The Iowan

Glass Collecting 101

Experiences and reflections on 45 years of glass collecting.

By James Measell

Not long ago, someone made this request of me: “What advice would you give those of us who are just starting to collect glass? You and your wife have been glass collectors for more than 45 years, so I’d like to benefit from your experiences and reflections on those years.”

My first response was to say to myself, “Has it been that long?” but I do indeed recall the chilly afternoon in October 1965 when Brenda and I bought that first piece of glass. Why did we bid on that light brown tall creamer at an outdoor auction of an antique shop in Akron, Ohio, even though we didn’t know what it was? The answer is twofold: we both liked it when we first saw it, and the price was right for our budget. First and foremost: collect glass you like. Your reasons for appreciating it may range from its intrinsic color or distinctive shape to a childhood memory of seeing something like it in your parents’ or grandparents’ home. Don’t worry about price trends, and ignore those glitzy “think pieces” that promise inside information about “what’s hot and what’s not.” 

When it comes to color, your glass collecting options are many and varied. Transparent glass can be found in crystal and all the colors of the rainbow: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet. Within some of these colors there may be an almost infinite variety of tones. For example, Fenton Art Glass created dozens of different “blues” during its 100-plus years of glass production. If color is your thing, ask yourself why you prefer that color. Perhaps it’s for home décor, so your glass must blend with paint and fabric, or it may simply be that you like some colors more than others. Those who collect by color tend to like quantity, and I must admit that oodles and oodles of ruby or cobalt blue or violet glass is often an impressive sight. 

Shape is an interesting concept, and the inherent nature of glass is such that it can be found in a tremendous range of shapes. However, the shapes can generally be classified as either utilitarian or decorative (although there is surely some overlap). I’ve seen great collections of spooners or creamers, and there is certainly appeal in toothpick holders or salt and pepper shakers. The latter are relatively small in size and, consequently, easy to display within the confines of modest space, but cakestands and punch sets will demand a good bit of room. The Houston Museum in Tennessee once boasted a collection of water pitchers hung by the handles from hooks in the ceiling, but I’m reluctant to suggest such an option for display.

Childhood memories are often strong motivators, and many a glass collection has started with a piece or two that came directly from parents or other relatives or was acquired because mom or grandma “had one just like it.” If this is the case for you, the challenge is finding the identity of the manufacturer and seeking to find additional items that match to extend your collection. 

So, while an initial interest may stem from color, shape, or childhood memories, your appreciation of the glass objects you purchase will increase by learning more about them. This is the essential difference between acquiring and collecting. Those who acquire simply add item after item as if they are in a quest to reach a certain number and win a prize. Those who truly collect want to know the story behind each piece, ranging from its manufacturer and date of production to the mysteries of glass color chemistry and the intricacies of how particular items were made by blowing or pressing. Books, museums, and collector’s clubs all contribute to the learning process that makes a collector a collector. The fact that you’re reading Treasures tells me you’re already on your way!

How does one learn about glass history and production methods? Fortunately, there are a great many books devoted to glass. For starters, I’d suggest these classics: Albert Christian Revi’s Nineteenth Century Glass, Kyle Husfloen’s Collector’s Guide to American Pressed Glass: 1825 – 1915, and Barbara and Jim Mauzy’s works on Depression glass. These books are more than pretty pictures, for each provides good descriptions and sound information. If these books are not available in your local library, request them on interlibrary loan, and you’ll likely have one or more of them at hand within a few days.

If your fledgling glass collection includes items for which the manufacturer is known, don’t delay looking for a specialist collector’s club as well as books devoted to that specific manufacturer (the website can be most helpful when you search using key words). Sad to say, the golden age of glassmaking in America is long past, but the collectors’ clubs keep the memories alive and the enthusiasm percolating by publishing newsletters that are remarkable reservoirs of information. Annual conventions and other occasional meetings provide great learning opportunities through seminars and presentations by collectors.

Visits to glass museums are a must. The Corning Museum of Glass in Corning, N.Y., is the finest and most comprehensive glass museum in the world. You can see everything from ancient glass to Depression glass, so plan to spend at least two days. Other museums have wide ranging collections, too, so check out the Historical Glass Museum in Redlands, Calif., or the West Virginia Museum of American Glass in Weston, W.Va. Other museums may focus on glass made in a particular region, such as Wheeling glass (Carriage House Glass Museum at Oglebay Park in Wheeling, W.Va.) or by a specific manufacturer (Cambridge; Duncan Miller; Fenton; Greentown; Heisey; Imperial; etc.).

Early in this article, I alluded to the cost (“the price was right”) of our first purchase, a Chocolate glass No. 29 tankard creamer made by the Indiana Tumbler and Goblet Company of Greentown, Ind., during 1901 – 1903, so some comment about prices is in order here. It’s important to stay within a budget, lest you purchase an item that will trigger feelings of regret every time you look at it. Regardless of the kind of glass you choose to collect, over your collecting life you’ll find bargains and you’ll see price tags with numbers that will make you gulp and gasp.

Buy what you like and spend what you can afford. Last, but not least, keep learning! 

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