Click on images
below for a full size view.
celebration of the 100th Anniversary of the founding of the Imperial
Glass Company. Although recounted in numerous Imperial glass reference
books and articles, it's seems only appropriate on this occasion that
we revisit the company's history once more. Maybe it's because, as time
passes, mothers, grandmothers and aunts are handing down their Imperial
glassware to a second or third generation. Often this marks the beginning
of a glass collection for the recipients. These fledgling collectors
may wonder about the company which produced these items.
It's the telling of Imperial's amazing story which puts everything into
perspective. Without doubt, it's a story which could be told by recounting
the numerous variety of glass patterns Imperial produced over 80 years.
In truth, it's the men at the helm, who charted Imperial's course over
the years, which bears repeating. It's a journey navigated through calm
waters and turbulent currents. It's a tale of vision, innovation, ambition
and a determination to succeed. And it's a key part of the history and
heritage of Bellaire, Ohio.
American handmade glass industry was no stranger to the Ohio River Valley
at the turn of the last century. Abundant, low cost energy resources,
excellent river transportation and a ready work force made it possible
for numerous glass manufacturers, both large and small, to exist. Our
story begins with Edward
Muhleman, a former Wheeling riverboat captain and financier. Originally
involved with the Crystal Glass Company, based in Bellaire, OH, he had
become Secretary/Treasurer for the National Glass Company. Eventually
the time came when he figured it was best to move on to a new venture.
He was considered an effective manager, and although wealthy, he wasn't
ready to retire. Muhleman's fascination with the glass tableware business
brought about an ambitious vision, to establish the largest glass plant
ever to be seen in that part of the Ohio River Valley. The New Crystal
Glass Company, as the venture was initially named, would be a four-furnace
glassworks and would be located in Bellaire, Ohio.
assistance from the Bellaire Board of Trade and several of his former
Crystal Glass Co. stockholders, Muhleman commenced to turn vision into
reality. Land was acquired, capital raised, employees hired and the
process of building the huge plant was begun. By December 1901, the
Crystal's Board of Directors had changed the name to the Imperial Glass
was slow. As 1903 wore on, everyone waited and watched for activity
from the giant new plant in Bellaire. By October it appeared production
was imminent. Orders awaited, the place fully staffed, moulds were crafted
and the furnace tanks ready. In early 1904, two years after the start
of construction, the furnaces were finally ignited.
within six months time, Imperial had quickly become a major player in
the handmade glass industry. All manner of bottles, tumblers, jelly
jars, electric and gas lamps and no less than fifteen full lines of
tableware were being turned out. Imperial's intricate, press moulded
patterns carried lower prices, enabling the company to reach a wide
customer base. They offered higher quality 'pot' glass, referred to
as 'mirror' glass, in addition to their 'utility' glass which was produced
from continuous-feed melting tanks.
1905, Muhleman hired Victor G. Wicke of New York City, to become the
young company's Secretary and Sales Manager. Wicke's impact was immediate
for he brought with him what would be Imperial's first wholesale customer,
F. W. Woolworth Co. and it's 500 stores. Faced with the task of finding
markets and customers for the plant's rapidly increasing production
capability and new lines, Wicke, an innovative and creative salesman,
was more than up to the challenge. Expanding its marketing to others
like Woolworth, Imperial glassware was soon found at other retailers
like McCrory and Kresge. Butler Brothers and other major wholesalers
were added to the list as well.
marketing creativity found new ways to attract buyers to Imperial glass.
Wicke's marketing strategy for Imperial took another radical turn in
January 1906 when he opted out of the traditional Pittsburgh Glass Show.
Instead he invited the buyers to come to Bellaire and see the plant
itself. By year's end, the huge plant was producing at near capacity.
