The Meriden Flint Glass Company: An Abundance of Glass book review (2016)

The Meriden Flint Glass Company: An Abundance of Glass
Diane Tobin
Charleston, SC: The History Press, 2012
ISBN: 9781609494926

As an inquisitive four-year-old living on Britannia Street in Meriden, CT in 1949-50, I fondly recall watching trains rumble by on the railroad tracks down the street and popping in for visits to one of the factories that dotted the neighborhood. (The factory’s receptionist was quite amused; my mother was mortified). I also wondered about a large Victorian house up the street. How surprising then it was to see photographs of this very house in this book— and to learn that the neighborhood had been developed by the Meriden Flint Glass Company.

Founded in 1876, the company existed a scant decade, but art educator and researcher Diane Tobin shows its lasting influence on the production of fine design in Meriden. And that big house? Tobin explains that it was actually built for the MFG president, William W. Lyman, in elegant Victorian style, with lavish use of stained glass and gilt and frescoed ceilings almost throughout.

With The Meriden Flint Glass Company: An Abundance of Glass, Tobin shows a chronological account of the rise and fall of the glass industry in Meriden, CT. Chapter headings are by years, starting with chapter 1: 1876 and concluding with chapter 17: 1892. She sketches out later glass production activity in a section outlining “Meriden Glass Companies”.

Tobin’s account of the company and glass industry in Meriden begins in 1876 with Horace C. Wilcox, president of Meriden Britannia Company (then the largest silver company in the world), convincing his board that a local glassmaking operation would be a certain success. There was a need for a cost-effective source of flint (or leaded) glass for the glass cruets, decanters and myriad containers that would complement Meriden Britannia’s products.

Very quickly financing was in place, glass workers were hired, the factory built, and the furnace fires lit. Two years later, the company received two Honorable Mentions at the Paris World’s Fair, and Meriden Flint Glass Company products were being represented by dealers in New York City and Boston. In 1879, they exhibited at Australia’s first world’s fair, the Sydney International Exhibition and won a medal for “First Degree of Merit, Highly Commended”. Today, examples of their work can be found at the Corning Museum of Glass, Winterthur, and the Meriden Historical Society as well as in private collections.

Despite the quality and popularity of their dozens of products, the Meriden Flint Glass Company was however burdened by heavy operating costs and was at odds with a burgeoning labor movement. There were frequent strikes called by the American Flint Glass Workers Union and workers became harder to replace. By the time the company effectively closed in 1886, they had been on strike for sixteen months. After an unsuccessful attempt to revive the glassmaking operation, the building was eventually leased out. But during its years of operation and after, MFG spawned more than a dozen glass cutting and decorating companies, a few of which survived well into the twentieth century.

Tobin liberally refers to the journal of Joseph Bourne, superintendent of the Meriden Flint Glass Company in its early years, in order to describe the procedures, problems and concerns of a man who felt keenly his responsibilities to his work.[1] Her research on MFG builds upon that previously conducted by Mollie Callahan Nolan, daughter of MFG glass cutter James Callahan; Lionel DeRagon, a collector of Victorian-era glass biscuit jars; and International Silver Company archivist, Ed Hogan.[2]

An Abundance of Glass delivers an abundance of material. Tobin also includes a number of lists: the employees of the company, the products they manufactured, the patents they earned and the dealers who purchased the glass in addition to the list of successor companies. She also offers a glossary and biographies of notable employees, such as Philip J. Handel, whose Handel Company lamps regularly appear in auction houses in New York today. Several photographs and illustrations are scattered throughout the book. I however found myself wishing for an index.

Without question, Tobin has done an admirable job of telling a fascinating story of an industry, a neighborhood, a time and a place that deserve to be remembered. I now know in vast detail how historically rich the neighborhood I lived in was, and is, in fact today.

Footnotes

[1] This journal is in the archive at the Meriden Historical Society in Connecticut.

[2] Tobin, Diane. (2012). The Meriden Flint Glass Company: An Abundance of Glass. Charleston, SC: The History Press, pp. 144-46.