ART GLASS - A Century of Success
by Dr. James S. Measell
Antiques and Collecting Magazine
"Every long journey," it has been said, "begins with a single
step." At 17, Frank Leslie Fenton took the first steps toward what
would become a century-long journey for the Fenton Art Glass
Company. Upon graduation as valedictorian of his high school class
in 1897, he pondered his future prospects.
Something drew him to the Northwood glass factory in his hometown.
Perhaps his artistic senses were intrigued by remarks he had heard
about Harry Northwood, the plant's namesake and general manager.
Northwood had emigrated from England in 1881, and--after a few
years at Hobbs-Brockunier in Wheeling and LaBelle Glass in nearby
Bridgeport--he was successful with glass enterprises in Martins
Ferry, Ohio, and Ellwood City, Pa. Northwood's arrival in Indiana
during February 1896, was greeted by the enthusiastic backing of
investors and much local publicity.
From its inception, the Northwood factory marketed decorated
glassware. Frank L. Fenton joined the decorating department in the
summer of 1897. He was an eager employee, and family stories
recount that he had ideas for decoration designs. As he painted
apple blossoms on opal glass or geometric motifs on pitchers, his
mind was ablaze, and the young man submitted some designs directly
to the Northwood men. Unfortunately, his foreman was not receptive
to such efforts coming from someone who had been employed just a
Frank was late in reporting for work one day, and he was told by
his foreman to leave the factory. On the way out, he was seen by a
manager, perhaps Carl Northwood or Harry Northwood himself. The
man spoke with Frank for a few moments and sent him back to work.
Within a year, Frank L.
Fenton became the foreman of the decorating department at the
After the Northwoods went to England in late 1899, Frank L. Fenton
and several of his brothers went to the new Jefferson Glass Co. in
Steubenville, Ohio. They left there in 1903 to go to the Bastow
Glass Company in Coudersport, Pa., where Frank L. Fenton became
manager of the decorating department. The Bastow plant was
destroyed by fire in May 1904, but Frank L. Fenton and his brother
John found jobs at Harry Northwood's glass plant in Wheeling, West
Va. Less than a year later, they decided to start their own
One family story says that John had told Frank to come to him if
he wanted financial help in starting a business. When Frank did so
in early 1905, John asked, "How much money do you have?" When
Frank replied that he had about $280, John responded with
enthusiasm: "Good. Between us, we have $284.86. Let's get
started!" They rented space in the Haskins Glass Company at
Martins Ferry and bought glass blanks (plain items) from nearby
manufacturers. The Fentons handpainted decorations on pitchers and
tumblers to create distinctive lemonade sets.
Old ledgers record the names of Fenton's very first
employees--Carrie Howell, Lizzie Moore, Bertie Rhumbach and Carrie
Wood. The new company was successful, and orders rolled in from
cities in the East, South, and Midwest. Imagine the excitement
when Webb Queensware placed an order for 60 dozen lemonade sets, a
shipment that would require 50 barrels!
Sometime in early 1906, the fledgling Fenton Art Glass Company
found it difficult to obtain blanks from its suppliers. The
brothers needed glass for their growing business, and they either
had to buy it from a dependable source or undertake to make it for
themselves. They chose Williamstown, West Va., as a glass factory
site, and ground was broken on October 7, 1906. On January 2,
1907, the first item, a pressed creamer in crystal, was made.
Within a few months, the company letterhead listed these colors:
"blue, green, amethyst, ruby, Chocolate [and] Onyx." The man
responsible was Jacob Rosenthal. Born in 1855, Rosenthal was an
experienced factory manager and color chemist, and he helped
recruit seasoned glassworkers from
the Ohio Valley to start the Fenton plant.
In late 1907, Fenton Art Glass began to market an exciting new
line of glass. Called "iridescent ware," it was made by spraying
hot glass with a solution of metallic salts. Rosenthal was surely
involved, but Fenton lore recounts the arrival of a mysterious
wandering glassworker who came in a railway boxcar and announced,
"I'm going to show you how to make a new kind of glass!"
As iridescent glass captured the public fancy in early 1908,
Fenton's competitors--such as Imperial Glass in Bellaire, OH, and
the Northwood firm in Wheeling, WV--created their versions. John
Fenton left Williamstown to start the Millersburg Glass Co. In
1910-11, his firm made iridescent ware called Radium. All of these
iridescent products are now prized as "Carnival glass," and there
are many collectors for it today.
After World War I, Fenton's vivid, highly-patterned pressed items
gave way to plain articles in iridized pastel colors such as
Celeste Blue, Florentine Green, Persian Pearl, Tangerine, Topaz,
and Wisteria. Collectors of "Stretch glass" value these pieces
today. In the late 1920s and early 1930s, Fenton produced
innovative opaque colors with splendid names: Chinese Yellow, Jade
Green, Lilac, Mandarin Red, Mongolian Green, Moonstone, Pekin
Blue, Periwinkle Blue, and Venetian Red.
The Great Depression forced some glass plants to close, and
others, including Fenton, faced difficulties. The company
introduced new patterns (Georgian, Lincoln Inn, and Plymouth), and
its Jade Green and ruby glass were selling, but the decorating
department was shut down. Orders from
Dormeyer for mixing bowls were welcome, and Fenton made Hobnail
barber bottles for the L. G. Wright Glass Co. A perfume company
executive happened to see one, and the Chicago-based Allen B.
