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Westmoreland Glass wows collectors

| Saturday, July 18, 2009

The abandoned Westmoreland Glass plant in Grapeville, near Jeannette. Initially called Westmoreland Specialty Co., the business was established in 1889 and changed its name in 1924. The glass company closed its doors in 1984.

Jackie Kosoglow shows off some of her collection of Westmoreland Glass.

Members of the National Westmoreland Glass Collector's Club are interested in glass from only one factory: Westmoreland Glass Company.

The company, based near Jeannette in the community of Grapeville, produced novelty items for nearly a century. Today it awaits demolition.

Shawn Wells, a history buff in the making, sifts through the pieces in the dark.

"Don't go back there, Shawn," warns Alan Wells, president of the club.

Shawn is searching the ruins of the glass factory for varieties he knows by name. At age 11, he wants to go back farther than his father will allow.

To get there, one must choose the strongest board from the refuse surrounding the door and hope it will hold when climbing in and, more importantly, out.

Alan and Shawn Wells weren't the first people at the factory. Graffiti murals cover its entrance. Curving paths of every color of broken glass await those who climb through the rubble.

Westmoreland Specialty Co. was established in 1889. The company changed its name to Westmoreland Glass Co. in 1924 and closed its doors in 1984.

Western Pennsylvania has a long history of glass production. The collector's club meets once a month at Persichetti's restaurant in Jeannette to discuss the pastime and keep it new. There are about 400 members across the nation and 10 to 15 collecters attend each local meeting.

"Pittsburgh was the center of the glass industry during the late 1800s," said Terry Porterfield, a former antiques dealer and a member of the society. Porterfield has held many positions in the club, including president and chairman. Other members refer to him as "the smart one."

Porterfield said that no one is producing hand-made glass locally because labor is much cheaper in other parts of the world.

According to Alan Wells, Westmoreland Glass Company was known as West Brothers before 1924. Around that time, the company started making candy containers, which remain the most popular collector's item. Before the commercial use of plastic, the plant manufactured glass lights, knobs and vases for cars.

"They came to this area because of natural gas," Porterfield said.

He said in the early days of the factory, natural gas was offered to employees for free to entice them to move to the area. The resource was discovered about 1890 and its use greatly changed the region.

Ken and Jackie Kosoglow, board of directors and membership secretary in the club, have been collecting Westmoreland Glass for decades. Kosoglow said the location of the factory gave it the means to receive shipments of supplies and export large amounts of product, which is how it became widely distributed.

Porterfield said Smith Glass in Mount Pleasant also was involved in early glass manufacture. He is a former employee of the plant, and absorbed most of his glass knowledge there.

He said he has been collecting Westmoreland Glass since 1984, when the factory closed and the items increased in rarity and value.

Wells got into glass collecting because his wife bought a creamer and sugar bowl from JC Penney in 1988.

"I said this is ugly, take it back," Wells said.

The newlyweds searched the area for more attractive tableware. They found a "panel grape milk glass" set, and have been collectors ever since. Karen Wells said she enjoys collecting because of the good friends she has made. The oldest vessel in their collection is a 1910 "floral colonial" piece.

"Westmoreland Glass was known for novelty stuff," she said.

Many early pieces were filled with condiments. They were later cleaned and used as candy jars. Porterfield said these dual uses were the earliest form of recycling. More than a hundred years later, they are traded at antique markets and on the Internet.

"Before eBay," Porterfield said, "we had a yearly convention to do trade."

What exactly does one do with a hundred hen-shaped candy dishes•

Porterfield, Wells and Kosoglow have floor-to-ceiling cases of Westmoreland glass like museums in their own homes.

Ernie Brown of Mt. Nebo was a glass decorator at Westmoreland Glass Company from 1958 to 1982. He moved to a similar company, Treasure Additions, when the closure of the factory became imminent. He said the factory usually had about 100 employees, but that varied. His hours were from 7 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.

"We all got our work done," Brown said.

He worked on all kinds of glass, painting the tiny details that make Westmoreland Glass so famous and so valuable. He said he is surprised there is such the extensive collector's market for the glass since at the time it just seemed like another day's work. He said he painted all kinds of glass; he signed and dated his pieces E. Brown.

"It gives you a good feeling to know it's still going on," he said.

Enjoying retired life, Brown still paints glassware on his own. He said he enjoyed working at the factory very much, although at the time he never thought about the significance of his work.

Kosoglow said many of the glass pieces are one of a kind and asymmetrical.

Before the 1960s, Westmoreland Glass was unsigned and undated. In the '70s, Wells said individual decorators at Westmoreland Glass Company started to have followers. Jeannette Antiques Mall on Clay Street in downtown Jeanette has an extensive collection of Westmoreland Glass for sale as well as a "museum" of items. Pieces cost between $10 and $500. The oldest pieces come from the 1880s.

Still, Kosoglow said, the buyer must be intuitive.

"Just because it's Westmoreland doesn't mean it's valuable," he said.

Popular types of glass are carnival, milk, ruby, ruby floral and ruby crystal. Wells said the local legend is that Lucille Ball had a full set of the crystal ruby glass.

Wells said original "carnival glass" was made with iron oxide. Pearly and iridescent in appearance, it continues to be coveted by collectors. Around 1927 this form of glass decoration began. But that glass was shipped elsewhere, because it was generally too expensive for people in this area to afford. Carnival glass has returned to the area by way of collectors; one can search for it at Jeanette Antiques Mall.

The club's Web site can be found at IT sends four newsletters per year and presents an annual convention at WCCC in June. In the 1990s, the club was involved with glass exhibiting at The Westmoreland Museum of American Art and at Heinz History Center.

Wells' 17-year-old son is interested in collecting, preferring a lotus-lilac opalescent with a high price. A small piece of this glass costs about $50; larger pieces sell for between $150 and $200. Prices for Westmoreland Glass can reach thousands of dollars, if it is rare enough. The idea for collecting, said Wells, is "purchase it now, they're never gonna have it again."

"It wouldn't be the first time glassware came before food," said Wells, referring to a must-have acquisition.

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