Mount Washington Glass – The Journal of Antiques and Collectibles – April 2005
by William C. Marcoux Jr
The Mount Washington Glass Works began operating in 1837 in the Mount Washington area of South Boston, Massachusetts and continued operating there until the factory was closed in 1870. During these years, the firm produced mostly utilitarian glasswares which are difficult to identify today. Shortly after the closure, the factory owner, William Libbey, moved the operation to New Bedford, Massachusetts where the Mount Washington Glass Works operated from 1870 until 1894 producing, perhaps, the most diverse and beautiful assortment of American art glass of the Victorian era.
Brilliant cut glass was one of the first items of production at the factory. Mount Washington manufactured this ware from 1871 until the late 1890s. Heavy glass blanks of high quality were cut in many patterns. Pitchers, vases, plates, goblets, teapots and other shapes were made. These items were very expensive and geared to the “carriage trade” market.
Among the first art glass produced by the factory was decorated white opal glass. Hand-painted lamp shades were one of the most popular forms for this glass. These shades had, for the most part, very simple decorations. They depicted family life, birds, flowers, landscapes, seascapes and other naturalistic scenes. These were a mainstay of the company’s production, and thousands were produced. They were marketed to the middle class market and competed with similar wares made by the Boston and Sandwich Glass Company and others.
Hand decorated salts, biscuit jars, sweetmeats, pickle castors, plates, bride’s baskets, and other utilitarian forms popular in the Victorian era were produced in both decorated and undecorated opal glass. These were marketed nationwide.
Satin glass and Mother-of -Pearl glass were produced in large quantities in the 1880s. Satin glass is most often a multi-layered glass which is blown shiny and then given a satin finish. It comes in all colors and was made in a wide variety of shapes and forms. Rose bowls, vases, baskets, toothpick holders, cruets, and biscuits jars were some of the many styles produced.
Mother-of-Pearl satin glass was mold-blown to form a pattern in the glass. It was made in several patterns including herringbone, dotted swiss, raindrop, diamond quilted, moire, flower and acorn and cut velvet, and was done in a wide array of colors including a rainbow pattern. A gather of glass, often of opal glass, was blown into a mold. Then, a second layer, usually of colored glass was blown over it to seal the air in the design of the mold. The effect is charming and made this glass a favorite of the day. Often, this glass has enamel or coralene, applied ground glass, decoration. This ware was so popular that Mount Washington issued Phoenix Glass Company a license to produce it.
Lava, also referred to as Sicilian Ware, was the first American art glass. It was patented by Frederick Shirley, the general manager of Mount Washington, on May 23, 1878. This was a basalt-based glass with brilliantly colored flux imbedded into the surface. The glass is usually black but can be found in pink or cobalt. It often has gold decoration. A few pieces of Lava with enamel decoration are known to exist. The finish is almost always shiny but can be iridized.
Very little of this glass exists today.
In 1884, Mount Washington began using the name, Amberina, for a new glassware they were producing. It was a heat sensitive glass, meaning that when reheated during production the portion reheated changes color. This glass was made by adding gold to an amber glass mixture. When completed the glass shaded from amber to red. Shading varied depending on the duration of the reheating. This was an extremely popular product. New England Glass Company, however, was producing a similar ware at the same time and under the same name. A lawsuit ensued and the result was that New England Glass Company was allowed to keep the name, Amberina, and Mount Washington was forced to use a different name. They chose to call their ware Rose Amber and on May 25, 1886, they were issued a patent for that name. Rose Amber was made in many forms and occasionally was etched, pressed, cut or decorated with applied Rose Amber glass. It is nearly impossible to distinguish between pieces made by these two factories with the exception of the pieces with applied rigaree and wishbones, which are uniquely Mount Washington forms. Recent findings indicate that Mount Washington was likely producing this glassware before New England, but had not applied for a patent in a timely fashion.
