Glasshouse Whimsies: Non-production creations are as unique as the artists themselves

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This undamaged, free-blown figure of a bee in brown amber, hollow body has two applied wings and six applied legs. The head has two applied eyes and a broken off pontil disc; probably 1880-1920. The piece measures 2 3/4 inches high and 5 inches in length. It sold for $345 at Jeffrey S. Evans & Associates' Sept. 26, 2009, Early Glass & Lighting auction.

Every once in a while, you come across a piece of art glass that you just know must be one of a kind. Perhaps it’s because of the design or the eclectic colors of the glass, but you just get this feeling that there’s no other piece like it. If this is the impression you get, you may have just found yourself a glasshouse whimsy.

Glasshouse whimsies – whether they are free-form or adapted from production glass pieces – are items made by glassworkers to show off their skills. Whimsies are often given the nicknames “end-of-day” or “lunch-hour” pieces and are known as “friggers” in England. They are non-production pieces; other than the use of factory glass, the whimsies have no connection to the glass factory’s approved designs.

Dale Murschell is a life-long collector who has written many articles and books on aspects of glass collecting, including the 1989 publication “Glasshouse Whimsies:  An Enhanced Reference,” co-written with Joyce Blake. Murschell says these one-of-a-kind glass items had to be made on the glassblowers’ own time; they didn’t have the leisure to amuse themselves with their creations during working hours. Pay scales were equated to the volume of the product or numbers of piecework.

At some glass houses, workers took a “turn,” meaning they worked a specified length of time, possibly four hours. During that “turn,” the shop had to produce a “move,” which equaled a certain number of items. The number of items per “move” was determined through negotiations between the union and the company. Artisans working together enabled a shop to produce a “move” in a “turn,” leaving no time for personal creations other than during a lunch break or at the end of the day.

Glass working was difficult because of the heat, the smoky, dusty air and the pressure to complete a “move” to make the maximum wage. “The opportunity to make a useful item for home or just an attractive item for pleasure was one of the few benefits that had the owner’s consent,” says Murschell. Even though the glass workers had unions, they were unable to get many benefits because the glasshouse owners would stop production and close before giving in to union demands; this happened at Sandwich Glass Works of Sandwich, Mass., in 1888.

Murschell notes one problem glassworkers faced when they made a whimsy was preventing someone else from taking it. The item had to be cooled overnight in the lehr, an oven that let the glass anneal slowly so as to prevent breakage; whoever was first to get to work the next morning had the opportunity to grab the whimsy if he was so inclined.

This undamaged, pattern-molded horn whimsy is in deep amethyst lead glass, displaying 20 ribs tightly swirled to the right, tooled stem and mouth. Probably United States, 19th or 20th century. The piece measures 10 3/4 inches long and has one small spot of abrasions near the rim. Sold for $219 May 22, 2010, by Jeffrey S. Evans & Associates.
This undamaged, pattern-molded horn whimsy is in deep amethyst lead glass, displaying 20 ribs tightly swirled to the right, tooled stem and mouth. Probably United States, 19th or 20th century. The piece measures 10 3/4 inches long and has one small spot of abrasions near the rim. Sold for $219 May 22, 2010, by Jeffrey S. Evans & Associates.

Ellen Schroy, author of “Warman’s Depression Glass,” says, “Glasshouse whimsies are wonderful creations: Whimsical because they often were made using the imagination of the glass blower, with materials and colors readily at hand, or so we believe.”  

Whimsies fuel glass enthusiasts’ imaginations; Schroy continues, “Perhaps if we had a time machine, we could travel back in time and watch how long elegant glass canes with stripes and swirls were blown so that they could be used in parades. Or watch as witch balls were gathered and again swirled. We could watch as the glassblowers crimped and prodded the molten gather into what they wished it to be.”

In addition to witch balls, other desirable forms include chains, sock darners, bells, banks, powder horns, pipes, rolling pins and many more items. Murschell says, “Additional novelties surface each year, including witch wands, gavels, screwdrivers, pistols, and swords. The pieces are unmarked, making creator identification difficult – if not impossible.” The best lead to the maker would be a documentation of provenance; unfortunately, such a record is unlikely. The whimsies’ color is also a clue to where the pieces may have been made.

Some whimsies are made of clear or aqua glass. Others may be of a single color like amber or cobalt blue, while others may have many colors. “Some glasshouse whimsies also incorporate bits of color called spatter; think of it as raindrops of color on a pretty blue or olive green ground,” said Schroy.

According to Murschell, the whimsies of aqua color were probably made at a window glass or bottle factory. He explains, “Bottle glass was usually aqua due to the natural iron in the sand that discolored the glass. Window glass may have been chemically treated to produce a somewhat clearer glass.”

This undamaged free-blown horn whimsy is colorless with maroon, blue, and yellow swirled stripes, flared rim, tightly spiraled stem and flanged mouth. United States, probably Pittsburgh area, 1870-1920. It measures 11 1/4 inches long and sold for $863 at Jeffrey S. Evans & Associates’ May 22, 2010 Early American Glass & Lighting auction.
This undamaged free-blown horn whimsy is colorless with maroon, blue, and yellow swirled stripes, flared rim, tightly spiraled stem and flanged mouth. United States, probably Pittsburgh area, 1870-1920. It measures 11 1/4 inches long and sold for $863 at Jeffrey S. Evans & Associates’ May 22, 2010 Early American Glass & Lighting auction.
 

Green, amber, cobalt blue or ruby red glass were seldom available to bottle and window glass workers. The more colorful whimsy items may have originated in larger glassworks that had several colors available.