Employing hundreds of highly skilled glass workers, Imperial's wide
range of glassware and sheer volume of production had caught the imagination
of the entire industry. 1909 saw Imperial make it's first foray into
colored glass items. A
trade journal of the period reported that at the end of 1909 Imperial
had sold 50,000 MORE barrels of glass than it had the year before! Given
all this, it's easy to see that by 1910 Edward Muhleman had realized
his dream. With Imperial well on it's way and entering into it's second
decade, Muhleman decided to retire. He sold all of his stock. Wicke
then became head of the 'Big I', as the plant had become known.
the decade to follow, Imperial's development would be greatly impacted
by Earl Newton. Operating out of his Chicago showroom, Newton was fast
becoming a major player in the glassware business. His instinct for
marketing, added to his awareness of the consumers' buying trends, enabled
Imperial to continue on it's upward path. Due to the popularity of imitation
cut glassware, a new variation called 'NUCUT' was introduced in 1911.
This was followed in 1912 by 'NUART', an expansion into iridescent lines
of ware, including electric lamp shades and then more decorative items.
The company's third trademark, the 'Imperial Iron Cross', surfaced in
1913, and first appeared on the No. 582 Fancy Colonial pattern, an Open
Stock line. To further enhance Imperial's reputation and market penetration,
in 1916 Newton doubled the size of his showroom in Chicago. The marketing
of Imperial glassware became more ambitious than ever before. Working
hand in hand with his talented marketing team, Wicke was determined
to see that Imperial remained one of the largest glass manufacturers
in the country.
the dawning of the 1920's Imperial was confident of it's ability to
build on it's past success. Iridescent ware (i.e. the 'Old Carnival')
and more colored glassware items would be produced. Some of these colored
glass lines were the forerunners of the inexpensive colored glassware
that would gain in popularity and later become known as 'Depression'
glass during the 1930's. In mid-1923 Wicke brought in a team of foreign
glass experts from the Netherlands who specialized in Art Glass. After
arriving in Bellaire, these men set about creating vases and fancy glassware
with an iridescent finish. Imperial chose to call this line Free Hand.
'Why go to Europe?' Imperial suggested in advertising to buyers, when
they could purchase this high quality fancy ware plus regular stock
from one source within the U.S.A. Unfortunately, high prices had a negative
impact and overall sales of Free Hand were not good. Although Lead Lustre,
which attempted to duplicate the beauty of Free Hand, made it's debut
in 1924, it also was a failure. In the early 30's barrels of unsold
Free Hand remained stored at the factory. It's reported that some were
eventually sold for $1.00 per barrel during the Great Depression. Without
question, those of this time period would be shocked, as well as gratified,
to learn how highly prized and valuable today's collectors consider
Free Hand and Lead Lustre to be!
Despite it's earlier successes, Imperial found itself approaching the
end of the 1920's caught in the downward spiral which affected the country's
economy as a whole. The Stock Market crash on Wall Street in October
1929 was the first blow, setting off a financial panic amongst investors
and consumers alike. Then, less than two months later, Victor Wicke
passed away. A man, whose driving ambition was responsible for Imperial's
rapid growth, was gone...just when his stewardship was needed the most.
At year's end, Imperial found itself facing a very uncertain future.
Sadly, with the country plunged headlong into the depression, Imperial's
fortunes continued to sink.
Early in 1930, George Hannon was named President, J. Morris Dubois,
a long-time assistant to Wicke, was chosen as Vice-President and J.
Ralph Boyd became Secretary. In March of 1931, nearly a quarter of a
million dollars in the red and unable to pay it's creditors, Imperial
was forced to file for protection through the bankruptcy courts. This
enabled the plant to continue operating, but by July the bankruptcy
courts again stepped in, ordering Imperial's remaining assets to be
sold at public auction.
to imagine what was taking place in Bellaire that summer. IMPERIAL WAS
GOING OUT OF BUSINESS! How could that be allowed to happen? It was the
largest employer in the area. Everyone had either a family member or
knew someone who worked at the 'Big I'. It's closing would be a disaster,
with a capital 'D', for Bellaire and countless individuals and families.
