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People behind the glass

Written by Jack Wilson. Posted in People

The people who worked for these companies helped shape the glass and pottery they made. In this section we focus on their stories.

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About the people

Written by Jack Wilson. Posted in People

The people behind the glass shaped the history of these companies. In this section we look at some of these people and their contributions.

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Reuben Haley: 20th Century Glass Master

Written by Jack Wilson. Posted in People

by Thomas Jiamachello.

Paris in 1925 was a city alive, bursting with new energy as France regained its vigor as a nation and again became of the centers of art in the Western world. There was new money being made, new literature and art being exhibited, new architecture being designed and built. The time was right for a too long delayed exhibit in the field of decorative arts. That exhibition, which was called l'Exposition Internationale des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels Modernes, truly can be looked at as one of the pivotal events of the 20th century. The term Art Deco, coined in the 1960s by Alaistir Duncan, refers to this Modern Art (Art Moderne).

 Page from Phoenix & Consolidated 1926-1980

Above page courtesy of Jack D. Wilson.

In the United States, the predilection for traditional styles dominated the decorative arts. Although Louis Comfort Tiffany had reached back and revived Egyptian and Roman glass shapes, motifs, and treatments with great success, the masses seemed to be comfortably ensconced in the status quo. The extent of this phenomenon can be seen in the reaction when high American officials received an invitation to participate in the 1925 Paris International Exposition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts. Saying that there really was nothing new and worthy of exhibit, the U.S. government passed up the chance to be represented at the Fair.

This did not mean that American designers were unaware or unexcited about the Paris Exhibition. In fact, a delegation of New York city based industrial designers attended the fair and were stunned by the originality of work seen there. More importantly, in 1926, a traveling exhibit of some 400 objects, including over 50 pieces of glass had already been in Boston and the Met in New York by April. The exhibit continued to Cleveland, Detroit, St. Louis, Minneapolis, Pittsburgh, and Philadelphia. In the decorative arts field of glassware, the work of Rene Lalique, master glass designer and producer, was well represented in this show. There were "glass vases decorated with large berries, brown scarabs, birds. Glass vases in blue and gray, opal and in violet and opal green."

This traveling exhibition was to have a profound impact on the designer whom I have chosen to highlight in this second installment.

REUBEN HALEY Designer of three of the most extensive lines of "Art Deco" glassware ever to be produced in the United States, Reuben Haley created the Martele, Catalonian, and Ruba Rombic lines for the Consolidated Glass Company's Art Glassware Division from 1926-1933.

Prior to that time, Reuben Haley had spent all his life in the glass industry. Born in 1872, he was in the words of his obituary, taken from a glass industry journal, "one of the best known glass designers in the country...was unquestionably one of the most prolific men in his particular field. Few have given the industry so many original designs as he. He was one of the very few designers in the country who first modeled all their designs in clay; for he was a sculptor as well as a designer and metal worker."

This last mention of the way Haley produced the molds for his designs is the key to understanding the fortuitous combination which was to produce such amazing glassware. A talented designer using the "cast figure mould" process, incredible "color" men who mixed the glass batches and gifted mould makers all combined to produce some of the most original and technically sophisticated glassware of the 20th century.

Martele labelIt is undeniable that the motifs and glass treatments of Rene Lalique were the main inspiration for the Martele line. This line of glassware is well documented and presented in Jack Wilson's seminal book - Phoenix and Consolidated Art Glass, published in 1989 by Antique Publications. The Martele line offers the best of Lalique's French Art Nouveau motifs, made right here in the good ole U.S of A. It is highly collectible today and has recently started to be seen in some of the better 20th century specialist auction houses in the country. This line of glassware met with commercial and critical success. It was highly popular. It is good testament to the fact that a glass company is a business which must produce what the public will buy.

Ah, but the avant garde is alive and well with Reuben Haley! Capitalizing on the recent appearance in the U.S. of the traveling exhibition of the Paris Exposition, in 1928, just three years after the Art Deco aesthetic reached our shores, Reuben Haley designed and the Consolidated Glass Company produced one line of geometric, angular and original glassware which created a stir the minute it was introduced to the American market and that excitement continues unabated today---- Ruba Rombic. Magical words to Art Deco glassware collectors today, this line consisting of 37 items in colors such as "Smoky Topaz", "Jungle Green", "Jade", "Lilac", "Sunshine", and "Silver" remains quintessentially Art Deco.

