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Glass from the past

| Sunday, Nov. 6, 2005

Long before Pittsburgh gained the nickname "The Steel City," it was recognized as a major center for glassmaking.

With a wealth of natural resources such as coal for fuel, silica from river sand, potash from burning hardwood and limestone, Pittsburgh was an ideal spot for glassmaking in 1797 when Gen. James O'Hara established, with the help of Major Isaac Craig, the O'Hara-Craig glassworks. The company made utilitarian wares, such as windowpanes and whiskey bottles.

By 1813, Pittsburgh's glass industry had grown to include a total of five glass factories operating in the city. Thanks in part to river transportation, and later railroads, along with natural gas for fueling glassmaking equipment, by 1840 Pittsburgh and its surrounding areas became the leading glass producing region in the country. By the end of the Civil War, glassworks in Allegheny County alone accounted for nearly 30 percent of all the glass produced in the United States.

Even well into the first half of the 20th century, the tri-state area continued to be a major force in the glassmaking industry. By 1920, a whopping 80 percent of all glass made in America came from the Western Pennsylvania-Eastern Ohio-West Virginia Panhandle region.

Just a sample listing of companies that dotted the region during this time includes Fostoria Glass in Morgantown, W.Va.; Fry Glass in Beaver; the Cambridge Glass Co. in Cambridge, Ohio; Bryce Glass in Mt. Pleasant; and Consolidated Lamp & Glass Co. in Coraopolis -- all familiar names to collectors.

Though by the 1960s glass production in the Pittsburgh area had begun to fade, today the city is still an important glass center and serves as the headquarters for PPG. There are also about two dozen industrial glass producers in the region, as well as an award-winning studio glassmaking facility -- The Pittsburgh Glass Center in Friendship -- which quickly is becoming recognized the world over as a state-of-the-art teaching and training facility for studio glass artists.

But interest in the old glass of Pittsburgh's past hasn't waned.

The reason is simple, according to Edith Putanko, a South Hills glass dealer for 27 years and a board member and past president of The Three Rivers Depression Era Glass Society, an organization of about 65 members that meets monthly in Canonsburg.

"Nostalgia is really the driving force behind glass collecting," she said. "There's much nostalgia connected with glass. You remember your grandmother's kitchen and say, 'She had a Mickey Mouse cookie jar or a pink glass jar that she kept macaroni in' or who knows what. This stays in people's minds and they come looking for it. They want to have something that reminds them of their past. They want to have something that reminds them of what was at Grandma's house, or their mother's or their aunt's."

Clif Dietz, who grew up in Beaver, remembers seeing pieces of Fry glass at the homes of relatives and friends.

"It was made in Rochester, and I lived in the next town over. So I grew up seeing it and hearing about the company."

H. C. Fry Glass was established in Rochester in 1901 by Henry Clay Fry (1840-1929). Already 61 when he founded this company, Fry had a lifetime of experience working, managing and owning other glassworks, which he applied to setting up the most modern and technically advanced glassworks in the country.

He and his two sons produced a wide range of high-quality glass in large volumes until the Great Depression in 1929 led to the company being closed in 1933.

Known for producing cut crystal glass, etched glass, art glass tableware and other kitchenware, the company's heat-resistant oven glass, which was made by the company from 1916 onward under license from the Corning glass company, still is considered to be the best quality bakeware around.

Dietz, who has collected Fry glass since he was 16, owns more than 2,000 pieces of glass made by the company.

"Early on, I decided that that was all I would collect, because they made such a wide variety of things I didn't feel that I needed to branch out," he said.

Although he owns examples of all varieties, it is the cut crystal and etched pieces he prizes the most. He keeps many of them at his dental office in Beaver.

"I have a lot of my collection here, because I spend a lot of time here being self-employed. So it's nice having it where I am most of the time," he said.

Putanko points out that often, a collector's connection to glassware is more direct.

"Usually it's a connection to the company. Somebody who had a great aunt who decorated for a certain company or grandfather that might have worked there," she said.

Harley Trice, a lawyer with the Downtown firm of Reed Smith, LLP, is an avid collector of 19th-century glass. Trice is the great-great-grandson of James Bryce, who once was an apprentice to Bakewell and Pears, perhaps Pittsburgh's most famous glassworks, known to have furnished tableware for presidents Madison, Monroe and Jackson.

Born in Scotland in 1812, Bryce migrated to the United States at the age of 5 with his family, and lived in Philadelphia before moving to Pittsburgh in 1819. In 1827 the 15-year-old was indentured to Bakewell, Page & Bakewell. In 1850, with the help of his brothers, Robert and John, who were joined by the McKee brothers, Frederick and James, he established the firm Bryce, McKee and Co.

