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A Dazzling History:

Fenton Art Glass

 

May 2006

 

By PHIL BERRY

Wonderful West Virginia Magazine

In 1905, 25-year-old Frank L. Fenton decided to try his hand at business. With only $284.86 of seed money, Frank and his older brother John, launched Fenton Art Glass Company in an abandoned glass factory building in Martins Ferry, Ohio. At first, the brothers specialized in hand painting decorations on glass blanks made by other glass manufacturers. Unable to find a steady supply of glass, they soon decided to produce their own. The Fentons moved their fledgling company down the Ohio River to Williamstown, West Virginia, where on January 2, 1907, they crafted their first piece of handmade glass.

In time, Fenton's glassmaking shops, furnaces, annealing lehrs (where the glass is slowly cooled), sand-mixing devices, decorating studios, offices, and packing areas all operated under one roof. Raw materials for glassmaking arrived via the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad. In turn, the company shipped its exquisite finished products in strawpacked barrels - made at its on-site cooperage shop - by railroad and by horse-drawn drays.

In 1909, John left to start a new glass company in Millersburg, Ohio, but other members of the Fenton family joined Frank in running the Williamstown business. Frank's drive to create new and unusual colors quickly vaulted Fenton Art Glass to the top of the handmade glass industry. From 1905 to the 1920s, the company drew some of its inspiration from the artists at world famous glass producers Tiffany and Steuben.

Fenton Art Glass also owes its early success to famous glass chemist Jacob Rosenthal, also known as Uncle Jake, whose glass career began shortly after the Civil War. Perhaps Rosenthal's most important contribution to the young company was his role in the creation of iridescent glass, known as carnival glass, which Fenton introduced in 1907, Rosenthal's carnival glass, chocolate glass (sometimes called caramel glass by antique dealers), and golden agate pieces are now much-sought-after collector's items. Rosenthal also helped the company persuade other talented glass workers to relocate to Williamstown.

During the Depression and World War II, Fenton shifted its focus from creating decorative art glass to producing practical items such as mixing bowls and tableware, all the while continuing to experiment with new colors. They also introduced the Hobnail pattern line, which would become the company's bread and butter for nearly four decades.

Though Fenton Art Glass survived the lean times of the 1930s and early 1940s, tragedy struck in 1947 and 1948, when Frank, company vice president-secretary and sales manager Robert C. Fenton, and maintenance superintendent James E. Fenton all died, leaving the enterprise in the hands of Frank M. Fenton, age 33, and Wilmer C. (Bill) Fenton, age 25. Despite their youth, the second generation of Fentons led the company through 30 years of rapid growth and success, during a period when many of the country's handmade glass producers closed up shop. Frank M. served as the company's president and Bill as its vice president from 1948 to 1978, when Frank M. became chairman of the board and Bill took over as president. In 1986, Bill assumed the chairmanship of the board, and Frank M.'s son, George W. Fenton, succeeded him as president. Today, nine members of the Fenton family, along with more than 400 employees, continue the Fenton Art Glass legacy of producing handmade art glass.

Stunning colors have long been the signature of Fenton's glass pieces. The company uses special ingredients - such as gold, manganese, and cobalt - to achieve its rich hues. In addition to elegant colors, Fenton's handpainted pieces are prized for their artistic detail. The company's team of highly trained artists renders designs with a mixture of enamel paint and finely crushed glass. The pieces are then exposed to extremely high heat to fuse the paint to the glass.

Fenton Art Glass is a distinctive American product that continues to be collected worldwide. To fully appreciate Fenton glass and the company's 100-year history, a tour of its factory, museum, and gift shop is in order. Free factory tours give small groups of visitors an intimate look at glassmaking in action. USA Today ranked the Fenton tour among the country's top 10 factory tours, and Rand McNally named Fenton in their 2006 Best of the Road guide. The approximately 40-minute tours are typically available Monday through Friday from 8:15 AM to 4:00 PM. Because tour hours are subject to change, the company asks guests to please call ahead to confirm tour times (304) 375-7772. For more information and for gift shop and museum hours, visit the Web site: www.fentongiftshop.com.

Fenton Art Glass also operates a factory outlet store in Flatwoods that sells both first-quality items and "preferred seconds," which have slight imperfections. For more information, call (304) 765-3430.

[PHOTO CAPTION ABOVE]

An early photo of glassworkers in the Fenton press shop Courtesy of Fenton Art Glass

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Fenton Factory Tours

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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