Ruba Rombic labelIt is estimated by members of the Phoenix and Consolidated Collectors Club that there are perhaps only fewer than 3000 pieces of this rare glassware which survive today. The complete line can be seen in Jack Wilson's book in a rare 7 page advertising supplement which is in itself a masterpiece of Art Deco advertising. The play of light and shadow in the ads mirrors that of the glassware itself. Named Ruba Rombic by Consolidated, its name is said to derive from two words. "Rubaiy (meaning epic or poem) and Rombic (meaning irregular in shape)". Consolidated referred to this line as an "Epic in Modern Art."

Ruba Rombic toilet bottleThe reaction of the glass industry can be seen in the following quote: "This is an absolutely cubist creation, and some would call it the craziest thing ever brought out in glassware. The shapes, even to the tumblers, are all twisted and distorted, though at that geometrically correct. The first reaction on viewing it is shock, yet the more the pieces are studied the more they appeal and there comes a realization that with all their distorted appearance they have a balance that is perfect and are true specimens of cubist art."

Such superlatives for the designs of one man! Later, Reuben Haley would create another Art Deco line of glassware, Line 700, which is attracting collectors today. It too can be seen in Wilson's book. Haley's work will live on. I confidently predict that he will be regarded as one of the most important American glass designers of the 20th century.

Can Consolidated's creations be found on the market today? With a little searching, it is possible to build a collection of this historically important American glassware. Have a deep pocket! Ruba Rombic commands premium prices as it has already attracted the attention of major U.S. museums and. Once found primarily in the booths of depression glass dealers, it has "come out of the closet" and risen stratospherically.

Let's consider 5 pieces of this glass from the Ruba Rombic line and their comparative prices in 1989 when the book was published and now in 2008. (Current prices derived from Florence's Elegant Glassware of the Depression Era, p. 182-183).

We will compare the small perfume bottle, the 8 1/4" pitcher, the 10" plate, whiskey tumbler, and the 9" vase.

ITEM & COLOR1989 VALUES1995 VALUES
perfume bottle, jungle green $250.00 $1,200.00
pitcher, sunshine yel (cased) $500.00 $3,000.00
10" plate, jade (cased) $150.00 $500.00
whiskey tumbler, jade (cased) $30.00 $450.00
9.5" vase, smoky topaz $350.00 $2,000.00

As is the general rule of thumb in most collecting areas in the 20th century area, rarity and condition are primordial criteria. The serving pieces and accessory pieces in this Reuben Haley designed line will always increase at a higher rate than the more common plates and small tumblers. There is no doubt that items which today are difficult to locate in excellent condition will become all the more valuable as we reach the 21st century. Being blown glassware, Ruba Rombic in mint condition is exceedingly rare. Collectors have resigned themselves to small nicks as a matter of course. A mint piece of Ruba is a prize indeed!

Thomas A. Jiamachello

 

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Portrait of the Phoenix: The Story of a Glass Man - Fred Aiken, Jr.

Written by Jack Wilson. Posted in People

Portrait of the Phoenix: The Story of a Glass Man

Reported by Kathy Hansen 

Recently, I've had the opportunity to visit with several former glassworkers, to interview them and hear their stories of the years they spent working at "the Phoenix." While the tape recorder runs, we talk about the vaious jobs they held at Phoenix, how they came to work at the company, any favorite pieces they may have, and any special memories. Over the next several issues of the newsletter, I hope to be able to provide you with a glimpse of life at the Phenix through the eyes of the people who worked there, for the greatness of the company rests on the skill and character of its people.

Let me introduce you first to Fred Aiken, Jr. Fred was born on January 29, 1913, in Ingram, PA, a suburb of Pittsburgh, and has lived in Monaca since 1938.

KH: If you were born in Ingram, how did you come to Monaca?

FA: Well, I went to Pitt and graduated in June, 1935. Jobs were very tough to get at this time. It was 1936 that I started at Phoenix as an Industrial Engineer.

KH: How did you come to get the job at Phoenix?

FA: Through Pitt. The guy that was down at Phoenix was a Pitt graduate and so he always wanted Pitt people. I commuted for quite a while (from Ingram), and then I got married and moved to Monaca in 1938.

KH: You started out as an Industrial Engineer. What were some of your job responsibilities when you started? And then what did you do at Phoenix as you changed (jobs) through the years?

FA: Industrial Engineering was to study the jobs in the plant and then try to make them easier or whatever it took...We had an Incentive system there. We'd have to find out hoe much time it should take to do these different jobs.

