Christian Dorflinger and the American Cut Glass Industry
By James K. Asselstine
Christian Dorflinger’s story is that of a young Alsatian visionary who built one of the leading glass companies in America in the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries, producing some of the finest cut glass tableware of the period. Like others in this time, his achievement reflects a combination of skilled craftsmanship, a commitment to excellence, astute business judgment, hard work, and grit and determination.
Christian Dorflinger was born in 1828 in Rosteig, in the Alsace region of France. When he was just ten years old, he began his apprenticeship with an uncle at the Cristalleries de Saint-Louis in Lorraine to learn the glassmaking trade. In 1846, having completed his apprenticeship, Dorflinger persuaded his recently-widowed mother to emigrate from France to America in search of better opportunities. The family (Christian, his mother Charlotte, brother Edward, and sisters Catharine, Madeline, Josephine, and Marie) arrived in New York aboard the Shakespeare on September 26, 1846. The family went west for a time where Charlotte and her daughters settled with friends in Oldenberg, Indiana. Christian and his brother Edward returned east to find work in the glass industry. What became of Charlotte and her daughters is a mystery as there are no records of subsequent visits between the two brothers and their mother and sisters.
Christian and Edward found employment at the Excelsior Flint Glass Company in Camden, New Jersey. Excelsior produced pharmacy glassware and also advertised “Rich Cut Glass.” During visits to New York City, Christian Dorflinger became acquainted with Captain Aaron Flower, a former North River pilot and the proprietor of the Pacific Hotel located at 162 Greenwich Street. When Captain Flower and a group of associates decided to form a company to make lamps and lamp chimneys for the recently-developed Coal Oil or Kerosene, they asked the young Alsatian glassmaker to lead the new business.
During a visit to New York, Dorflinger also met Elizabeth Hagan, his future wife. Christian and Elizabeth were married in 1852. The couple had ten children, six boys and four girls. Three of the boys died at a young age. The remaining sons, William, Louis, and Charles, later joined their father in managing the business.
In 1852, Christian Dorflinger leased the Concord Street Glass Works in Brooklyn, New York, beginning with a small, five-pot furnace. Dorflinger was one of the first glassmakers to specialize in manufacturing Kerosene lamps and lamp chimneys. A year later, Dorflinger moved the business to a new location on Concord Street, and renamed the business the Long Island Flint Glass Works. By 1856, Dorflinger had added a cutting shop, and had begun producing rich cut glass tableware in addition to the company’s commercial products.
In 1858, needing more space for his growing business, Christian Dorflinger built a new factory on Plymouth Street in Brooklyn near the waterfront. The new factory included a glass cutting shop with 35 cutting frames, making the Long Island Flint Glass Works a leading manufacturer of cut glass tableware in New York.
In 1860, Dorflinger built a larger glass factory, the Greenpoint Flint Glass Works, on Commercial Street at Newtown Creek on the northern edge of Brooklyn. Dorflinger, in partnership with Nathaniel Bailey, a vice president at the Greenpoint Savings Bank, formed C. Dorflinger & Co. to own and operate the new glass works. The Greenpoint works included a blowing shop to produce blanks for cutting, a cutting shop, wharf facilities, and housing for the factory’s workers. In less than a decade, Dorflinger had moved from being the new kid on the block to a leader of New York’s glass industry, operating the newest and most advanced glass factories in the city.
In 1861, the new company received an order to produce a set of rich cut and engraved glassware with the U.S. Coat of Arms for the Lincoln White House. The stemware for the Lincoln service was light and delicate, with fine diamond cutting and an elaborate ivy engraved border. Given its exceptional beauty and craftsmanship, it is not surprising that the Lincoln set was used as the state glass service in the White House for thirty years. The Lincoln service established Dorflinger’s reputation for excellence in glassmaking, and set the stage for the company’s success for decades to come.
