Tuesday in Mooseville – Down the Rabbit Hole: We Don’t Make Anything Anymore 12/17/19

“Down the rabbit hole” sign at the Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas

Today brings another edition of my brain and how it works; going down the rabbit hole is actually one of the nicer ways of describing my thought processes. Today’s topic started with this simple paragraph in a book I’m reading about the WPA:

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.

Jack in the pulpit vase, Quezal art glass. Exhibit in the Currier Museum of Art – Manchester, New Hampshire, USA.

Bach was the son of a glassmaker who had worked at Tiffany before co-founding the Quezal Art Glass and Decorating Company. Today, Quezal glass is world famous (and if you haven’t seen any in person, find a way to do so; it’s beyond stunning), but the company struggled. Each piece was handpainted, a costly and time-consuming process, so it suffered in the mass marketplace. After the senior Martin Bach died, his son brought in additional investors, but it was too little, too late. Quezal closed, and after a stint at the Imperial Glass Company in Bellaire, OH (makers of Imperial Cape Cod and later Imperial Candlewick, among many others), Bach joined Durand to start Durand Art Glass and the “Fancy Shop.” Bach came to the newly-formed Durand Art Glass division with more than experience and ideas; he also recruited former Quezal glassworkers to make the 130 mile move to Vineland. Perhaps most importantly of all, Bach had the Quezal glassmaking formulas and final catalogs, which allowed Durand Art Glass to hit the ground running. Initially then, Durand glass was purely imitative of Quezal, but within a year or two of its 1924 start, the free rein given to the artisans of the Fancy Shop was leading to a blending of Quezal with elements that would come to be considered distinctly Durand. This free rein led to a wide range of shapes, styles, and forms did not lend themselves to profitability, but Victor Durand was committed to supporting the division for arts’ sake. in 1926, his vision was rewarded when Durand Art Glass was awarded a medal of honor at the Sesquicentennial International Exposition in Philadelphia. An example of a piece of Durand Art Glass with its distinctive ambergris (yellow) base can be seen here: Durand huge pulled feather iridescent art glass vase.

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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DoReMI

Now a Michigander, by way of Ohio, Illinois, Scotland, Rhode Island, and Pennsylvania. Gardener. Sewer. Democrat. Resister. 

  3 comments for “Tuesday in Mooseville – Down the Rabbit Hole: We Don’t Make Anything Anymore 12/17/19

  1. bfitzinAR
    December 17, 2019 at 10:27 am

    The insistence of the wealthy to force working people onto welfare where they can sneer at them and feel superior to them has always confounded me. Destroying what benefits everyone – including them – just so they are the only ones getting any even if less benefit – is a hallmark of euro/colonizer culture. I grew up in that culture and it should make sense to me. But it never has. sigh. (I’ve got to dig that book out again. I haven’t read it in at least 4 years. It shows so much of the possible – even as it shows how and why that possible got shut down again.)

    {{{DoReMI}}} – thank you. & Holding the Good Thought on the job situation.

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    • DoReMI
      December 17, 2019 at 1:39 pm

      I’m only halfway through the book, but I’m marveling at the creativity of Hopkins et. al. in coming up with meaningful projects. The accusations of “make work” held true in such a small percentage of projects, while the legacy of so many of the projects continues. Now if I could just find a picture of one of the WPA vases so that particular itch is scratched. I’m so close to contacting the glass museum in NJ to see if they have any of the WPA pieces!

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  2. bfitzinAR
    December 17, 2019 at 3:43 pm

    You could say the Rs never change – projection is their middle name or something. Make-work projects were the early responses – at the state and municipal levels – to the massive amount of unemployment. Hoover was adamant that it wasn’t the federal govt’s business to deal with such emergencies. There wasn’t a minimum wage yet so the pittance paid to rake leaves can’t be said to be below it but… The 1st minimum was set under FDR. At 25 cents/hour – and most WPA (& CCC) jobs paid that $16/week no matter what the job was for. From road building to mattress making to hot lunches in public schools (where the school lunch program started) to painting murals in post offices – $16/week. And it was a livable wage except in really cold/expensive winter fuel areas. The main “alphabet soup” agency rule was use “man power” wherever possible. Machine usage was held to a minimum to employ more workers. Very wise use of federal money. If the Rs hadn’t started screaming about the deficit (sound familiar) they’d have done more and actually started the economy back on its own. But they penny-pinched it, caused another downturn in 1938 from trying to balance the budget too soon. Then the most massive public works project in history happened – WWII. It took decades of R priorities to kill the economy after that infusion of govt dollars. (If we mobilized like that to fight global warming it would have the same economic bonus. IF.)

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