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IMPERIAL'S ART GLASS GAMBLE
by: Cliff McCaslin

The story of Imperial Glass begins in 1901 on the banks of the Ohio River in the town of Bellaire, Ohio. Originally established as a crystal tableware and utilitarian glassware manufactory, Imperial's new lines were designed to appeal to a full spectrum of the buying public's interests. From utility ware such as bottles, tumblers and jelly jars, to electric and gas lamp shades, to 15 full lines of tableware all of original design. Several lines were intricate, press-moulded patterns designed to imitate the very popular hand-cut crystal glassware.

The early success of this upstart company raised many eyebrows in the industry, not only with its new lines, but by its sheer size and production output. To further enhance the Imperial's success, Victor G. Wicke of New York City was hired as the fledgling company's secretary and sales manager. A leader in the wholesale glassware business, Mr. Wicke helped establish Imperial as one of the top competitors within a few short years.

Always aware of the public's ever-changing desires in glassware styles, Mr. Wicke had watched Imperial's down-river competitor, Fenton, successfully market its new iridescent ware. Sometimes referenced as "the poor man's Tiffany" and commonly known as "Carnival Glass" today, Mr. Wicke was apparently intrigued by the potential of the art glass market. In 1909, Imperial introduced its first "Carnival Glass" color called Rubigold (a red-orange color known as "marigold" to collectors.)

Produced simply by spraying a mixture of metallic salts called "dope" onto the hot glass after leaving the mould -- creating a permanent bond -- this reddish-gold rainbow of colors became a hit with the public. Experimentation continued with different types of "dope" mixtures being sprayed on clear, as well as colored, glass creating many new variations in iridescent hues.

In 1910 Victor Wicke became the head of Imperial Glass. Although clear crystal glassware would be Imperial's mainstay throughout its history, the new president's passion for capturing the art glass market continued. In 1912, another "imitation Tiffany -style" iridescent line was introduced called "NuArt." Bearing its own trademark, the NuArt line began with electric lamp shades then expanded to decorative items such as vases.

The introduction of still another line of iridescent ware came in 1916. A new set of moulds were developed using simple shapes and smooth-surfaces, which was a radical change from previous styles. After pressing, the item was "triple-doped" or sprayed several times with the iridescent mixture, then was further hand-shaped yielding an unusual, "crizzled" or "onionskin-like" effect on the surface of the glass. Imperial marketed these items as having "the sheen of mother-of-pearl" hence the color names Pearl White, Pearl Ruby, Pearl Green and Pearl Amethyst. The line was simply called "Art Glass." The majority of these items bore the famous Imperial "Iron Cross" trademark and are popularly referred to as "Stretch Glass" today.

In 1923, Mr. Wicke decided the Imperial was ready to take a high stakes gamble in the art glass market. A group of specialized and highly-skilled glass makers was hired from the East Coast to create a totally unique form of glassware for the company. Without the use of moulds or presses, this group produced a magnificent display of unusual, multi-colored and iridescent, pure art glass items called "Free Hand." Though well-received in the trade papers, the extreme cost to produce the items and resultant high prices doomed the project to failure.

Hoping to off-set the costs of Free Hand, the "Lead Lustre" line was introduced the following year. Having similar color characteristics of Free Hand, the Lead Lustre line was produced in blown moulds at a much lower cost. Unfortunately, this line was also an economic failure.

Imperial's final thrust into the art glass market came in 1924 with the introduction of their "Satin Iridescent Colors" using the same "triple dope" method applied to the Art Glass line. These new "Stretch Glass" items were marketed with the colors named "Iris Ice, Rose Ice, Blue Ice, Amber Ice, Green Ice and Amethyst Ice." Though mildly successful, it was too little, too late.

As the 1920's drew to a close the Imperial coffers were nearly empty. With our country teetering on the brink of the Great Depression, and the company facing an uncertain future, in December 1929, Victor G. Wicke passed away.

Today, Imperial's Free Hand, Lead Lustre, Art Glass and Carnival glassware are some of the most desirable items sought by collectors. Mr. Wicke's gamble paid off, but it was much to late for him to see it.

 

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