Then Lenson got wind of an old glassworks in Vineland, New Jersey. Vineland and Millville to the south had once formed the nexus of a glassblowing area in south-central New Jersey. The sand there was fine and free of impurities, perfect for glassmaking, but the glass factories, overtaken by modern manufacturing methods, had now closed, leaving dozens of glassblowers jobless. Lenson sought them out and told them he had a plan to put them back to work. (Taylor, Nick. American-Made: The Enduring Legacy of the WPA: When FDR Put the Nation to Work, Bantam Books, 2008, p. 276.)
As a lover of vintage glass, my first thought was that I wanted to at least see a piece of this WPA glass, a possibility I’m still researching. My next thought was that I wondered which glass factories had closed. I found one company that may have been one of those to which the book referred (the endnotes do nothing to solve the mystery), and it’s a fascinating story of hope, beauty, and tragedy.
Vineland Flint Glass Works was founded in 1897 and was a successful producer of scientific and chemical glassware. By the 1920s, the company had expanded into other areas of commercial glassware such as light bulbs and thermos liners. Victor Durand, Jr., the son of the founder, kept the business on a steady course, and Vineland Flint Glass Works was one of the most successful glass companies in the country. Despite, or maybe because of, the solid foundation provided by the commercial glass business, Durand wanted to expand production to include art glass. To that end, Durand hired Martin Bach, Jr. to lead a new art glass division.
The art glass division might have continued for many more years under Victor Durant’s patronage and Martin Bach’s leadership. Vineland Flint Glass Works, the parent company, was in the process of negotiating a merger with Kimble Glass Company, but Durand’s committment to the art glass division was so complete that there is little doubt he would have found a way to continue its work, whether as a division in the new company or as a stand-alone maker. However, before the merger was finalized, Durand died in an automobile accident in 1931. When Kimble Glass came into being later in 1931, the the Fancy Shop wares continued to be sold but there was no new production; by the end of 1932, the shop was closed, the artisans were let go, and any glassware left was destroyed.
I’m not 100% certain that the glass artisans hired by the WPA were the Quezal/Durand workers, but it seems possible and maybe even probable. The WPA hiring of highly-skilled glassblowers should have been a feel-good happy ending for these workers. After years of not working as blowers, they now had work in their area of specialization, and they made vases, perfume bottles, bowls, pitchers, paperweights, and candle holders. WPA projects were prohibited from competing with private enterprise, so their output was given away to places like hospitals and libraries which only paid the cost of materials. Eleanor Roosevelt even bought a set of vases for the White House. What happened next varies from source to source. Some sources claim that the New Jersey glass project proved to be too expensive and was shut down in 1937. Other sources claim that Corning in New York complained, stating that if New Jersey was going to have art glass in public buildings, it should come from their Steuben division. The pressure from Corning, according to these sources, is why the project shut down in 1937. Whatever the true cause (and I suspect it was a combination of both stories), the project did shut down…and the glassblowers went back on relief.
Tonight, a post at 7pm: the next level of the rabbit hole.
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