On December 15, 1885, Mount Washington was granted a patent for a glassware called Burmese. It is believed that this glass had been made for several years before that date. It is a homogeneous heat sensitive glass, shading from lemon yellow to salmon pink. Burmese was discovered serendipitously by Frederick Shirley when he was filling in for an ailing glassmaker in 1881. Mr. Shirley had devised formulas for making glass but had not blown glass. He was working with a mixture of ruby glass and had trouble keeping the gold in the mixture from sinking to the bottom so he added some uranium oxide to the mix, and Burmese was born. Like all blown glass, Burmese is shiny in its original form. The tastes of the day, however, favored a soft satin finish which was created by exposing the object to acid. Burmese was sold in both. The shiny finish was marketed as the natural finish, and the satin finish as the plush finish. Today, collectors rarely use these terms. The shapes created during the early production of Burmese were generally simple forms, but later production, probably after 1888, expanded to more exotic forms, including many with an Egyptian influence to satisfy the Orientalist taste of the day.
Burmese was sold decorated and undecorated. Decoration was either enamel or applied Burmese glass. Shiny Burmese is almost never decorated except with applied Burmese glass. As the shapes of the glass blanks became more sophisticated, the decorations on the pieces became more grand and exotic. Early enamel decorations were generally restricted to small dots and flowers such as daisies, forget-me-nots and roses. Many of the simple decorations are attributed to the decorator, Timothy Canty. Decoration expanded to pieces with poetic verses by Hood, Dickens, and Montgomery among others. Perhaps the most famous decoration from the early years of production is the “Queen’s Pattern,” a design created by Albert Steffin that uses jeweled dots and gold to create a swirling floral pattern. Mr. Shirley, in an effort to promote his newly discovered glass, sent several pieces decorated in this pattern to Queen Victoria as a gift. One piece is reputed to have been a teapot. Her Majesty was so taken by the pieces, she ordered many more from the factory and asked Mount Washington to grant a license to Thomas Webb and Son to produce the glass in England. Her wish was granted. The early pieces produced by Webb used the exact formula Mount Washington used and, therefore, unless they are signed, are virtually indistinguishable from the Mount Washington pieces. Webb later changed the formula and the pieces produced are easily distinguished.
During the later years of Burmese production, many elaborate decorations were created. These were characterized by vivid enameling and heavy gold decoration. Exotic decorations such as the sacred ibis flying over the pyramids, Garden of Allah scenes with camels, underwater scenes of fish with detailed scales, owls, stampeding elephants, and monkeys were produced. (Mount Washington had sent four vases to President Grover Cleveland as a wedding gift for his 1886 marriage in the White House. For many years, it was thought that these vases were decorated with monkeys frolicking among the bamboo trees. It is now believed this assertion is false.) These complex decorations were created by using a perforated stencil which was brushed with carbon to form a design. The design was outlined in pencil and then enameled and decorated with gold.
Burmese was Mount Washington’s most successful creation and perhaps the most successful glass product of its time. If the factory had made nothing else, they would be remembered for this glass. It was a huge aesthetic and financial success.
Mr. Shirley had thought that Burmese had resembled the sunrise so he wanted to create a glass that resembled the sunset. He responded by inventing Mount Washington Peachblow. This is a homogeneous heat sensitive glass shading from pale blue to pink. In marketing this glass, the company often referred to it as Peach Skin. The patent for this product was issued on July 20, 1886. It was created by adding cobalt to a ruby glass mixture. Mount Washington Peachblow was a commercial failure. The company ceased marketing it in 1888. Because of its poor reception with the public, one has to wonder how long it was actually made during that two year period. Legend has it that this glass stayed on the warehouse shelves for years and many pieces were sold for very little to company employees. Today, Mount Washington Peachblow is the rarest of all heat sensitive glass.
Like Burmese, this glass came in both “natural” and “plush” finishes. The forms are relatively simple and the decorations are the same as those used on Burmese glass produced at the same time. Decorated pieces are very rare.
Libbey Glass Company contracted with Mount Washington to make a different peachblow glass for the Chicago Columbian Exposition of 1893. This glass shades from white to pink and is usually ribbed. It often has commemorative verses or flowers enameled on it.
