When Tennessee Williams penned The Glass Menagerie, he made the connection between the fragility of the collectable, glass unicorn and the heroine Laura’s wounded, vulnerable nature. The play was applauded for its poetic language and lyrical imagery. In collector Nancy Norman’s world, her array of glass items is also a metaphor, but it’s symbolic of her commitment to perseverance, preservation, and passion to acquire knowledge and understanding of her avocation.
The Texas native came across her first collectible piece in the early 1980s while browsing at an estate sale in Sugar Land. “I picked up a bowl with a beautiful etching on it. I carried it around, trying to find out more about it. This led me to a world of gorgeous glass that I didn’t know existed,” Norman recalls.
Asking questions and looking for answers, Norman discovered the glassware manufacturer Tiffin, and found out that her pattern was called “Fuchsia.” This began her quest for more Tiffin-related creations, as well as other meticulously maintained vases, goblets, decanters, serving platters, and other table essentials.
“My preference has remained the Tiffin pieces, simply because it was the first company that I did research on. Tiffin glassware was produced in Tiffin, Ohio, from the turn of the last century to the late 1970s. I have also acquired other collections from companies such as Fry, Fenton, Heisey, and Fostoria,” the enthusiast remarks.
Married to supportive spouse, Ike Estes, Nancy says that her husband has never made a negative comment about how much glass she has bought, nor how much she has spent on the display cabinets and their contents: “He looks at it as an investment and something tangible that can be enjoyed — unlike his catch-and-release fishing trips with nothing to show for them!” she laughs.
At her current tallying, Norman estimates that she has about 1,000 pieces in her collection — “that’s if you include all the elegant glass, china, pottery, kitchen glass, TV lamps, and collectibles.”
She houses much of her treasures in nine display cabinets, and reveals “the glass is inside the cabinets and on top of the cabinets, and really any available place to show it off.” On special occasions, Nancy and Ike will host dinner parties where they use “the ‘unclinkable’ glasses, along with the different china patterns.” It is very satisfying to have her beloved collectibles used and enjoyed rather than just stored and showcased.
In Nancy’s kitchen, she has much of the glassware that she grew up with: “My mom had some very collectable items, but she didn’t have the knowledge to realize the value of them at that time. Also, many of the things that she had weren’t collectable until later on in years.”
Looking around her home and basking in her accomplishments of finding and saving all of these fragile objects, Norman admits that she might have reached “saturation level.” In order to buy anything new today, she feels the item has to be “truly special and significant.” To that end, she will still “drop by the local antique mall, hoping to find that rare piece that I don’t possess. I will occasionally get something from eBay® if it’s something that I have found before. You see, I normally like to touch it and feel it before buying it.”
Acquiring her collection drew upon all of Norman’s senses, and the glass’s tactile texture and visual appeal factored heavily in making her decision on whether to buy or pass. Additionally, she also drew upon the information she learned from poring over pages and pages of encyclopedias and handbooks. “It helps to know the history and background of what you are collecting,” Nancy acknowledges. “I have a home library consisting of about 100 books. I constantly refer to these for pricing and background information. If a new collector wants to buy something, she should, likewise, do some research. These days, she can go online or head to her local library. She should learn as much as possible about the glass manufacturer and hit as many antique stores and malls as possible.”
Another way to gather historical perspective and good, sound advice is to join a collectors’ group. Norman did that, as well, when she was beginning her glass gathering. Today, she holds a key position with the Houston Glass Club and is the chairman of their “Glass and Antique Show,” which is held every August in Rosenberg, Texas. (This year’s event is being held August 17 to 19, and will feature 31 glass dealers, 23 antique dealers, and a glass repair person.)
“The Houston Glass Club has an extensive library, with several hundred books that are available to its members. We have folks who run the gamut from dealers to those who just want to learn more about glassware that they have inherited,” Nancy explains.
In her own life, the collector ponders who will inherit her painstaking displays, which she has put together over the past 30 years. “Unfortunately, I don’t have any children to pass this along to or share the passion with. However, I have a lot of friends associated with glass, so they totally understand my passion. My friends have put dibs on certain things. Also, I hope that my nieces and nephew will want one of my collections.”
Norman has spent over three decades exploring, investigating, accumulating, and preserving since she stopped at that Sugar Land estate sale and stumbled upon a fragile piece of history. Like the bowl she held, her experiences in glass collecting have come full circle as well.
“Last year, the Fort Bend Libraries featured glass displays from members of the Houston Glass Club, and I displayed a representative sample of Tiffin glassware at the library in Sugar Land. It was displayed for an entire month,” Norman proudly states.
How fitting that one fleeting moment at a Sugar Land tag sale would end with a month-long tribute to Nancy Norman’s keen eye and dedication to the world of glass.