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Fenton Celebrates 100 Year

September/October 2005

 

By JUDY PENZ SHELUK

Antiques & Collectibles Showcase

 

"We make glass the old-fashioned way, using many techniques and tools that are essentially unchanged from those of a century ago." George W. Fenton, President and CEO, Fenton Art Glass Company.

Fenton's old-fashioned techniques and values are more than just another advertising gimmick. In 2005, the Fenton Art Glass Company celebrates its 100th anniversary. Among the 400-plus employees in Williamstown, West Virginia commemorating the event are 10 Fenton family members, a third and fourth generation actively involved in the company's day-to-day operations.

Company co-founder Frank L. Fenton (1880-1948) started his career at age 17, when he was employed by the Northwood Glass Co. as a glass decorator. In 1905, he started a glass decorating firm in Martins Ferry, Ohio with his brother, John W. (1869-1934).

Determined to do more, Frank and John pooled their resources of $284, persuaded two other brothers to join them, and built a factory near an abundant source of natural gas in Williamstown, W.Va. The first piece, a Water Lily and Cattails crystal cream pitcher, was made on January 2, 1907.

The company's early success can be attributed to the vision of Frank L. Fenton. In addition to being the firm's first president, throughout his lifetime, Frank was responsible for the design of most of Fenton's products. His desire to develop new and unusual colours and patterns allowed the company to remain in the forefront of the handmade art glass industry.

Among the first of Frank L.'s innovations was Chocolate glass, which was made from mid-1907 to about 1910. As with all of Fenton's glassware, no two pieces are ever the same, and the unique colours of Chocolate glass include shades of caramel, mocha and milky cocoa. Today, prices for vintage pieces range from $60 for a small bowl, to about $700 for a six-inch vase.

In 1975-76, Fenton reproduced seven Chocolate glass pieces for the U.S. Bicentennial. To celebrate their 100th Anniversary, a small selection of Chocolate glass was again produced in 2005. The first offerings were limited to sales up to May 15, 2005; a release of five new shapes was issued in June, and will be available only until the end of this year.

Frank L.'s early days were also heavily influenced by Tiffany and Steuben, a fascination which remained until the 1920s. The earliest result was Carnival glass, an iridized pressed pattern glass first produced in late 1907 at a price point aimed at the average American. Although other companies produced Carnival glass, Fenton was the first, and one of the most prolific makers producing more than 150 patterns in a variety of colours.

In 1970, Fenton began reproducing iridescent glass as limited edition specials. Collectors can differentiate between vintage and reproduction by looking for the Fenton oval on the bottom of the later pieces.

Prices of vintage Carnival glass are based on rarity, aesthetic appeal, pattern, overall condition and quality of the iridescence. As a general rule, pieces with brilliant iridescence will command a higher price than those with a silvery appearance.


Although very collectible today, by 1921 the public's interest in Carnival glass had waned, and Fenton began to actively market plain iridescent glassware. Commonly referred to as "stretch" glass, success. Fenton's experiments had started as early as 1917 with the introduction of Celeste Blue.

A favourite throughout the 1920s, Celeste Blue was made in large numbers, with pieces ranging from compotes to candleholders. Today, prices start from about $35 to $50. Although there are exceptions - a vanity set might command close to $500 - most pieces of Celeste Blue can still be found for less than $150. Celeste Blue was re-introduced in 1992 as part of Fenton's 90th anniversary celebration; again, newer pieces are identifiable by the Fenton oval logo.

Not all of Fenton's experiments met with iridescent glassware. In 1925, Fenton introduced a Tiffany style art glass, hiring a group of highly skilled European glassblowers to produce off hand art glass, which were blown to a general shape without the use of molds. Although vases were the prevalent form, candlesticks, candy dishes, bowls and tobacco jars were also produced. Patterns included Hanging Hearts, Hanging Vine, Mosaic Inlaid, and Pulled Feather.

Unfortunately, the increased cost of production translated to retail prices which were too expensive for the times. At the end of a one-year contract with the glassblowers, Fenton discontinued their experiment with off hand art glass, offering unsold pieces to employees for 50 cents an item.

Extremely rare, and very attractive, today Fenton's off hand art glass is much in demand. At a recent Skinner auction, an 8-1/2 inch Mosaic Inlaid Egyptian style vase sold for more than $1,998; a smaller, five-inch Mosaic Inlaid vase realized $1,093. For collectors on a more limited budget, Fenton has released a special (2005) edition Myriad Mosaic Vase for $385. Based on the original mold shape and style, this retro design is achieved by a Fenton artisan covering black glass with opaque glass chips.

Fenton also began making non-iridescent glassware from about 1921. Once again directed to the average homeowner, pieces were available in clear and opaque, and in a variety of shapes and colours. To get through shortages caused by the Depression and the Second World War, during the 1930s and 1940s, Fenton focused their production on a number of practical items, such as mixing bowls and everyday tableware.

