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In celebration of the 100th Anniversary of the founding of the Imperial Glass Company. Although recounted in numerous Imperial glass reference books and articles, it's seems only appropriate on this occasion that we revisit the company's history once more. Maybe it's because, as time passes, mothers, grandmothers and aunts are handing down their Imperial glassware to a second or third generation. Often this marks the beginning of a glass collection for the recipients. These fledgling collectors may wonder about the company which produced these items.

It's the telling of Imperial's amazing story which puts everything into perspective. Without doubt, it's a story which could be told by recounting the numerous variety of glass patterns Imperial produced over 80 years. In truth, it's the men at the helm, who charted Imperial's course over the years, which bears repeating. It's a journey navigated through calm waters and turbulent currents. It's a tale of vision, innovation, ambition and a determination to succeed. And it's a key part of the history and heritage of Bellaire, Ohio.

The American handmade glass industry was no stranger to the Ohio River Valley at the turn of the last century. Abundant, low cost energy resources, excellent river transportation and a ready work force made it possible for numerous glass manufacturers, both large and small, to exist. Our story begins with Edward Muhleman, a former Wheeling riverboat captain and financier. Originally involved with the Crystal Glass Company, based in Bellaire, OH, he had become Secretary/Treasurer for the National Glass Company. Eventually the time came when he figured it was best to move on to a new venture. He was considered an effective manager, and although wealthy, he wasn't ready to retire. Muhleman's fascination with the glass tableware business brought about an ambitious vision, to establish the largest glass plant ever to be seen in that part of the Ohio River Valley. The New Crystal Glass Company, as the venture was initially named, would be a four-furnace glassworks and would be located in Bellaire, Ohio.

With assistance from the Bellaire Board of Trade and several of his former Crystal Glass Co. stockholders, Muhleman commenced to turn vision into reality. Land was acquired, capital raised, employees hired and the process of building the huge plant was begun. By December 1901, the Crystal's Board of Directors had changed the name to the Imperial Glass Company. Progress was slow. As 1903 wore on, everyone waited and watched for activity from the giant new plant in Bellaire. By October it appeared production was imminent. Orders awaited, the place fully staffed, moulds were crafted and the furnace tanks ready. In early 1904, two years after the start of construction, the furnaces were finally ignited.

Amazingly, within six months time, Imperial had quickly become a major player in the handmade glass industry. All manner of bottles, tumblers, jelly jars, electric and gas lamps and no less than fifteen full lines of tableware were being turned out. Imperial's intricate, press moulded patterns carried lower prices, enabling the company to reach a wide customer base. They offered higher quality 'pot' glass, referred to as 'mirror' glass, in addition to their 'utility' glass which was produced from continuous-feed melting tanks.

In 1905, Muhleman hired Victor G. Wicke of New York City, to become the young company's Secretary and Sales Manager. Wicke's impact was immediate for he brought with him what would be Imperial's first wholesale customer, F. W. Woolworth Co. and it's 500 stores. Faced with the task of finding markets and customers for the plant's rapidly increasing production capability and new lines, Wicke, an innovative and creative salesman, was more than up to the challenge. Expanding its marketing to others like Woolworth, Imperial glassware was soon found at other retailers like McCrory and Kresge. Butler Brothers and other major wholesalers were added to the list as well.

Wicke's marketing creativity found new ways to attract buyers to Imperial glass. Wicke's marketing strategy for Imperial took another radical turn in January 1906 when he opted out of the traditional Pittsburgh Glass Show. Instead he invited the buyers to come to Bellaire and see the plant itself. By year's end, the huge plant was producing at near capacity. Employing hundreds of highly skilled glass workers, Imperial's wide range of glassware and sheer volume of production had caught the imagination of the entire industry. 1909 saw Imperial make it's first foray into colored glass items. A trade journal of the period reported that at the end of 1909 Imperial had sold 50,000 MORE barrels of glass than it had the year before! Given all this, it's easy to see that by 1910 Edward Muhleman had realized his dream. With Imperial well on it's way and entering into it's second decade, Muhleman decided to retire. He sold all of his stock. Wicke then became head of the 'Big I', as the plant had become known.

