The mystery of the Goddess Electra candlestick

More than 70 years ago, Steuben master Frederick Carder handcrafted a pair of candlesticks in celebration of the 60th anniversary of Thomas Edison’s creation of the electric incandescent light bulb. During an elaborate dinner party in his honor, one of the sticks went missing and was never seen again.

What happened to the second Goddess Electra candlestick?

This story starts in 1932. That’s when Carder, a co-founder and manager of Steuben Glass Works from 1903 to 1932, became the "Art Director" at the Corning Glass Works (owner of Steuben Glass) and was assigned to a small studio at the factory. Thus, at age 69 Carder began his studio glass period. This was a period of new experimental activity.

One of Carder’s greatest contributions to the glass world was the recreation and perfection of the Roman process of casting glass: the “Lost Wax Process.” This technique allowed for intricate designs in glass; a process since adopted widely by many glass artists. This process, also known as cire perdue, permitted intricate glass sculptures. Because of the need to first create wax models followed by the use of plaster molds, only single or few pieces of any item were possible.

As 1939 approached and the cire perdue process was growing in sophistication, Carder was asked to prepare something to honor Thomas Alva Edison on the 60th anniversary of the his invention of the electric incandescent light bulb. No – not the 50th anniversary, when Mr. Carder famously created the 350 pieces of an intaglio panel portrait of Edison in a metal base. The heirlooms were given as favors by Henry Ford on the grand opening of the Henry Ford Museum.

The cire perdue piece created for the 60th anniversary was presented at yet another dinner honoring the late Edison. What we have learned is that Carder created a pair of cire perdue candlesticks with a figure on each side of the candlestick. The sticks have a name, “Electra” (presumably, the Greek goddess of light or the youngest of six Maidens of Light). That name appears in the book, Art Glass Nouveau by Roy and Lee Grover, (Tuttle, 1968).

The story goes, that after the dinner one of the candlesticks disappeared, leaving the only known surviving stick, which is pictured here. Was it tossed in the trash? Was it taken and disposed of in some other way?

Where did the dinner take place? No one knows. Researchers have searched high and low and just don’t know. Steuben collector, Ed Bush of Painted Post, N.Y., has done a yeoman’s service in searching. He’s read through Carder’s papers and cannot find reference to the commission or the dinner. Bush discovered that on the 50th anniversary date, Aug. 12, 1939, it was Edison Night during the New York’s World Fair exhibit. That’s when a large number of events paying respect to Edison’s many inventions took place. This would have been a likely choice of place for the dinner.

However, Bush later discovered that on May 29, 1939 a testimonial dinner attended by Edison’s widow, Mrs. Mina M. Edison Hughes, and many dignitaries. It was held in Newark, N.J., to celebrate Edison Day (Feb. 11) and the inventor’s 92nd birthday. That sounds like another good possibility for a celebratory dinner at which the candlesticks could have been presented.

During his research, Bush worked with the Corning Museum of Glass’s curator of American glass, Jane Shadel Spillman, and enlisted her help in the research. Shadel Spillman recalled that the then head of General Electric’s Lighting Division was based in Cleveland at Nela Park. Maybe that’s a likely place for such a dinner? However, General Electric has no historian and limited institutional memory. So, why is the place of the dinner so important?

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 The rare candlestick that survived was sold to Ray and Lee Grover, and in turn was later sold to Mrs. Matt Donahue of Cleveland. The Donahue family understand the name to be “Mazda,” the Greek god of light. In fact, “Mazda” was the advertising name for their light bulb name for some considerable period.

So questions abound. More than 70 years later, does the mate still exist somewhere? Will it yet surface? Where was that fateful dinner held? It has been suggested the name “Electra” somehow has a connection to Maxwell Parish designs. Parish created ethereal female figures for the marketing of Edison Mazda Light Bulbs produced by General Electric prior to 1932.

All this leads to yet another question: What was the inspiration behind Carder’s use of an unusual female figure on the candlesticks?

Alan Shovers is a business attorney in Evansville, Ind., and is the immediate past president of the Carder Steuben Collectors Club. He has been a Carder Steuben collector for 10 years and is the author and photographer of the book, Objects of Desire, The Art of Frederick Carder, Evansville Museum of Arts, History and Science, 2005.


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