A cut above: Exquisite, brilliant Heisey

Exquisite, finest, brilliant … words you come across repeatedly in reference to Heisey glassware. Whether browsing through the company’s formative years or reading current descriptions, those adjectives continuously jump off the page. Qualities many CEOs can merely dream about were achieved by Augustus H. Heisey the minute he opened the A.H. Heisey and Co.’s doors in Newark, Ohio, 112 years ago.

Augustus Heisey knew this Ohio area, rich in natural gas and silica, also had limestone deposits ranked among the purest in America. All were elements needed for glass production.

The year prior to his April 1896 opening, A.H. Heisey took examples of pressed glassware to a trade show and garnered rave reviews. The rest is history.

Expensive cut-lead crystal, so popular among wealthy Victorians, was unattainable by the middle class. Heisey’s timing couldn’t have been more perfect.

According to Shirley Dunbar, author of Heisey Glass, the Early Years: 1896-1924, Heisey was advertised as “utilitarian, decorative and designed for everyday use”… words that may seem incongruous with “exquisite.” Not so. Heisey’s hand-wrought, mold-pressed glass rivaled the brilliance of cut crystal. It was snatched up by those yearning for Victorian elegance, yet ruled by wallets. Seeing a price comparison provided by Dunbar, Heisey’s appeal is understandable: A dozen 8-ounce cut-glass water tumblers, circa 1899, sold for $16.50. A dozen similar, but pressed-glass Heisey tumblers, could be had for 35 cents.

Just as pressed glass companies copied patterns of cut glass, they also duplicated those of other pressed glass manufacturers. Dunbar describes this incredible competition where patterns so closely resembled one another, you were left wondering, “… which one got the design patent first, and who may have made the subtle changes in the design, obtaining another patent for a similar pattern?”

The trademark Heisey logo wasn’t officially registered until 1901. Pieces made prior to that time had no impressed marking, identified only with paper labels.

That “H” in the center of a diamond trademark caught the attention of a couple living in Missouri. Recognition of it at a garage sale in 1978 led to a first Heisey purchase for the Files family. Soon Tom Files and his wife, Kathy, became big-time Heisey enthusiasts … and their hunt began. Their searches were not in vain. They have since amassed a “good-sized collection,” filling 11 display cabinets, including one that’s custom-built, has 27 shelves, and is 11 feet long, 7 feet high. In the basement are 25 more shelves of Heisey. The remainder is in numbered, indexed boxes.

Tom Files has a favorite pattern. It is Punty & Diamond Point. He’s not alone; it is one of today’s most collectible designs. This pattern is made up of sets of squares running vertically from top to bottom. Along each set of squares is a series of “punties” (oval indentations).

The punties range from large to small as they extend up the piece. This pattern, made only in crystal, is difficult to find in mint condition. He explained his affinity for this pattern, and more importantly, to one very special piece of his Punty & Diamond Point collection: “My mother was a hoarder. When she passed away, I found a Punty and Diamond Point sugar shaker with a sterling silver top in a box of junk on her back porch.”

Heisey trademarks aren’t always easily located. If it’s not on the bottom, look inside and outside the edges, under and behind the foot, along stems, under the lip, in the border, or in the pattern itself. Feel inside the handle and along places you can’t see.

If you still can’t discover this “H” within a diamond, relax … not all Heisey pieces are marked. Many pieces had a paper label affixed to the glass. “Some people had the audacity to remove the stickers to use the glass,” exclaimed Files.

But household users weren’t the only ones taking off labels. Heisey was frequently ordered by outside companies, for personalizing with their own decorations. These companies usually removed labels and often ground off the impressed diamond “H.”

Dunbar wrote of unmarked Heisey, “A good guess would be that almost half the glassware and all of the early and hand-blown stems are not identifiable except by knowledge of the pattern and quality and color of glass.”

Books with pattern descriptions, photographs and catalog images are excellent for identification and authentication. Dunbar’s book is helpful. So, too, are Files’ recommendations: the four-book series by Clarence Vogel; Neila Bredehoft and Tom Bredehoft’s Heisey Glass, 1896-1957 and The Collector’s Encyclopedia of Heisey Glass 1925-1938 by Neila Bredehoft. Files suggests checking online for the out-of-print Vogels, which contain reproductions of most of Heisey sale catalogs. Studying examples in antiques stores and reputable Web sites are also good ways of learning.