In the decade to follow, Imperial's development would be greatly impacted by Earl Newton. Operating out of his Chicago showroom, Newton was fast becoming a major player in the glassware business. His instinct for marketing, added to his awareness of the consumers' buying trends, enabled Imperial to continue on it's upward path. Due to the popularity of imitation cut glassware, a new variation called 'NUCUT' was introduced in 1911. This was followed in 1912 by 'NUART', an expansion into iridescent lines of ware, including electric lamp shades and then more decorative items. The company's third trademark, the 'Imperial Iron Cross', surfaced in 1913, and first appeared on the No. 582 Fancy Colonial pattern, an Open Stock line. To further enhance Imperial's reputation and market penetration, in 1916 Newton doubled the size of his showroom in Chicago. The marketing of Imperial glassware became more ambitious than ever before. Working hand in hand with his talented marketing team, Wicke was determined to see that Imperial remained one of the largest glass manufacturers in the country.

At the dawning of the 1920's Imperial was confident of it's ability to build on it's past success. Iridescent ware (i.e. the 'Old Carnival') and more colored glassware items would be produced. Some of these colored glass lines were the forerunners of the inexpensive colored glassware that would gain in popularity and later become known as 'Depression' glass during the 1930's. In mid-1923 Wicke brought in a team of foreign glass experts from the Netherlands who specialized in Art Glass. After arriving in Bellaire, these men set about creating vases and fancy glassware with an iridescent finish. Imperial chose to call this line Free Hand. 'Why go to Europe?' Imperial suggested in advertising to buyers, when they could purchase this high quality fancy ware plus regular stock from one source within the U.S.A. Unfortunately, high prices had a negative impact and overall sales of Free Hand were not good. Although Lead Lustre, which attempted to duplicate the beauty of Free Hand, made it's debut in 1924, it also was a failure. In the early 30's barrels of unsold Free Hand remained stored at the factory. It's reported that some were eventually sold for $1.00 per barrel during the Great Depression. Without question, those of this time period would be shocked, as well as gratified, to learn how highly prized and valuable today's collectors consider Free Hand and Lead Lustre to be!

Despite it's earlier successes, Imperial found itself approaching the end of the 1920's caught in the downward spiral which affected the country's economy as a whole. The Stock Market crash on Wall Street in October 1929 was the first blow, setting off a financial panic amongst investors and consumers alike. Then, less than two months later, Victor Wicke passed away. A man, whose driving ambition was responsible for Imperial's rapid growth, was gone...just when his stewardship was needed the most. At year's end, Imperial found itself facing a very uncertain future. Sadly, with the country plunged headlong into the depression, Imperial's fortunes continued to sink.

Early in 1930, George Hannon was named President, J. Morris Dubois, a long-time assistant to Wicke, was chosen as Vice-President and J. Ralph Boyd became Secretary. In March of 1931, nearly a quarter of a million dollars in the red and unable to pay it's creditors, Imperial was forced to file for protection through the bankruptcy courts. This enabled the plant to continue operating, but by July the bankruptcy courts again stepped in, ordering Imperial's remaining assets to be sold at public auction.

Try to imagine what was taking place in Bellaire that summer. IMPERIAL WAS GOING OUT OF BUSINESS! How could that be allowed to happen? It was the largest employer in the area. Everyone had either a family member or knew someone who worked at the 'Big I'. It's closing would be a disaster, with a capital 'D', for Bellaire and countless individuals and families. The events that followed would truly reflect the spirit of Bellaire, the workers at Imperial and would set the stage for one of those rare moments in a company's history which would change it's course from that point on.

Through shrewd maneuvering, Boyd was able to post a $150,000 bond and secure the assets of Imperial. Reorganization followed and the Imperial Glass Corporation was born. Earl Newton, the Chicago-based, dynamic salesman was then named the Corporation's first President. This new venture received remarkable support from Imperial's employees. Cutting vacation time back to one week and pledging, in many cases, 10 to 20 percent of their earnings to the company, the workers of Imperial demonstrated their commitment to its future. Developments continued at a rapid pace. Creditors were convinced to accept stock in the new company as payment for past debts. With orders in hand, eighteen 'shops' went back to work. Boyd took over the day-to-day operation of the plant in Bellaire, and Newton remained in his Chicago office, devising plans to steer the company in a totally new direction.