KH: Like how many pieces of glass they could make in a certain time?

FA: That's right. You put a value on that. I was in the Industrial Engineering Department for....I don't know how many years. But, I asked them if they would put me in a job where I could learn more about the glass, so I went to a Production Engineering job at the plant.

KH: And what does that mean? What did you do?

FA: They designed the glass jobs and I'd go around and find out how long it took people to do their job. Everybody disliked me. The glassblowers would never let us out into the Forming Department.

KH: What is the Forming Department? What does that mean?

FA: Well, they take the liquid glass and they blow it into molds. That's the Blow Shops and Pressed Shops. Then they had semi-automatic machines in there, too, at the same time. It was a Hand Shop production. Then I don't know when we got into automatic making of glass -- probably into the 1950s. We called it a Hand Shop because they fed the glass on a pipe onto the molds.

KH: What other jobs did you do? Where did you end up, and how long did you work there altogether?

FA: Well, I ws an Industrial Engineer. Then I went into the Production Department, and the I was Treasurer of the company when I retired.

KH: How did you go from the production part to being a Treasurer -- accounting and bookkeeping?

FA: Well, they needed some help in that area and I expressed an interest. I was running the office and they need a Treasurer.

KH: How long did you work at Phoenix altogether?

FA: Well, let's see. I had to retire at 65.

KH: They forced you to retire?

FA: Oh, yes! Well, I think that it was mutual.

KH: Did you have any other family members who worked in the glass industry?

FA: Only my wife, Genevieve. She worked in the Decorating Department, down in Lighting. That's where I met her.

KH: you told me that some of the molds went back and forth between Phoenix and Consolidated -- I guess, the vases?

FA: Well yes. In fact, we bought the molds for those vases when Consolidated went out of business.

KH: That was in the '60s. You bought molds from them?

 

FA: Yes, a lot of that Selden, or decorated glass and such at the time. And every once in a while, Consolidated would stop production and send those molds down to us.

KH: I think that there should not be as much confusion as there is about where the molds came from or going back and forth between the factories. Do you think they kept a close record of what they had and when it went back and forth?

FA: Well, I don't think so. When they were shut down, they, (Consolidated and other glass companies) would send the molds to us and we'd make the glass. This went on for maybe 5 or 10 years, and then Consolidated went out of business and we took those molds then. At the time, I was in the Product Engineering Department. At lot of the customers owned their molds and they would take their molds with them after the job was completed.

KH: Phoenix also made their own molds, didn't they?

FA: Yes. At the same time that Consolidated was making this stuff, we were making it, too. We had our own molds. We had a Design Dept. that made a lot of the molds.

KH: I'd like to ask you about this kind of glass ("Sculptured Art Glass") in colors. We call the clear glas "crystal." And the there's the milk glass, which they called "opal". But some of those pieces were made in other colors. I have the "Freesia" vase in red glass.

FA:I'll tell you what happened. We were making signal glass for the government. Sometimes, we'd get a bad tank of red glass what wouldn't work for the lights and then we'd make the vases and things out of that. If the glass was no good for what they made it for, for signal glasses and such, they'd make the vases out of that -- not too many of them, though. They did that with green, too, and opal.

KH: Were there any particular kinds of things that Phoenix made that you liked? I mean, did you appreciate the beauty of the glass, or did you just think of it (working there) as just a job?

FA: I brought some of the glassware home. My wife worked with it, too. She hated it, though.

KH: You used the term "Selden Line" before. Some of the people here in Monaca call it the "Selden Line," but that was not a name on a label. That's Howard Selden. He wasn't a designer.

FA: He was a salesman, and he sold the stuff that we couldn't use for anything; in other words, colored glass that wouldn't come up to par for whatever it was intended for, so we'd make the "Sculptured Art Glass" from that. Usually, that vase line was made in white and crystal, and if they had a bad pot of red glass, they might make some vases out of that, and the same with gree. Howard Selden was just a salesman for that kind of stuff. We remembered him because he was the only one that sold the"Sculptured Artware". He was right in the heart of New York City, where his office was. He could sell anything.

KH: It sounds to me like some of the vases were sort of accidental. If you had good glass for the lighting ware, you wouldn't make the vases.

FA: Well, that's probably true, because if we had orders for that for lighting glassware, we would make a pot of glass, but when you had a light behind it...boy, sometimes, you had to do something else with it. Most of these molds (in unusual colors) came from that kind of thing.