The 19th century was the hey day for glasshouse whimsies, and it extended into the 20th century until machines finally took over production at all of the glass factories; when the machines took over, the glass was no longer accessible to the glass blowers, ending the practice.

Murschell says, “All glasshouse whimsies are one-of-a-kind and therefore should be judged on their own individual quality and beauty and not necessarily on their age. This is especially important with glass, because it is difficult to judge its age.”
American glass specialist Jeffrey S. Evans, board member of the Museum of American Glass in West Virginia and principle of Jeffrey S. Evans & Associates, says, “Pieces made from known objects can be dated by the time period of the object.” He adds, “Blown off-hand pieces are much more difficult to assign a date. One has to be familiar with the techniques employed to make the piece and the type of glass being used. Whimsies have been made as long as there have been glassmakers.”

However, there are some types of whimsies still being made today. “In today’s market pretty much any seemingly whimsical object it referred to as a whimsy,” says Evans.

Reproduction efforts are usually thick and clumsy. Modern art glass houses (like Murano) attempting to recreate the look of the 19th and early 20th century whimsies are usually marked. Evans advises, “One should have a good general knowledge of glass in order to avoid modern production pieces. While these are not a big problem at the moment, this is the type of thing that can begin coming out of China at any time.”

When asked how to tell a whimsy from a production piece, Evans replied, “True whimsies are objects that are produced by manipulating previously established utilitarian forms into a totally different article. Whimsies can still serve a useful purpose, or they can be strictly decorative in nature.”

Glasshouse whimsy resources:

Glasshouse Whimsies: An Enhanced Reference” (1989) is a helpful guide to collecting glasshouse whimsies.

View examples for sale and learn more about this unique art glass at The Whimsey Club, a group and website whose purpose is to share information about whimsies and to promote whimsy collecting.

Contact glass expert Dale Murschell, who was an instrumental resource writing this article.

Evans continues, “Many times pieces, such as powder-horn form bottles, were actual production pieces that were being sold as novelty containers. When these were made from colorful decorated glass and raised on a standard or foot, they were often sold as mantle decorations. So technically these objects are not whimsies – although they are certainly whimsical.”

Many whimsies are bought and sold at antique bottle shows, with some appearing at glass shows and auctions. Evans, whose Mount Crawford, Va., firm sells approximately 50 to 100 whimsies per year through its glass and lighting sales, says bottles and/or fruit jars made into hats or other forms see the most interest at auction. The most extraordinary piece he has sold is a pressed Greentown Holly Amber pattern shelf support or hat stand made by joining two compote bases top-to-top. The 9-inch-high piece brought a remarkable $8,250 (including 10 percent buyer’s premium) in a Jan. 26-27, 2007 glass auction.

Evans advises, “A general collector should collect whimsies for fun and not investment.” And, just like any other collectible venture, the buyer needs to be educated on the subject. He says most whimsies are fairly inexpensive and trade for less than $200. But there are some extreme examples: He says, “Whimsies that were produced from American historical flasks would probably fetch in excess of $100,000 if one ever came on the market.”

From witch balls to top hats, gavels to cigarette holders, whimsies are representations of glass artisans’ skills and imaginations in solid form.

Karen Knapstein is online editor for AntiqueTrader.com. A lifelong collector and student of antiques, she lives in Wisconsin with her husband, Joe, and daughter, Faye. She can be reached at karen.knapstein@fwmedia.com

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More Images:

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These three early blown glass witch balls sold for $160 at Lang's Specialty Auctions' (Waterville, N.Y.) March 5, 2011, event. The speckled ball measures 4 inches in diameter, the clear is 4 1/2 inches, and the white with maroon swirl design is 5 inches in diameter. All have rough cut pontil and are in excellent condition with the white/maroon having some wear to top.
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Two free-blown smoking pipe whimsies, comprised of an amethyst example molded with delicate ribs, and a honey amber and sapphire blue example with twisted ribs. Probably United States, 1880-1920; lengths: 9 inches and 7 1/2 inches. The first with a light crack to mouth piece; the second with a loss to tip of mouth piece. Sold May 22, 2010, by Jeffrey S. Evans & Associates for $207.
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This Burmese whimsy pipe features pink shading to yellow Burmese glass in the shape of a pipe with ribbed stem. It is 14 inches long in very good to excellent condition with two minor chips to bowl. The piece fetched $690 at James D. Julia's Fall 2010 Lamp and Glass Auction, held Dec. 1-2, 2010.
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Undamaged free-blown Marbrie loop decorated witch ball, opal with 10 groups of red and green loopings, rough pontil mark with 1/2-inch opening. United States or Europe. 1860-1900; 5 3/4-inch diameter. Sold by Jeffrey S. Evans & Associates, Mt. Crawford, Va., May 21, 2011, for $288, including buyer's premium.
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Pressed Greentown Holly amber pattern shelf support or hat stand, 9 inches tall, brought $8,250 including 10 percent buyer's premium in Jeffrey S. Evans & Associates' Jan. 26-27, 2007 glass auction.
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Undamaged free-blown dipper whimsy, amethyst, hollow with open handle end. Probably United States. 1870-1920; 15 inches long. Sold May 22, 2010, by Jeffrey S. Evans & Associates, Mount Crawford, Va., for $35.
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The Whimsey Club website (www.whimsey.org) holds a great deal of information for whimsy collectors. It also has many whimsies listed for sale. Photo courtesy Dale Murschell, www.whimsey.org.

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