Wrisley Co. soon contracted with Fenton for thousands of Hobnail
perfume bottles. The Depression was over, and Fenton's Hobnail
pattern began its four-decade run!
World War II brought some prosperity to Fenton, for importers
unable to get glassware from Europe turned to domestic products.
By 1947, Fenton's opalescent Hobnail was doing well, but the
post-war economic boom did not benefit plants making handmade
Unforeseen events thrust other Fenton family members into
leadership positions. Sales manager Robert C. Fenton, Jr., died in
1946. After a sudden illness, company founder Frank L. Fenton, 68,
passed away on May 18, 1948, and salesman Robert C. Fenton, Sr.,
died in November. The first generation was gone. Frank M. Fenton,
32, and Wilmer C. "Bill" Fenton, 24, became President and
Vice-President, respectively. Frank M. had been at the company
since college graduation in 1936, and he was familiar with union
work rules and other company procedures. Bill had worked in sales
since being discharged from the Army in mid-1946. Together, Frank
and Bill were to lead the company for nearly four decades.
Fortunately, the company had several lines, such as Coin Dot and
Hobnail in various opalescent colors, which were strong performers
in the late 1940s. Milk glass began to climb in popularity during
the 1950s, and Fenton's Milk Glass Hobnail line was soon an
Competition in the glass industry was stiff in the mid-1960s, but
Fenton responded by developing the kinds of glass products people
wanted. Designer Tony Rosena was hired in 1967, and he helped
Fenton secure the services of decorator Louise Piper, who
restarted the decorating department in 1968 and created a
handpainted floral motif called Violets in the Snow. Research
chemist Charles Goe developed two beautiful art glass colors,
Burmese and Rosalene.
Adding to the success of Burmese and Rosalene and decorated ware
was Fenton's revival of the early twentieth-century iridescent
ware that collectors had dubbed "Carnival glass." Because of
concerns about re-issues of old glass treatments, Fenton began to
mark all its products with "Fenton" in script within an oval.
By the mid-1980s, a third generation of Fentons held key positions
in the company or the Fenton Gift Shop. Included were three of
Frank's four sons--George (President), Tom
(Vice-President--Manufacturing) and Mike (Purchasing Manager and
Safety Director) as well as Bill's children--Don
(Vice-President--Sales), Shelley (Graphics Manager), Randy (Gift
Shop Treasurer), and Christine (Gift Shop Data Processor). Nancy
Gollinger Fenton, who is married to George, was named Director of
New Product Development.
This new generation faced stiff challenges, including a generally
poor economy and competitive pressures from imported giftware.
Several of Fenton's longtime competitors (Fostoria, Imperial,
Viking and Westmoreland) shut down for good. After exploring some
alternative directions, Fenton
chose to emphasize traditional styles while creating innovative
glass colors and distinctive handpainted decorations.
The Dusty Rose color gained steadily in popularity after its
introduction in 1984, and a cute novelty called the "Birthstone
Bear" caught hold. Talented Fenton decorators developed items for
limited edition groupings, such as the Childhood Treasures Series
(1983-1989) and the Birds of Winter Series (1987-1990).
In the mid-1980s, Fenton began to create annual groupings of
special colors, such as Pink Opalescent and Topaz Opalescent.
These evolved into the limited edition "Historic Collections"
which continue today. Each Historic Collection color has admirers,
but some are especially noteworthy: Persian Blue Opalescent
(1990); Stiegel Green Stretch (1994); Mulberry (1996); and Royal
Purple (1998). Lotus Mist Burmese, introduced in 2000, is another
Other Fenton limited editions made their presence felt in the
1980s and 1990s. The Connoisseur Collection, begun in 1983,
annually attracts much interest, as the company continues to
strive for the finest in art glass. Fenton's relationship with
electronic retailer QVC in 1988, and television broadcasts made
fans of many viewers who purchased Fenton glass made especially
The Family Signature Series debuted in 1993, and the Floral
Interlude tulip vase with George's and Nancy's signature was
chosen as "Decorative Collectible of the Year" for 1998 by the
National Association of Limited Edition Dealers (NALED). Other
noteworthy limited editions from the 1990s which continue are the
Designer Series, Mary Gregory, and the Glass Messenger Subscriber
Sculptor Jon Saffell came to Fenton in 1994, and his talents were
reflected in many new moulds, including several vases and baskets
as well as animal figurines and a twelve-piece Nativity Set.
Throughout the 1990s, Fenton's decorating designers--Frances
Burton, Kim Plauche, Martha Reynolds and Robin Spindler--showcased
their talents on Connoisseur Collection pieces and various other
items, including the Designer Bells.
During the 1990s, two fourth-generation Fenton family members
joined the organization. Lynn Fenton Erb started in 1994 as Sales
and Marketing Specialist, and she was instrumental in launching
the Glass Messenger quarterly newsletter in 1996. Scott Fenton
joined the company in early 1998 after college graduation and is
now National Sales Manager.
Fenton Art Glass marked its 100th anniversary on May 4, 2005, and
a gala celebration in Williamstown was slated for July 29-August
2, 2005, a time marked on the calendars of Fenton enthusiasts
through the country.
[ON THE COVER]
Vasa Murrhina, Aventurine Green with Blue vase, 11", ca.
1964-1969. Christine Fenton recalls her dad bringing the vase home
for her mother, who announced that she planned to redecorate to
match the green and blue in the vase. Her dad Bill would later
remark, "That vase sure cost a lot of money!"