry, a major Sandwich competitor, collaborated in order to woo Sandwich workers there. This history is documented here."

Pittsburgh's easier access to raw materials with rail and river shipping soon overpowered Sandwich. Its factories were virtually abandoned by 1888 and eventually all were razed. Beside the museum, a descriptive bronze marker in the village center is all that remains of this American industry in Sandwich. Ironically, Pittsburgh's glass industry of some 150 factories on its South Side also vanished, replaced by iron and steel works. But PPG Industries, a huge conglomerate springing from Pittsburgh Plate Glass Company, is headquartered in Pittsburgh in a postmodern office complex of six glass spired curtain-wall buildings designed by noted architect Philip Johnson in partnership.

Pittsburgh's glass industry is remembered in a $1 million installation at the Sen. John Heinz Pittsburgh Regional History Center. As a Pittsburgh native, I had never heard of the industry there helping to defeat Sandwich until I visited the Sandwich museum. Anne Madarasz, the Heinz History Center's chief curator who oversaw the installation, said she did not know of it either, although she had visited Sandwich before its recent $15 million expansion that includes daily glass-blowing demonstrations from April through December. "I do know there was some pirating of workers that went on back then," Madarasz said, "as well as widespread copying of glass patterns."

Other factories copied Sandwich's patterns as it had done English models. In 1907, using an abandoned Sandwich factory, the Alton Manufacturing Company brought out its Trevaise ware imitating Tiffany Studios vases. Alton lasted a year.

Still, what was produced at Sandwich deeply affected the American glass industry for many years. The museum's holdings include superb blown glass, including "Beehive" patterns consisting of horizontal clear glass rings around objects as early as 1829. There are many examples of identically mass-produced mold-blown objects and pressed glass, not to mention exquisite cut or engraved glass and novelties. Among them are salt dishes shaped like paddle-wheel boats and named for Revolutionary hero Gen. Lafayette. The 1830 dishes' small size may be the reason the marquis' name was spelled "Lafayet." There wasn't room for it in the design. These dishes either bear the mark "B & S Glass Co." on their sides or "Sandwich" on the base.

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