In September 1862, Christian Dorflinger purchased a 600-acre farm in Wayne County, Pennsylvania near the small village of White Mills from his friend Captain Flower. Dorflinger subsequently purchased an additional 350 acres in White Mills, which later became the location of his Wayne County Glass Works. In 1863, Dorflinger moved to his rural retreat in Wayne County. Although health concerns were given as the reason for the move, other factors including uncertainties related to the Civil War, and the challenges and high cost of operating an industrial enterprise in New York probably came into play as well. Dorflinger sold the Long Island Flint Glass Works, but retained his ownership interest in the Greenpoint Flint Glass Works, laying the groundwork for construction of a new glass factory in White Mills. White Mills offered all of the elements needed to build and operate a large, modern glass factory. The adjacent Delaware & Hudson Canal delivered coal from nearby Carbondale, Pennsylvania to fuel the factory’s furnaces, brought in the raw materials needed to make the fine lead crystal glass, and delivered Dorflinger’s finished goods to market. The opening of the Jefferson Line of the Erie Railroad in 1868 enhanced the transportation connections to the White Mills factory. Stone and timber for construction were readily available, and local farm families provided an eager work force for many factory jobs.
In September 1865, Christian and Edward Dorflinger began operations at the Wayne County Glass Works with a small, five-pot furnace, producing lamps and lamp chimneys and glass blanks for cutting. In 1866-67, Dorflinger added a cutting shop and seven cottages for the skilled glassblowers he brought from France to help establish the new factory. John S. O’Connor joined Dorflinger from Brooklyn to head the cutting department in 1867. O’Connor designed many famous early patterns for the company including the Florentine and Parisian patterns. By 1869, the new factory employed 182 people. An intense building program followed. The St. Charles Hotel, built for Dorflinger’s business associates, tradespeople, and New York friends, opened in 1869, as did the company store operated by Christian Dorflinger’s cousin Eugene. A new wing on the hotel, added in 1873, became the Dorflinger family home. A decorating shop was added in 1875, and a new stone lower cutting shop and an attached blowing shop were completed in 1883. Finally, a new stone office building with a factory showroom was added in about 1888.
The Dorflinger Glass Company exhibited at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia in 1876, and received a certificate of award for its glass table wares. The heavily cut glassware exhibited at the Centennial Exposition began what is now known as the “Brilliant Period” of cut glassmaking in America, which continued until about 1917. During this period, the Dorflinger companies made fine glass table ware for every U.S. Presidential Administration, foreign governments, and wealthy families across America. In 1891, Dorflinger produced a new state table service for President Benjamin Harrison, replacing the Lincoln state service with a more modern design cut in the Russian pattern with the U.S. Coat of Arms engraved on a shield.
Edward Dorflinger, Christian’s brother, returned to Brooklyn and began a partnership to operate the Concord Street Glass Works, Christian’s first factory, in 1870. Edward died in 1878. In the early 1880s, Christian Dorflinger’s three sons joined him in managing the business, and the name of the company was changed to C. Dorflinger & Sons.
A catastrophic fire of suspicious origin occurred at the Dorflinger factory in White Mills in 1892 at a time of labor unrest in the industry. Most of the factory buildings were substantially damaged or destroyed. Dorflinger immediately rebuilt the factory, leading to the company’s greatest period of prosperity over the next two decades. A third blowing shop was added to the factory in 1902, and a coal gasification plant to produce natural gas for the newest furnace was added in 1905. At the peak of its operations in the early 1900s, the Dorflinger factory employed 650 people and was one of the largest enterprises of its type in the country. The factory employed women as well as men. Women worked in the factory office and in the washing and packing department, but there were also some women cutters.
In 1897, Dorflinger hired an Englishman, Walter Graham, to head the engraving department. Graham introduced stone engraving from his native country to the White Mills factory, creating the modern lighter floral designs known as “Rock Crystal.” In 1901, Dorflinger added a new subsidiary named the Honesdale Decorating Company managed by Austrian Carl F. Prosch. Honesdale Decorating produced a line of gold decorated table ware and a new line of cameo glass in the art nouveau style. This new art glass style used color cased glass and acid cutting with gold decoration. Dorflinger introduced a second art glass line in 1907. The Kalana art glass line used acid etching to etch intricate floral designs on colorless glass. Some pieces were also cut and/or engraved. World War I interrupted Dorflinger’s supply of potash (an essential ingredient to make the company’s fine lead crystal glass) from Germany. In response, in 1914, Dorflinger developed a third art glass line known as “Reproductions Venetian.” Made in solid pastel colors, this blown glass without decoration hid the imperfections resulting from the lack of potash. Finally, from 1919-21, Dorflinger produced an art glass line known as “Opal Glass” for its opaque, opalescent appearance. These new glassware lines were attempts by the company to appeal to changing tastes as the demand for heavy cut glass began to decline.
