Ask About Antiques Imperial Glass: A Crystal Legacy
by Budd A. Moore, Ed.D.
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. The history of Imperial Glass begins with Edward Muhleman, a former Wheeling riverboat captain and financier.
Originally involved with the Crystal Glass Company, based in Bellaire, OH, Muhleman 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. In 1901, the Crystal Glass Company became Imperial Glass and the furnaces were lit on its new plant in 1904.
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 molded 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 that 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. Wicke’s marketing creativity found new ways to attract buyers to Imperial glass.
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 its 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 more decorative items.
At the dawning of the 1920s, Imperial was confident of its ability to build on its 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 1930s.
In spite of severe economic troubles during the late 1920s and early 1930s, Imperial was continually trying to improve the sales position of the company through the introduction of new lines. While on a visit to New York, a company representative acquired a piece of glassware from the French Cannonball line. The piece, distinguished by a series of heavy glass ‘balls’ around its base, gave Imperial designers 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 resembled 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. The rest was history. Candlewick quickly became a mainstay in Imperial’s line-up of offerings, and proved to be one of its strongest selling patterns. From some 40-odd items at the onset, the range of Candlewick items would exceed over 200 in the 1950s.
The 1950s and 1960s were relatively prosperous for the company. However, in the early 1960s Imperial was forced into bankruptcy and under the provision of Chapter 11. In August 1984, Chapter 7 bankruptcy was filed. The once great Imperial Glass Corporation passed into history. Due to the many ownership changes in its last years, many parts of the Imperial’s history are lost forever, but the crystal legacy of the company remains in the china closets and on the tables of many Americans today.
Auction Action: [Recently sold at Matt Hurley’s Legacy Auction Center, 2800 Buchanan Trail East, Greencastle, Pa. 17225]
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Moore, Ed.D., is a specialist in the valuation of antique and collectable objects of the last 100 years. He is an educator, counselor, and avid antique enthusiast as well as a candidate member of the American Society of Appraisers. He has been a collector of antique American Art Pottery and has been a dealer for over 20 years. He is familiar with nearly all lines of American Art Pottery, twentieth century glassware, Art Deco, and Art Nouveau categories. If you have a question about antiques or collectibles, you can e-mail him at email@example.com.