By the early 1900s, Victorian-influenced patterns were being phased out. To illustrate this, Dunbar gave the example of the #1255 Pineapple & Fan (1898-1907). In 1898, more than 80 items were offered in that pattern; by 1905, only  five. Those Victorian styles resembling cut glass were replaced by patterns with plain panels. By 1937, those plain panels evolved into the fluted Colonial lines, which remained popular until Heisey went out of business in 1957.

Heisey’s production glass types expanded to meet the public’s desires for what was popular at the time. Information provided through the Heisey Museum explains how:

Pressed glass: Heisey’s was made by pressing molten glass into a mold to create desired shape and design. Theirs was hand-pressed, completely fabricated by hand operations. It, and occasionally blown pieces, were often finished by “fire polishing.”

Blown glass: Heisey’s was made by air pressure from the mouth. When a mold is used to make blown-glass items, the pressure of air forces molten glass to the mold’s shape.

Etchings: This was produced by using strong acids to “eat” the designs into the glass.

Cuttings: According to Files, “Heisey used the same methods for cutting glass as the other companies – copper or stone cutting wheels. The ‘game’ changed for Heisey in about 1933 when Emil Krall joined Heisey. Krall had formerly worked in the Austrian court of Franz Josef. His elaborately cut, often one-of-a-kind, pieces were unsurpassed for the lifelike precision and are highly prized by collectors today. Emil’s brother, Willibald, was also a cutter for Heisey as were two sons of Emil and one son of Willibald.”
Colored glass: Color was produced not by dyes, but by various mineral salts.

To enhance reflective qualities, optics were used as decorative effects. This technique is achieved by varying the glass thickness. According to Bredehoft, optics Heisey used for making pressed and/or blown glass more brilliant were: Checker; Diamond, Narrow, Medium or Wide Vertical Panels, Ramshorn; Saturn; Swirl (used only on a few and difficult to find); and Wavy Line. Diamond was the most popular, used mostly on blown-glass.

When A.C. Heisey died in 1922, his son, Wilson Heisey, took over. Wilson is credited for the company’s color era. Neila Bredehoft wrote in Collectors’ Encyclopedia of Heisey Glass, 1925-1938, “The middle years saw the introduction of the most unusual colors and those which are the most sought today.” Huge quantities of glass were being manufactured by such companies as Cambridge and Fostoria.

Following his father’s example, Wilson Heisey concentrated on quality, with smaller output than competing firms. For that reason, Bredehoft considers Heisey the most popular glass collectible in the United States.

In 1933, a whole new phase of glassware splashed onto the market. Prohibition had ended, and with it, the introduction of beverage and bar glasses, wine glasses and decanters, beer mugs, ice buckets, martini glasses and pitchers, cocktail shakers, etc. Times were far from dry.

Wilson Heisey died in 1942 and T. Clarence Heisey, Wilson’s brother, became the new president. Figurines, mostly animals, were popular pieces during his time.

Some collectors seek out just these, acquiring all the Heisey production animals. For those wishing to provide shelter for these wonderful creatures, the variety is extensive.

Mallards, hens and roosters, pheasants, geese, Scotties, gazelles, giraffes, horses, piglets and elephants just skim the surface of Heisey’s menagerie. Many were produced in different poses. Files noted how Heisey not only made animals, but “incorporated animals into their other glass products such as decanter and cocktail shaker stoppers, floral blocks, cocktail stems, ashtrays, and trinket and candy box lids.”

In addition to animals, Heisey offers 61 years of seemingly unlimited possibilities. Collectors can focus on certain colors, patterns, type of glass or time period. Some might select only place settings. Many specific novelties were produced which would make intriguing collections. When queried about the varied interests among his fellow members in the Great Plains Heisey Club, Files commented, “Members live in four states – Iowa, Kansas, Missouri and Nebraska – and their collection interests are as widespread as their geographic locations.”

You don’t have to be a Great Plains resident to find a regional Heisey Club; there are many across the United States. Whatever your zip code, there’s a group of fellow collectors just waiting for you to join in their enthusiasm.

The era of color

Heisey colors are well-known and documented, so knowledgeable collectors look to color as a trademark when dating pieces.*

During Heisey’s earlier period, the few colors available were limited to Emerald, Canary, Opal (opalescent and milk glass) and Ivorina Verde (Custard). That changed in 1922 when E. Wilson Heisey became president.

