Revival of a neglected native art: American cut glass

Many collectors today are assembling intricate specimens of the American Brilliant Period cut glass, produced in quantity in this country between about 1890 and 1920. Such glass flowered as an aftermath of the Industrial Revolution, which in this case managed to marry technological advances to the artistic tastes of the era.

Increasing interest in this American glass is reflected in the fact that in five years, membership in the American Cut Glass Association has grown from 38 founding members to 1,050 members in all states as well as Canada and West Germany.

This organization of cut-glass hobbyists will hold its annual convention July 14-16 at the Cherry Hill Inn in Cherry Hill, N.J. The convention will feature a program of speakers, and 18 leading glass dealers will exhibit.

Brilliant Period cut glass made by American factories is now selling at prices from 10 to 30 times higher than the original prices, according to Mary Luttrell of Lancaster, Ohio, president of the association. Business in this ''American art form'' is healthy, she says, and prices are again on the rise.

She finds that some people confuse American glass with that made in Waterford , Ireland, and other glass centers of the world. But silica sand, an essential ingredient for glassmaking, is different in America from that found in Europe. This led United States chemists to devise new formulas for glassmaking. Glass quality became consistent because new American natural gas-fired furnaces produced more intense, even heat than the old coal-fired furnaces of Europe.

Also, electricity in the US was available sooner to power the new, efficient cutting and polishing wheels used to incise patterns into the glass. While cutting patterns here at first resembled those of Europe, characteristic American styles soon evolved. All these factors, plus the final hand polishing, contributed to the special brilliance, clarity, and sharpness of American cut glass.

American Brilliant cut glass was first seen at the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia in 1876. Its popularity soared after the 1893 Chicago World's Fair, where 2 million visitors watched the glass being made and cut at a factory built at the fairgrounds by the Libbey Glass Company. During its heydey in the early 1900s, nearly 1,000 cutting shops were in operation. Popular patterns of the period included ''Isabella,'' ''Ellsmere,'' ''Marcella,'' and ''Corinthian.''

The production decline began during World War I, when the supply of lead became scarce and craftsmen demanded higher wages. It never revived.

Although cut glass may remind many people of Victorian furnishings and servants who could do the dusting, it is increasingly sought by moderns who appreciate the glass cutter's skills in producing the intricate patterns, and the quality and luster of the crystal itself.

''Cut glass, like many art styles, was unappreciated for some 50 years,'' Mrs. Luttrell says. ''Now many people want to treasure and preserve it as a unique part of our past. Its characteristics include a brilliant sparkle when held to the light, a clear, resonant ring when tapped gently, and unusual heaviness because of the high lead content.''

Some people, she notes, collect only one pattern. Others collect at least one piece from many factories. Some collect only pieces made by a single factory.

Today the most collectible pieces are bowls, vases, pitchers, decanters, flower centers, lamps, punch bowls, and tumblers. Some of the rarer pieces include covered dishes, loving cups, ice buckets, larger punch bowls, and pedestal-base pieces.

Mrs. Luttrell urges beginning collectors to study family-owned glass, visit fine glass collections in museums, and become acquainted with good-quality antique dealers who are willing to share their knowledge. Membership at $15 per year in the American Cut Glass Association could also be helpful. The address is PO Box 7095, Shreveport, La. 71107.

The Antique & Historic Glass Foundation was founded in 1968. Its objective has been to collect reference material for all collectible decorative art glass, but mainly Libbey-related items such as catalogs, photos, slides, and the like.

As a help to collectors, Carl Fauster, director of the foundation, has compiled and published a book, ''Libbey Glass Since 1818.'' It is available from Len Beach Press, PO Box 7269 RC, Toledo, Ohio 43615. The price is $30, plus $1. 75 for postage and handling.

A current price guide for collectors has been developed for the 28-page reprint of the 1896 Libbey Glass Cut Glass catalog, which was the foundation's first project. The catalog and the new price guide are available at $8.95, for the pair, from the Antique & Historic Glass Foundation, PO Box 7413, Toledo, Ohio 43615.

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