Tips for Identifying Early American Glass

By Anne Gilbert 

When even the "experts" can be fooled by what is supposed to be authentic late-18th to mid-19th century American glass, does a beginning collector have a chance? While it may be discouraging, there is a lot of help if you are willing to do the research. Recently in an auction catalog, I spotted what were supposed to be late 18th century bottles with enameled figures and Pennsylvania Dutch type motifs.

Research would tell you otherwise. You would learn that the two most-wanted types of American glass, South Jersey and Stiegel are the most confusing to collectors.
It was the 18th century glass house of Caspar Wistar, in southern New Jersey where the free blown glass we know as South Jersey or Wistarberg was made. It is among the earliest known American glass houses. When South Jersey glass is mentioned, what usually comes to mind is an aqua-colored object with lily pad decorations. The dominate colors of the pieces were light green and aquamarine.
Wistar, who was from Germany, actually had no knowledge of the glassmaking processes and hired experts from Holland and Germany.

CLUES: To an untrained eye, the enameled pieces made at Henry William Stiegel's glass house in Manheim, Penn., would seem easy to recognize. However, the same type of enameled work was also made in Switzerland, Germany and Bohemia. His workmen who came from those countries imitated the glass they were familiar with. The pieces were done with copper wheel engraving. The enameled pieces used white, wavy scallop or red and mustard colored line borders. Folk figures, animals and steeples were often combined with inscriptions.

Many museum reproductions are sold not only in museum gift shops but in the secondary market as antiques. South Jersey and enameled pieces often turn up as antiques at small auctions and out-of-the-way shops. Look on the bottom for evidence of removal of the museum name or newly manufactured dates that show up as scratches.

Faking of the early South Jersey pieces became a full time occupation in the late 1930s for the Clevenger Brothers and Emil J. Larson. The Clevengers specialized in the lily pad pieces while Larson made Stiegel-type glass. The Clevenger pieces are heavy in comparison with authentic items. When recognized, the prices are much lower. Both men were master glassblowers.

Boston & Sandwich lacy glass cup plates were heavily reproduced in the 1960s and on. Authentic pieces have a bell-like ring when tapped. Repros emit a dull thud.
To learn more, try and find copies of The Phaidon Guide to Glass by Felice Mehlman, usually in museum gift shops, and the classic book, American Glass by George and Helen McKearin.

A pair of Stiegel-type spirits bottles. (Photo, Cowan auctions, Cincinnati, OH.)

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