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H.C. Fry Glass Co. created legacy of fine craftsmanship

| Tuesday, July 1, 2003

Let's just say that Henry Clay Fry got a late start as an entrepreneur.

After managing glassmaking companies for most of his adult life, the 61-year-old Beaver County resident finally opened his own plant in Rochester, Pa., just a little more than 100 years ago on June 28, 1902. For the next three decades, the H.C. Fry Glass Co. produced some of the finest crystal, art glass and ovenware made anywhere in the United States -- until his empire shattered.

More than 270 pieces of Fry glass hits the market during the July 13 sale at J.S. Dill Auctions in Evans City, only a few miles from the 12-acre hilltop complex that manufactured the finely crafted creations that once rivaled the work of Steuben and other renowned firms. Even more important, the collection, from the estate of a Slippery Rock University professor of music, includes 88 pieces of Fry's highly praised Foval line.

An acronym for Fry Ovenglass Art Line, Foval debuted in the mid-1920s and proved an instant hit with consumers. Known for its Deco elegance, typical Foval ware features milky, translucent shades of blue, jade and red with solid bands of color on handles, rims and other accent pieces. In some cases, silver overlay edging added an ornamental touch. The collection up for bid includes plates, pitchers, jugs, cups and more with the blue decorative bands. Despite its enduring popularity, Foval might have contributed to the downfall of the Fry dynasty.

"The company didn't market Foval nationwide," says Bob Hanks of J.S. Dill, "because they thought it was too fragile for everyday use and that people wouldn't buy it for that reason. As a result, it was extremely rare to find Foval outside of Pennsylvania. And some folks say Foval caused some of the financial problems that forced Fry to close down."

Although the Fry glassmaking holdings included a plant that employed upwards of 500 to 1,000 workers, a natural gas company and a water refining facility, the company slipped into bankruptcy for the first time in 1926. Many glass historians feel that the high cost of producing and finishing Foval, which required extensive hand finishing and polishing, caused the money woes.

The company seemed to regain its momentum, but it suffered another setback when Henry Fry died in 1931. With the onset of the Great Depression, declining sales and rising debt again struck the plant, forcing management to pay workers in glassware before the company unavoidably fell into receivership in 1933. Eventually, Libbey bought the property, and Phoenix Glass purchased many of the Fry molds. By the 1940s, the once-bustling plant was a defunct expanse of ruins. Today, all that remains of the Fry Co. empire is the exquisite glass it produced for 30 years.

While the Fry glass is the highlight of the July 13 sale, the auction also includes a nice selection of Victorian and Eastlake furniture, pottery, porcelain, china, Oriental rugs and more. Hanks notes that the entire estate is intact, a rarity on the auction circuit these days.

In addition to the blockbuster glass sale, J.S. Dill offers a July 10 auction that features the possessions of a Squirrel Hill doctor who traveled throughout Asia, Europe and Africa purchasing furniture, art, rugs, pottery, walking sticks and other items that filled his home, office and studio.

Plus, a selection of smalls and collectibles includes a paycheck signed by Hall of Fame Green Bay Packers head coach Vince Lombardi, Elvis Presley memorabilia and American silver coins.

And to get things started this week, Dill will fire up a pre-Independence Day barn burner on Thursday bursting with red, white and blue Americana such as a genuine Coca-Cola picnic cooler, vintage 1940s toys, classic gasoline company equipment and more home-style offerings.

Previews for the Thursday and July 10 sales will begin at 5 p.m., with the auctions starting at 6 p.m. The July 13 auction will open with a preview at 11 a.m. and bidding at 1 p.m. All sales are at the J.S. Dill Auction center, 360 W. Main St., Evans City.

Details: (412) 362-9001, (724) 538-7300 or .

Recent sales
Royal York Auction Gallery

Royal York owner Bob Simon closed out the first half of the year Saturday at the East Liberty auction house with a nice sale of goods from various estates and consignors.

Bidding proved strong for a 1920s Georgian-style sideboard ornately decorated with a gilded circassian walnut frieze and marble top. Part of a dining set, the sideboard hammered down a final price of $2,000.

Other highlights included a Deco wicker desk ($300), a Victorian library table with finely turned legs ($425) and a well-tended 19th-century pinewood dry sink ($400).

Auction updates

  • Following a three-week hiatus, the Royal York Auction Gallery swings back into action with a July 19 sale. Details: (412) 661-1171.

  • Returning to the Firemen's Banquet Hall in West View for the third time in just over a month, Constantine & Mayer Inc. will set up shop July 21 for an estate sale of the possessions of Jane Taggert. Details: (412) 828-7016.

  • Dargate Auction Galleries in the East End returns July 26 and 27 -- with a preview July 25 -- with a mid-summer super sale that includes nine pieces of Boulle furniture, 50-plus pieces of Roseville, Victorian furniture, fine paintings and more in the 1,400 lots up for bid. Details: (412) 362-3558 or .

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