In 1882, members of the Bryce family sold their interest to U.S. Glass Co., and the company then became known as "Factory B." Three years later the Bryce brothers re-established their business in Hammondville, where glass products were produced until 1896, when a new factory was built at Mt. Pleasant.

Bryce Brothers produced tableware, lamps, apothecary wares and bottles. Their pressed glass patterns -- Roman Rosette, Ribbon Candy and Ribbed Palm or Sprig -- were well-known, as were patterns named Diamond Sunburst, Thistle and Strawberry, for which design patents were secured.

The earliest piece of Bryce glass in Trice's collection is a cut glass decanter of Thistle and Strawberry design that dates to the first decade the company began production. His latest piece is a turkey-eagle glass tumbler that features a half-turkey/half-eagle emblazoned on it in a green oval, a design the Bryce Brothers produced from 1950 until Lenox Co. acquired the company in 1965.

"That was a compromise between (Thomas) Jefferson and (Benjamin) Franklin," Trice said about the historical reference that precipitated the design. "Each of them had their own idea of what the national bird should be. Franklin wanted the turkey and Jefferson wanted the eagle, and so the compromise was a turkey head on an eagle body. Unless you really look at it carefully, it sort of looks like an eagle, and that's what was always known as the turkey-eagle glass."

Although Trice is well-versed in his family's company's history, and is working on a book about it, he said, "Collecting Bryce is probably 10 percent of my interest in glass. I have a lot of other stuff."

Most interesting among his prized collection of more than 200 pieces of early Pittsburgh glass is a 2.5-foot tall Heinz ketchup bottle. One of only two known to exist -- the other is owned by former Heinz Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Anthony O'Reilly -- it once was displayed in the window of the company store around the turn of the last century.

Trice said it was a surprise find, considering he has learned since acquiring the bottle that Heinz had its own glass manufacturing plant at one time.

"That company only existed from 1869 until it burned in 1910," Trice said. "I'd never known that Heinz was an integrated operation, not only making the food, but also the vessels and jars that it was sold in."

Although he has paid a considerable amount for some of the pieces in his collection -- particularly the cut and carved flint glass pieces by Bakewell that are so prized among collectors -- Trice said it's not always the earliest pieces of Pittsburgh glass that are the most expensive.

He cites, for example, the Ruba Rombic line of Art Deco glassware once made by the Consolidated Lamp & Glass Co., which is eagerly sought by today's Art Deco and Consolidated glass collectors.

"It's more expensive than almost any early glass," Trice said.

As prized as Ruba Rombic glass is, that's not what sets apart Cochranton resident Jerry Przybylek's glass collection. It's the fact that his father, Walter Przybylek, helped to create many of the Ruba Rombic pieces that came out of the factory.

Founded in the late 1800s, Consolidated Lamp & Glass Co. was located just a short distance down the Ohio River from Pittsburgh, in Coraopolis. Known for its decorative lamps and a line of art glass called Martele, which the company introduced in 1926, it is most recognized today for its Ruba Rombic glass.

The art glass line distinguished by its multifaceted rock- or crystal-like appearance was designed by Pittsburgh native Reuben Haley (1872-1933), who was inspired by French art designer Rene Lalique.

It was Haley who convinced Consolidated Glass Co. to enter the art glass business, and in 1925 he designed their line of Martele glassware that was introduced to the trade in January 1926 at the Fort Pitt Hotel trade show. A year later he designed the Ruba Rombic line that he created with a unique "sand core mold" technique.

"At the age of 15 my father became an apprentice to Reuben Haley, and then up until 1933 he worked with Reuben on a daily basis," Przybylek said. "Reuben Haley developed a pattern process for casting in sand core molds where you would actually cast the inside pattern of the glass in a sand mold. It was quite unknown and wasn't perfected until he did it. Because of that, my father never wanted for work his entire life, because he knew that process."

Although the Great Depression caused Consolidated to shut down from 1932 until 1936, Przybylek said his father was able to continue working for such companies as Duncan and Miller, Imperial, Fostoria, Heisey, and Tiffan.

"They were all customers of his, which he kept working for after Reuben passed away," Przybylek said.

Consolidated continued to produce art glass in the 1940s and 1950s; however, much of it was the milk glass line, Con Cora. The factory was destroyed by a fire in 1963.

Przybylek said he has nearly 40 original molds that his father designed.

"One of the fun things my wife and I have done since I retired in '98 has been trying to find corresponding glass pieces to those models," Przybylek said.

"One of the most valuable things that I have from a family standpoint is one of the original figures of the dancing nymphs from the (Consolidated) dancing nymph plate. I have the mold off of the original clay model of the figures on that plate. It's something that would be strictly one of a kind. That's my pride and joy."

With the large number of glass companies that operated in the Pittsburgh area over the past two centuries, and the many collectors, the history of Pittsburgh glass will live on in their curio cabinets for a long time to come.

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