Times & Places

Libbey Glass Company

The Libbey Glass Company traces its roots to the New England Glass Company (founded 1818) of East Cambridge, Massachusetts, for which William L. Libbey was agent or general manager beginning in 1872. The company had long been known as a prosperous glasshouse that made extravagant blown and cut glass for the luxury trade. By the late 1820s, New England Glass was pressing glassware as well. Indeed, some glass scholars credit the firm as being the first to explicitly describe and patent glass-pressing technology. Ultimately, the pressing of glass, in combination with the introduction in 1864 of a cheaper soda-lime formula developed by a West Virginia glasshouse, served to undermine the company's prosperity.

By the time Libbey joined the company in the early 1870s, it was struggling to make money on its fancy goods. Despite this, the firm captured top honors at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition in 1876; however, that event failed to increase profits during the Depression. The directors initially chose to close the factory in 1877, but then in 1878 leased the works to Libbey, who believed that he could make the company profitable even with fine lead glass as the primary product.

Edward D. Libbey, William's son, learned the business from childhood and became a partner with his father in 1880. After the elder Libbey's death in 1883, Edward Libbey brought out several lines of colored art glass that rescued them from complete failure. The prosperity the glasshouse gained by selling this colored glass to high-end retailers like Tiffany & Co. was shallow, and Libbey saw that he could not support the high cost of making fine glass much longer. A bitter labor strike in East Cambridge forced him to close the factory, and he never reopened it. The discovery of natural gas in the Midwest attracted him to Ohio, and he moved the company to Toledo in 1888. He took with him those craftsmen who would follow and recruited additional workers from other Ohio valley glass factories.

In 1892 Edward Libbey changed the name of the firm to Libbey Glass Company and decided to build a glass factory for the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893 to promote the new name. Although the effort was costly, the firm sold enough glass to cover its expenses, and its large punch bowl and cups with a polished engraved hunt scene won the company a gold medal. At the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in Saint Louis in 1904, the Libbey Glass Company displayed a multitude of impressive cut-glass pieces, receiving a grand prize, thus the nickname "Grand Prize" punch bowl (1997.140.A-B), a replica of which is in the DMA collection.

Michael Owens, manager of Libbey Glass Company in the late nineteenth century, invented a succession of automatic and semiautomatic machines to make lightbulbs (1984), tumblers (1895), lamp chimneys (1898), bottles (1903), and finally, sheet glass (1917). When the fashion for brilliant cut glass was passing after World War I, Libbey's cutters kept the art alive by adding engraving - both polished and matte - to cutting in their elaborate creations. Even after Edward Libbey's death in 1925, the company's artisans continued to combine extravagant decorative techniques in vessels such as wine glasses that made these pieces available to only the wealthiest customers.

Changing tastes and the deepening effects of the Depression forced Libbey to become a subsidiary of Owens-Illinois in 1936. Headquartered in Toledo, the Libbey Division's artistic vision and independence was eventually compromised for profitability. The same year, Owens-Illinois hired Edwin W. Fuerst to design a line of fine glass called Modern American, indicating a strong movement away from the colorful and ornate style of the 1920s and early 1930s, featuring sleek monumental forms that emphasized the quality of the lead crystal that mimicked Scandinavian imports. The most famous design of the group was Embassy (1996.143.1, 1996.143.2, 1996.143.3), used in the state dining room in the Federal Building at the 1939 New York World's Fair. Modern American was discontinued during the war and not revived afterward.

Because the art lines were clearly unprofitable, in 1944 Libbey made an abrupt change in its market focus. Luxury glass had not been especially lucrative since the turn of the century, but now that Libbey Glass had been absorbed into the bigger Owens-Illinois, the bottom line became more important. Libbey abandoned the traditional approach to table glass and undertook the automation and design development necessary to make glass for all types of consumers. Although it was no longer considered a prestige product, Libbey glass and barware became ubiquitous in American restaurants and homes by the 1960s. Libbey closed the last of its hand-cutting shops in 1962 and escalated its manufacturing and marketing of mass-produced glass, and the company saw much success in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s. By the 1990s, Libbey had acquired Syracuse China and, by 1993, became a publicly held company listed on the New York Stock Exchange. For a almost a century, Libbey Glass Company maintained its status as a traditional glasshouse committed to the high art of luxury glass production, while slowly adapting and transforming into a maker of machine-made utilitarian wares, shifting to accommodate the ever-evolving needs of the marketplace.

Adapted from

Charles L. Venable, Ellen P. Denker, Katherine C. Grier, Stephen G. Harrison, China and Glass in America, 1880-1980: From Tabletop to TV Tray (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 2000), 163-166.

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