Acid-etched cameo glass was part of the Mount Washington product line. This was a cased glass of two layers. The lining is usually white and the outer layer pink, yellow, blue or green. After it was made, the glass article was covered with wax. A pattern was worked into the wax exposing the sections to be acid-etched. The acid was applied and the design formed. Then the wax was removed to reveal the finished product. The designs are usually silhouettes of people, flowers, birds or griffons. Bowls and lamps are the most common forms for this glass. Vases are very rare.
In 1886, Mount Washington began producing a richly decorated white opal glass with a satin finish called Albertine. This glass was made to compete with the Royal Worcester-type porcelain of the day. The decorations were drawn out with a stencil in the same manner which had been employed in decorating Burmese. At some point, the company changed the name of this product to Crown Milano. It is unclear when this happened. The name, Albertine, was crossed out and the name, Crown Milano, was written above it in working log books of the company. We do know that trademark papers were issued for a “C M” monogram with a crown for Crown Milano on January 31, 1893. Some pieces are signed with this logo. Some of this glass has rather simple floral and gold decoration. Much of it has very complex decoration of serpents, peacocks with jewels, underwater scenes, camels and dragons among others. Charming enameled landscapes can also be found. Forms for this glass range from simple pieces to exotic covered and handled ewers and large Egyptian style vases. This popular glass was made well into the 1890s. Its forms and decorations are among the most spectacular Mount Washington ever produced.
A shiny-surfaced enameled ware similar to Crown Milano was also manufactured. For many years, this glass was referred to as shiny Crown Milano. We now know that the correct name for this glass is Colonial Ware. It often depicts scenes of men and women clad in colonial garb. Many pieces exist with more typical Crown Milano decorations. Some pieces are signed with a crown and a wreath.
A patent for Royal Flemish glass was issued in 1894. It had probably already been produced for several years before the patent was received. It is a decorated camphor glass with a strikingly dramatic appearance. The surface is usually divided into sections by heavy gold lines. These sections are colored and decorated. On some pieces, large open areas are left for elaborate enameling. Many of the same forms and decorations that were used for Crown Milano were used for Royal Flemish. Some pieces are signed with the “R F” monogram with a backward “R.”
During the 1890s, Mount Washington produced two other wares, Napoli and Verona. Napoli is a decorated clear glass on which the design is outlined on the outside in gold and enameled on the inside of the glass. It is often signed “Napoli.” Flowers are the most common decoration. Verona is a clear glass decorated on the outside in a very distinctive silhouette-type manner. Verona was probably not popular and very little is found today.
No discussion of the Mount Washington Glass Works would be complete without mentioning the Smith Brothers. Alfred and Harry Smith came to Mount Washington in 1871 from the Boston and Sandwich Glass Company. It was in that year that they established the decorating department at Mount Washington. In 1874, during a company reorganization, they bought the decorating department and leased the space from the factory. They continued there until a disagreement with the company in 1885 that resulted in them opening their own decorating shop at 28 and 30 William Street in New Bedford. They had supervised all the decoration at Mount Washington until that time. When they opened their own shop they purchased most of their blanks from Mount Washington. Their signature shapes are single and double moon flask type vases with beautiful enamel scenes and hand-painted ring vases. Many of their post-1885 pieces are signed with a rampant lion mark.
From 1880 until 1894, Mount Washington supplied glass to the Pairpoint Manufacturing Corporation to be used with the silverplate which they produced. They produced glass for many items including condiment sets, brides bowl holders, epergnes, and pickle castors. These two companies worked cooperatively until 1894 when Pairpoint purchased the Mount Washington Glass Works. After the merger, Mount Washington operated as a division of Pairpoint and produced glass, including the glass used for Pairpoint reverse painted and puffy lamp shades, until at least 1915.
Mount Washington was the largest producer of American Victorian art glass. They created a splendid assortment of innovative glass products for the world to enjoy. At the height of their success, these products were sold in fine stores throughout the United States. Their glass creations can be found in major museums and private collections worldwide. A legacy of beauty has been left for all to enjoy.
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