KH: How about telling me about any people that you remember in particular while you were working there -- for example, Bill Milligan. He was there for 49 1/2 years.

FA: Everybody was there for a long time. T.H. Howard was the president of Phoenix Glass for 60 years, and he was really a character. Andrew Stewart was another one that was there for a long time. Bill Massey was the boss in the Hot Metal department for quite a while.

KH: The Hot Metal Department -- What does that mean? I know glass is called metal sometimes.

FA: Well, that's the Forming Department, really.

KH: My grandfather was a glassblower in a hot mold shop - the German hot mold system. From an engineer's standpoint, what can you tell me about that?

FA: Well, if it had any design on it, it had to be blown in a hot mold. If it was just a plain shape, it was probably a paste mold. They had a gathering boy, and then they had an intermediate, a blocker, and then the blower.

  One would get it on the pipe and the other one would put it in and blow it a little bit.

KH: Now I'm going to ask you to tell me about the red "Dogwood" vase because we know of two "Wild Rose" vases, but you're saying that yours is a "Dogwood" vase. Why don't you tell me bout it?

FA: Well, the "Dogwood" vase -- you know the shape of it. We were making red glass for the Navy, for Navy lights, and I had them make me a couple of vases out of that red glass, and Mr. Hicks in the Decorating Department had one of his employees outline the vase. It was red glass. Well, first they sprayed it red with a matte finish and then they wiped off the flowers (i.e., left them clear) and then outlined them in gold. I'll tell you, there's only two of them, and I don't know where the other one is.

KH: I'd like to ask you about electric lamps.

FA: Usually, we'd supply the glass to somebody else who put it together. Except for the Solar Department.

KH: What was the Solar Department?

FA: The Solar Department was a place where they sprayed the glass with cold colors, and they wired the lamps and packed them up.

KH: Why would they do them with cold color? Cold color washes off, doesn't it?

FA: Well, it's cheaper. They sprayed the inside of it with a color. They didn't spray the outside.

KH: They did put the electrical parts on the lamps there in the factory?

FA: Yes, they wired them up. They didn't put any shades on them.

KH: And that would be what time period?

FA: Well, I started there in 1936, and they were making them then, so I would say they made them maybe up until the 1950's -- quite a while. They made those with ceramic colors, too, and highlighted the flowers. They sprayed them on the outside and wiped the flowers off. Did you ever hear of Ceramic Color Company over in New Brighton? Ceramic colors mean they had to be fired on.

One of the marks of a true researcher is the ability to look at the evidence and discover something which others apparently have missed all along. Another characteristic, I believe, is the tenacity to search for bits and pieces of information which might seem unrelated at first, but, after close scrutiny, do exhibit some heretofore unexpected relationship. Researching the history of the Phoenix Glass Company over the past sixteen years has been a time-consuming hobby-turned-passion. I've frequently come upon apparent "dead ends" -- questions for which no one seems to have an answer. But what a pleasure if is for me to talk with a former employee whose stories and comments explain things which have been puzzling me for so long, especially if it is a person who thought that he or she couldn't help me very much.

In a past issue of this newsletter, Mark Lawyer wrote about a group of three unusual vases made by Phoenix Glass. They have a bumpy surface texture, similar to the "overshot" glassware of the Victorian period. They are decorated with pink, white, or blue ceramic finished, and each one has a gold and black "Sculptured Artware: label. Since no original literature has been found to reveal the Phoenix name for the ware and since they have larger granules than the pieces we call "Chipped Ice," Mark dubbed this style of decoration "Pebble."

At the 1998 convention, guest speaker Paul Olshanski explained the process for creating this textured finish. The glass is first bown into the mold. After cooling, it is coated with heavy oil and rolled in crushed glass. Then it is reheated to a temperature where the crushed glass begins to melt just enough to adhere to the body of the vase, while the oil burns away.

Recently, I found a fourth shape, a cylindrical vase. When I showed it to Mr. Aiken and asked if he could tell me anything about this type of finish, he replied, "Oh, yes, I'm very familar with that. We called it 'Ice'." Hearing his answer gave me a thrill! Finding the official name for this line was like finding another piece of the jigsaw puzzle that is the history of my favorite glass company.

Hopefully, I will have more opportunities to visit with former Phoenix workers over the coming months. Then, from time to time, I will share with you another "Portrait of the Phoenix."