Nevertheless, even during tough times, Fenton continued to develop a wide array of new colours and patterns, and it was likely this dedication that allowed them to continue when others failed. Baskets, Cranberry glass, Spiral Optic, Satin glass, Crested ware (glassware with an applied coloured or crystal rim), and the signature Hobnail pattern all made their debut in the mid to late 1930s.

Acid etched Satin glass was made for a relatively short time, with production dating from 1935 to 1939. Some patterns, such as Ming, San Toy and Wisteria, appear on eBay with some regularity. Less common are Scenic, Poinsettia, Twin Ivy and Snow Fern. Although some pieces of etched Satin glass were made in colour, the majority were made in clear crystal.

Spiral Optic was another short-lived release, introduced in 1938 and disappearing from the company's catalogue by 1940. Ten years later, Cranberry Spiral Optic returned to the line, some items discontinued within the second year, others being introduced and surviving to about 1960. These limited runs of Spiral Optic have continued throughout the company's history, with specific product/colour releases issued in 1979, 1985, 1986, 1988, and from the 1990s to present day.

The first Crest ware pattern was Blue Ridge. Although this particular pattern was only made for one year, with very few exceptions, Crest ware has been part of the Fenton line since its inception. Besides a variety of colour choices, several Crest ware patterns are enhanced with hand-painted floral decorations. The first of these, Violets in the Snow, was introduced in 1967.

Vases, baskets, top hats and bowls are among the most common items found in Crest ware, although cake plates, lamps, jugs, bells, clocks, decorative objects and candlesticks have also been made. In the 1940s and '50s, epergnes were extremely popular. Made by Fenton, and distributed by L. G. Wright, each epergne had a large central straight cone and three smaller curved cones.

Perhaps the most recognizable Fenton glassware is their Hobnail pattern. What started in 1935 as a lamp front soon escalated to making barber bottles for L. G. Wright (1936-1938) and perfume bottles for the Wrisley Company of Chicago (1938-1941).

In 1940, Fenton began producing Hobnail pieces for inclusion in their own annual catalogue. Among the first colours were Cranberry, crystal, French Opalescent and green. Goblets, tumblers, a sherbet dish and an eight-inch plate of Fenton's signature white milk glass were also introduced in 1940, although all of these products were pulled from their 1941 catalogue. The line was officially reintroduced in 1950, and this is generally accepted by collectors as Hobnail's formal launch date.

Hobnail has also been produced in a wide variety of colours and styles, including hand-painted, decorated pieces, and a number of table, floor and ceiling lamps, although the most extensive issue is white Hobnail milk glass. These have been introduced and discontinued on an ongoing basis, and can be confusing to date. A best buy for collectors of this pattern is Review of Fenton's Milk Glass, Revised Edition by Shirley Griffith, which features all known white Hobnail milk glass at time of publication (1994; 2002 price guide).

In 1948, Frank M. Fenton took over as President, and his influence was evident in the 1980s. In 1983, the announcement of the Connoisseur Collection stated that "With the guidance of Frank M. Fenton, Chairman and connoisseur of fine American Glass, we have put together this group of nine items as a very special offering for those who love glass and desire the unique."

Through the years, the Connoisseur Collection included product selections which showcased Fenton's talented decorating designers, and featured an assortment of distinctive designs and classic colour treatments.

In 2005, the Connoisseur Collection was replaced by the Platinum Collection, which showcases the "Best of Fenton - past, present and future." Each piece bears the 100th Anniversary logo, is numbered, and is strictly limited.

Another addition to Fenton's 2005 collection is Generations, which reflects four generations of aquamarine. Items include the simple Aquamarine stretch so popular in the 1920s, the jewel-like Aquamarine Opalescent Marigold of the 1980s, and a contemporary shade of copper-gold aquamarine.

As Fenton heads into the future, they can look back upon their history with pride. In a century where many other glassmakers failed, Fenton has continued to experience significant growth, becoming America's largest manufacturer of handmade coloured glass. In today's hi-tech society, it appears that old-fashioned techniques and family values are still a winning combination.

*Author's Note: All prices in U.S. dollars


[SIDE BAR]: Did You Know?
In 1987, Fenton formed an ongoing relationship with QVC, a home shopping network. The first Fenton product to appear on QVC was The Birthstone Bears. The partnership was a huge success; today, over 1,400 different Fenton pieces have been sold on QVC in the US, and in London, England.

 

 

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Visitors to Fenton Art Glass will find a spacious Gift Shop and a pleasant museum. Free factory tours (M-F 8:15am to 4:00pm) take small groups of guests right out to the factory floor to see glassmaking "up close and personal." Friendly, knowledgeable tour guides explain all aspects of the operation. The Fenton tour has been ranked among the "top 10" factory tours nationwide by USA Today. In addition we have been named Rand McNally Best of the Road for 2006. For a factory tour schedule, click here. For a map, click here.

 

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