The Glass Artistry of DeVilbiss
By Marti DeGraaf and Toby Mack
Dr. Allan DeVilbiss, a medical doctor specializing in nose and throat medicine, founded the DeVilbiss Manufacturing Company in Toledo, Ohio in 1888. The company’s primary purpose was to manufacture and sell DeVilbiss-invented spray atomizers, designed to apply soothing medicinal coatings to patients’ throats. His son Tom joined the company in 1905, and by 1907 had convinced his father to go into the perfume atomizer business, capitalizing on the company’s spray technology and its established retail network of drug stores.
The popularity of perfume atomizers skyrocketed after World War I, with soldiers returning from France with perfume for sweethearts at home. This coincided with the spectacular rise in America of prosperity and opulence known as the “Roaring Twenties”. The company expanded dramatically. By 1924 it had built a large new 200,000 square foot factory, and in 1926 sold 1.5 million perfume atomizer, dropper and accessory vanity products throughout the United States, Canada and Europe.
Before he could realize a long-held goal of making his own fine glass bottles, Tom DeVilbiss fell ill and died at age 50 in 1928. This setback was immediately followed by the onset of the Great Depression, which severely reduced the market for luxury products including perfume and perfume atomizers. But fortunately and wisely, in the 1920s the company diversified into industrial products, including paint sprayers and compressors, which proved its salvation during the Depression.
With the onset of World War II, atomizer production was suspended in favor of making goods for the war effort. After the war, in 1946, perfume atomizer manufacturing was restarted, at first with American glass suppliers and then later with bottles also from Europe and Japan. Medical and perfume atomizer production moved from Toledo to a new plant in Somerset, PA in 1951. Perfume atomizer production was finally terminated, after 71 years, in 1968.
Over its history, DeVilbiss relied on the highest quality American and European glass manufacturers for its bottles. Some bottles were acquired without decoration and then finished with acid treatments, enameling and engraving by DeVilbiss’ own decorating department. Others were purchased with the glassmaker’s already-applied decorations, such as bottles with Cambridge Glass Company etchings. Some bottles were made to a DeVilbiss design specification, while others were acquired in shapes already being manufactured by the glassmaker. DeVilbiss Perfume Bottles identify the glass manufacturer whenever records exist or the shape or style has a known source. In all, DeVilbiss acquired glass and porcelain bottle blanks from at least 60 different suppliers from America, Europe and Japan over the course of its 71-year history.
From 1907 until 1916, when World War I cut trans-Atlantic supply lines from Europe, DeVilbiss sourced bottles heavily from Bohemia (soon to become part of Czechoslovakia, and more recently, the Czech Republic), then as now a primary center of European glass artisanship. Colored, enameled and cut glass Czech bottles in great variety can be collected from this period, although records have not yet been found to tell us which houses made them. Cut colored and clear Czech bottles came strongly back into fashion in the 1930s, with Josef Riedel Glas a primary DeVilbiss source. At the height of Czech bottle popularity in the late 1930s, war again cut supplies from Europe, and DeVilbiss had to rely solely on American glass suppliers. During and after the war, the once-great Czech glass industry was expropriated first by the Nazis and then by the Communists for making war materials, driving some of the leading artisans, including Josef Riedel, out of business. Riedel later restarted glassmaking in Austria and thrives today in the table glassware business.
American Glass Suppliers
At its outset, DeVilbiss also sourced bottles from American glassmakers including Cambridge Glass Company and Fostoria Glass Company. It is also likely that Libbey, a Toledo glassmaker, supplied DeVilbiss with cut glass blanks. In the early 1920s, Cambridge became a prominent supplier of its new lines of opaque bottles. Tiffin was also a premiere source, providing numerous shapes, including figural stemmed bottles. Tiffin’s Draped Nude tableware stem line also appears on a DeVilbiss design from 1926. When DeVilbiss expanded its line in the early 1920s to vanity accessories such as dresser trays, powder boxes and jewel cases, Westmorland was the primary source of these blanks for decoration by DeVilbiss. With the popularity of crackle glass in the mid-1930s, both Cambridge and Morgantown were primary sources of this style of decoration.
The 1920s also saw DeVilbiss expand its sources to prominent art glass companies, including Steuben, Durand, Quezal, Imperial Freehand and H. C. Fry. Fry notably supplied opalescent and opaque glass blanks used in DeVilbiss bottles, including its opulent Imperial Line of the mid-1920s. Steuben’s Blue and Gold Aurene bottles were popular, as were Imperial’s Heart and Vine style. Fry, Cambridge, Quezal and Steuben also supplied globes used in DeVilbiss’ Perfume Lights of the period.
Beginning in 1935, DeVilbiss entered into a co-branding relationship with American porcelain tableware manufacturer Lenox. Lenox supplied DeVilbiss with porcelain figural bottles advertised as “Lenox Beleek”. These were signed with both the DeVilbiss and Lenox logos. This was the first of relatively few instances where DeVilbiss sought to capitalize on the popularity of the bottle supplier’s brand. This was repeated when DeVilbiss began sourcing bottles from the Fenton Art Glass Company in 1940, a supply relationship that continued until 1953. Some Fenton-produced styles were made to DeVilbiss designs, while others were from existing Fenton offerings.
Post World War II Suppliers
In the early 1950’s, Europe’s war-devastated industries began to recover, including glass manufacturing. The legendary glass houses of Murano, Italy became favored sources of DeVilbiss’ expanding style offerings, notably including works by Archimede Seguso, Toso, and Moretti. West German firms Fuger-Taube, Wittig, Steiner & Vogel, Hessen Glaswerke, and Kristallglas were also prominent, along with French glassmakers Brosse and Waltersperger. American glassmakers continuing to supply DeVilbiss after the war included Carr-Lowrey, Fenton, McBride, Morgantown, Tiffin, Wheaton, and Viking.
One of DeVilbiss’ final design and style innovations began in 1960 when it add an extensive line of novelty items in glazed porcelain from Fairfield of Japan, prominently including the “Umbrella Girls” – a series of 28 different designs introduced over the final nine years of DeVilbiss perfume atomizer production.
DeVilbiss finally closed production of its perfume atomizers in 1968, after seventy-one years of design and manufacturing innovation and quality excellence. This has left the antique collecting community with an incredibly rich variety of opportunities to find these treasures in shops, malls and online.
The book, DeVilbiss Perfume Bottles and their Glass Company Suppliers, 1907 – 1968, serves as a comprehensive guide to identifying and dating these objects of beauty and style spanning many generations of consumers’ tastes and circumstances.