Christian Dorflinger died in 1915, and the business continued under the leadership of his three sons. William ran the New York operations, including the company’s wholesale and retail showrooms in the City. Louis served as the company Treasurer, and Charles oversaw the factory operations in White Mills. By the end of World War I, the heavy cut glass of the Brilliant Period which had been the mainstay of the company’s business had gone out of favor. The interruption in the supply of German potash during the war years had limited the company’s ability to produce fine lead crystal table ware, and Prohibition further reduced demand for the company’s table and bar ware. Faced with these challenges, the family decided to cease operations in 1921.
Dorflinger glass is noted for the consistent clarity and brilliance of its lead crystal, the elegance of its designs, and its excellent cutting and engraving. Color cased pieces, in which color is cased over colorless glass and the pattern is cut through the color layer to the clear glass underneath, are among the most prized examples of the company’s work among collectors. Pieces with silver ornamentation, known as silver mounts, are also highly valued. Finally, Dorflinger’s special order work often includes unusual design elements, elaborate silver mounts, and fine cutting and engraving work, making these pieces especially noteworthy.
The Lincoln and Harrison White House services are exceptional examples of Dorflinger’s special order work. Although Dorflinger is most known for the rich cut glass table ware made during the Brilliant Period, its later Rock Crystal and art glass lines are both beautiful and innovative in design. Other notable special orders produced by the Dorflinger companies include a set of glass and silver serving pieces made for the wedding of William K. Vanderbilt, Jr. and Virginia Graham Fair in 1899, a green cut-to-clear loving cup also made in 1899, a unique cut glass baseball bat made for Edward J. Murphy, a local baseball hero, in 1913, glassware made for several yachts, and an extensive table service made for the Cuban Presidential palace in 1918.
A new museum located in White Mills offers an opportunity to see an extensive collection of Dorflinger glass and to learn more about the history of the Dorflinger companies and how this extraordinary glass was made. The two remaining buildings from the Dorflinger factory in White Mills, the 1883 stone cutting shop and the circa 1888 factory office building, have been restored and are now the home of the newly opened Dorflinger Factory Museum. The restored cutting shop offers a rare opportunity to learn how these factories operated. The restored office building is an excellent example of Pennsylvania cut bluestone architecture with elaborate Victorian interior woodwork.
The Factory Museum, which officially opened in July 2016, contains an extensive and comprehensive collection of Dorflinger glass from all periods of production by the Dorflinger companies. The museum contains exhibits interpreting the glassmaking process used at the factory, including glassblowing, cutting, engraving, and acid etching, incorporating actual tools and equipment used in the Dorflinger factory. Other exhibits include a period Victorian dining room set with Dorflinger glass cut in the company’s Parisian pattern to show how this glass was used in society. Still other exhibits include examples of Dorflinger’s special order glass, an extensive gallery devoted to cut glass from the Brilliant Period, and areas devoted to marketing and advertising, and to Dorflinger’s various art glass lines. The museum also exhibits the Ray LaTournous collection, an outstanding study collection of Dorflinger glass assembled by Ray LaTournous, a noted Dorflinger expert and descendant of the first skilled craftsmen who came to White Mills in 1866 to help start the new factory. Finally, the factory office houses an extensive collection of early cut glass produced from 1850-76 by the Dorflinger companies and their competitors in New York and New England. This large early glass study gallery located in the original factory showroom offers a unique opportunity to compare shapes, patterns, and cutting and engraving styles employed by these companies.
About The Dorflinger Factory Museum
The Dorflinger Factory Museum consists of the Factory Office building and the Lower Cutting Shop. The Museum houses the nation’s largest collection of American Brilliant-Cut Dorflinger Glass. Guided tours are provided throughout the day. Admission to the Museum is free of charge, and group visits and tours are very welcome. The Dorflinger factory property contains the White Mills Community Trail that provides a wonderful walking path from the White Mills Fire House, behind the Cutting Shop, to the Dorflinger Glassworker’s House on Charles Street. For additional information call 580-253-0220 or visit dorflingerfactorymuseum.org.
James Asselstine is a lifetime collector of American pressed and cut glass with a strong interest in the techniques and history of glassmaking. Jim is a past trustee of the Dorflinger-Suydam Wildlife Sanctuary which owns and operates the Dorflinger Glass Museum.