Many have heard the story of how Newton met with the Quaker Oats Company, and how he secured a non-exclusive contract for Imperial. This was a major order for glassware to be used as 'premium items' in Quaker Oats products. This new line would be No. 160 Cape Cod. Barrels of Cape Cod items were produced and shipped by train in carloads! Not content, Newton then moved to capture a part of the high-end retail glass market. No longer restricted to the 'Five and Dime' ware, Imperial would attempt to compete head-on with the likes of Heisey, Cambridge and Fostoria. Newton also established the Crown Glass Manufacturing Company as a wholly-owned subsidiary. This venture would provide Imperial with the capability of enhancing plain items with a series of etchings, cuttings and decorations.

In 1932, Imperial's future direction was to be altered once again with the arrival of Carl W. Gustkey, as Executive Secretary of the Ohio Valley Industrial Corporation. Gustkey's involvement was followed, in 1936 by another important player in Imperial's future, Carl Uhrmann, an Austrian with degrees in glass making, Uhrmann would provide the expertise to make possible the innovative new patterns Earl Newton had in mind. With the Depression coming to an end, consumers' tastes were turning more toward clear crystal elegant glassware. With it's new management team in place and large orders from new customers, Imperial wanted to move quickly to regain it's former pre-eminent position. The only question remaining was how to go about doing it?

While on a visit to New York, Newton acquired a piece of glassware from the French Cannonball line. The piece, distinguished by a series of heavy glass 'balls' around it's base, gave Newton an idea. What if the glass balls were made smaller and more delicate in nature.? From some rough drawings, a few initial pieces were made. The new items made Newton think of the edging on the Colonial-style needlework called 'candlewicking'. Patents were applied for and the first series of items were put into production. Imperial's No. 400 Candlewick was formally introduced at the Wheeling Centennial Celebration in the August of 1936.

And the rest, as they say, is the stuff of history. Candlewick quickly became a mainstay in Imperial's line-up of offerings, and proved to be one of it's strongest selling patterns. From some 40-odd items at the onset, the range of Candlewick items would exceed over 200 in the 1950's. The elegant, clear crystal pieces readily lent themselves to a wide variety of etchings, cuttings, flashing and colored pieces. Competing with such popular lines as Fostoria's 'American' and Cambridge's 'Rosepoint', Candlewick would eventually grow into Imperial's most highly sought-after pattern. Although many other lines would continue to be important to Imperial, Candlewick, together with Cape Cod, would prove strong sellers and a mainstay for the company for almost fifty years.

Unable to do justice to his dual responsibilities as President and head of Sales, in 1940 Newton resigned as President, passing the torch to Carl Gustkey. For the next 27 years, Gustkey's business acumen and natural talent would provide Imperial with strong and steady leadership. Gutskey had many major goals in mind. Among them he wanted to expand Cape Cod and Candlewick into new markets, and he wanted to make Imperial a household name. To accomplish this, he took a new and different approach. In 1940, together with his close friend, D. Milton Gutman of the Gutman Advertising Agency in Wheeling, a strategy was conceived for an advertising campaign that would promote Imperial's glassware directly to the homemaker through advertisements in major women's magazines. The concept proved to be a huge success. The resulting popularity of Cape Cod and Candlewick, along with other patterns, would enable Imperial to remain strong during the W.W.II years to come.

Following the end of W.W.II, Cape Cod grew to nearly 200 items and Candlewick continued to expand as well. In 1949, Imperial introduced it's unique Cathay line and followed it the next year with the introduction of it's Milk Glass line. Following patent approval, a new trademark appeared in 1951, an 'I' superimposed over a 'G'. This 'IG' and the early 'Iron Cross', would prove to become two of Imperial's most-recognizible trademarks.

The 1950's were, in large part, successful for Imperial, but as this decade drew to a close, ominous portents of change were evident. On the rise were costs for labor and raw materials. The inexpensive energy resources, so prevalent in 1900, were becoming exhausted, and consumer acceptance of machine-made glass was coming into vogue. These factors, combined with the growing popularity of less expensive foreign imports, spelled difficult times ahead for the American handmade glass industry. In 1958, the A. H. Heisey Company of Newark Ohio became the first major victim of these changes. Due to a long time friendship with T. Clarence Heisey, Gustkey was able arrange the purchase of Heisey's equipment and moulds. Two years later, in 1960, the same series of events would befall the Cambridge Glass Company. Well aware of the challenges the industry faced, as well as the thinning ranks of it's domestic competitors, Imperial hoped the 1960's would provide new openings for it's glassware.