1923-1924. This pale green replaced Canary.

Late 1925-1935. It is difficult to tell from Emerald with naked eye. They react differently to ultraviolet light. Later shades of Moongleam are more subdued, less yellow green. Moongleam was the first of two pastels introduced by Heisey. The other is…

Late 1925-1935. This was the most successful color for sales and today is the most commonly found color. Shades range from pale rose to orange tones to nearly brown. (Recently a few rose pieces were discovered in early patterns, prior to Flamingo, making it a separate color.) For advertising, Heisey created a special label, a flamingo bird in a diamond-shaped label. Today’s collectors seek Flamingo pieces still having this label.

1926+. Amber was limited in production, making it difficult to find today.

1927-1928. This was Heisey’s first attempt at lavender. It is found in shades of light lavender to a brownish, muddy purple. It also had short production.

1929-1930. Heisey’s first attempt at yellow was this brassy, strong color. It was replaced by …

1930-1937. Considered bright, yet delicate, Sahara was not just a popular color, it also impressed the glass trade.

Alexandrite: 1930-1935. Alexandrite’s lavender was more successful than Hawthorne’s. Due to the mineral component required for its production, it was the most expensive color produced by Heisey. It remains expensive. On Oct. 1, 2006, a six-piece plate setting sold on eBay for $650. The Empress pattern #1401 had four square plates (10 1/2 inches, 8 inches, 7 inches, 6 inches) and cup and saucer.

Tangerine: 1932-1935. Bredehoft describes Tangerine as the most elusive color of this period. “Many collectors count themselves lucky to own even one piece in this color and those who are able to assemble table settings are indeed fortunate.” This deep orange-red, sometimes deepening to a true red, usually brings a hefty price.

Steigel Blue (Cobalt): 1933-1941. This color marks a period when Heisey was turning away from pastel colors to bold, vibrant ones. Its deep shade of blue is extremely popular today.

1936-1939. Turquoise blue-green in color, it was later reissued as Limelight in the late 1950s.

1955 until company ended. The charcoal gray Dawn was Heisey’s last color.

Heisey experimented with the colors Black Opaque, Trial Blue, Gold Opalescent, and Gold Ruby. These ‘experimental colors’ are rare. Black Opaque and Gold Ruby were never marketed. Trial Blue was for a test market or special orders. An extremely small number of Gold Opalescent pieces were produced.

Although Heisey at times combined a color with crystal objects, they seldom produced pieces composed of two colors.

*All Heisey colors had variation in shades due to size and thickness of piece and lack of quality control in the formulation process.

The National Heisey Glass Museum

Not long after Tom and Kathy Files purchased their first piece of Heisey, they made a point of visiting this museum. Said Files of that experience, “The sight of the glass there was awesome and we knew we wanted to make Heisey our focused collection.”

The museum has been owned and operated by the Heisey Collectors of America Inc. since opening in 1974. Located in Veterans Park in downtown Newark, Ohio, it showcases more than 4,500 pieces of glassware produced by the A.H. Heisey & Co., featuring hundreds of patterns and all known colors. You can also view cuttings, etchings, engravings and experimental pieces. Through displays of molds, tools, etching plates, factory designs, samples and “whimsies,” you can learn how all those exquisite pieces of glass were produced. The museum’s 1993 addition offers a media center and archives facility. A library is open to HCA members and there’s a Museum Shop stocked with Heisey items.

For more information, visit www.heiseymuseum.org or call 740-345-2932. If you’re seeking active clubs in your area, but can’t locate any, click “Study Clubs” on the museum’s site.

Where did the molds go?

Heisey went out of business in December 1957. In April 1958, Imperial Glass of Bellaire, Ohio, purchased its assets and started producing glass using some of Heisey’s molds. This is known as the Heisey-by-Imperial era. When Imperial closed in 1984, The Heisey Collectors of America Inc. (HCA), a non-profit corporation dedicated to the collection and preservation of products of the A.H. Heisey Co., raised $229,150 and acquired most of the Heisey molds in Imperial’s collection. In 1996, they found and purchased six from Boyd Glass Co. of Ohio.

Not all patterns were given names by Heisey, only numbers. Clubs can name those patterns to raise money for the museum. An example: #466, The Great Plains basket, 1914.

HCA occasionally commissions glass companies to reproduce pieces from the original molds for fund-raising purposes (benefiting the museum), but these are always marked as such.

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