In the early 1960's Imperial's new Slag Glass items quickly became an industry standard for their beauty and quality. These were joined by Peachblow vases. A revival of some of Imperial's original patterns appeared. Called 'New Carnival' and 'Collectors Crystal', these items were produced from the moulds of some of the old NUCUT and Iridescent ware so popular some fifty years earlier. New colors appeared and were joined by an expanded offering of decorated items, keeping Imperial's Decorating Department working at full capacity.

Unfortunately, Imperial would suffer a tragic blow in 1967. On October 26 Carl Gustkey passed away. On December 7, Imperial's Board of Directors elected Executive Vice President Carl Uhrmann to succeed Mr. Gustkey as President and General Manager. Over the next few years foreign competition and a deteriorating economy would have its effect on Imperial's ability to stay afloat. Imperial stock-holders, unwilling to face yet another bankruptcy, elected to sell the company to Lenox Inc, of New Jersey in December 1972. Mr. Uhrmann was largely responsible for the Lenox acquisition which did result in a positive gain in stock value and benefited many residents of Bellaire.

A major reorganization in management and marketing approach quickly ensued. Lenox's intention was to use their new subsidiary to go after the highly competitive, crystal giftware business. For nearly seventy years, in good times and bad, Imperial had been master of its own fate. Now, as a subsidiary of Lenox, Imperial's decline picked up it's pace. With each passing year the work force continued to dwindle, and badly needed capital improvements were neglected. By early 1981, the largest handmade glass house in the country had become a shadow of it's former self. The Bellaire community feared the plant would close. Indeed, many felt that the End was only a matter of time..

Lenox's elected to sell the company in May of 1981. Arthur Lorch, a New York investor, announced plans to turn Imperial into an exclusive hand-crafted glass house, marketing specialized items based on the company's original lines. This meant the huge plant would be reduced to making limited production items based on sporadic orders from customers. Lorch's lack of a background in the handmade glass industry and his ill-conceived marketing plan quickly spelled out doom for Imperial. By the fall of 1982 foreclosure seemed imminent. Lorch's precarious position resulted in his asking the remaining employees to accept a reduction in wages. The ensuing strike by the Glassworkers Union forced Lorch to sell to Robert Stahl, a Minneapolis investor.

Forced back into bankruptcy and under the provision of Chapter 11, a skeleton crew was allowed to continue operation. In effect, the end had came at last. In August 1984, Chapter 7 bankruptcy was filed. The once great Imperial Glass Corporation passed into history. Due to the many ownership changes in it's last years, many parts of the Imperial's history are lost forever.

One might think, with the razing of the old Imperial factory building in July of 1995, we would have reached the conclusion of Imperial's story. Today, a modern shopping center now exists in it's place. But the memories of what once stood there and the many people involved, be they management or skilled workers, still linger on. Imperial's glassware, produced along side the banks of the Ohio River in Bellaire, is now sought by collectors everywhere, either for investment purposes or to be appreciated and then passed on to future generations.

The National Imperial Glass Collectors' Society, itself having grown from a handful of people in 1976 to a membership of over 1000 today, continues to find ways of preserving Imperial's legacy. Each year the NIGCS holds it Annual Convention in St. Clairsville, bringing together those who desire to share their love of Imperial Glass. In doing so, the memory of the 'Big I' lives on. In addition to publishing a 3-volume Imperial Glass Encyclopedia, a longtime goal of the Society has been to establish a National Imperial Glass Museum, dedicated to Imperial's glassware, it's history and the workers who created it. In April of this year, the NIGCS happily announced the purchase of a building in downtown Bellaire which will be utilized for this purpose. In the not far-distant future, phase one of the Museum will open, In doing so, the story of the Imperial Glass Corporation, one of the greatest of the many American handmade glass companies, will be told all over again.

Mike Wilson is the Publicity Secretary for the National Imperial Glass Collectors Society. He wishes to acknowledge a special appreciation to all those who provided assistance in reviewing 'Imperial Remembered' for historical accuracy and to his wife, Mary Lee whose special efforts improved this work immeasurably.

 

 

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