The events that followed would truly reflect the spirit of Bellaire,
the workers at Imperial and would set the stage for one of those rare
moments in a company's history which would change it's course from that
shrewd maneuvering, Boyd was able to post a $150,000 bond and secure
the assets of Imperial. Reorganization followed and the Imperial Glass
Corporation was born. Earl Newton, the Chicago-based, dynamic salesman
was then named the Corporation's first President. This new venture received
remarkable support from Imperial's employees. Cutting vacation time
back to one week and pledging, in many cases, 10 to 20 percent of their
earnings to the company, the workers of Imperial demonstrated their
commitment to its future. Developments continued at a rapid pace. Creditors
were convinced to accept stock in the new company as payment for past
debts. With orders in hand, eighteen 'shops' went back to work. Boyd
took over the day-to-day operation of the plant in Bellaire, and Newton
remained in his Chicago office, devising plans to steer the company
in a totally new direction.
have heard the story of how Newton met with the Quaker Oats Company,
and how he secured a non-exclusive contract for Imperial. This was a
major order for glassware to be used as 'premium items' in Quaker Oats
products. This new line would be No. 160 Cape Cod. Barrels of Cape Cod
items were produced and shipped by train in carloads! Not content, Newton
then moved to capture a part of the high-end retail glass market. No
longer restricted to the 'Five and Dime' ware, Imperial would attempt
to compete head-on with the likes of Heisey, Cambridge and Fostoria.
Newton also established the Crown Glass Manufacturing Company as a wholly-owned
subsidiary. This venture would provide Imperial with the capability
of enhancing plain items with a series of etchings, cuttings and decorations.
In 1932, Imperial's future direction was to be altered once again with
the arrival of Carl W. Gustkey, as Executive Secretary of the Ohio Valley
Industrial Corporation. Gustkey's involvement was followed, in 1936
by another important player in Imperial's future, Carl Uhrmann, an Austrian
with degrees in glass making, Uhrmann would provide the expertise to
make possible the innovative new patterns Earl Newton had in mind. With
the Depression coming to an end, consumers' tastes were turning more
toward clear crystal elegant glassware. With it's new management team
in place and large orders from new customers, Imperial wanted to move
quickly to regain it's former pre-eminent position. The only question
remaining was how to go about doing it?
on a visit to New York, Newton acquired a piece of glassware from the
French Cannonball line. The piece, distinguished by a series of heavy
glass 'balls' around it's base, gave Newton an idea. What if the glass
balls were made smaller and more delicate in nature.? From some rough
drawings, a few initial pieces were made. The new items made Newton
think of the edging on the Colonial-style needlework called 'candlewicking'.
Patents were applied for and the first series of items were put into
production. Imperial's No. 400 Candlewick was formally introduced at
the Wheeling Centennial Celebration in the August of 1936.
the rest, as they say, is the stuff of history. Candlewick quickly became
a mainstay in Imperial's line-up of offerings, and proved to be one
of it's strongest selling patterns. From some 40-odd items at the onset,
the range of Candlewick items would exceed over 200 in the 1950's. The
elegant, clear crystal pieces readily lent themselves to a wide variety
of etchings, cuttings, flashing and colored pieces. Competing with such
popular lines as Fostoria's 'American' and Cambridge's 'Rosepoint',
Candlewick would eventually grow into Imperial's most highly sought-after
pattern. Although many other lines would continue to be important to
Imperial, Candlewick, together with Cape Cod, would prove strong sellers
and a mainstay for the company for almost fifty years.
to do justice to his dual responsibilities as President and head of
Sales, in 1940 Newton resigned as President, passing
the torch to Carl Gustkey. For the next 27 years, Gustkey's business
acumen and natural talent would provide Imperial with strong and steady
leadership. Gutskey had many major goals in mind. Among them he wanted
to expand Cape Cod and Candlewick into new markets, and he wanted to
make Imperial a household name. To accomplish this, he took a new and
different approach. In 1940, together with his close friend, D. Milton
Gutman of the Gutman Advertising Agency in Wheeling, a strategy was
conceived for an advertising campaign that would promote Imperial's
glassware directly to the homemaker through advertisements in major
women's magazines. The concept proved to be a huge success. The resulting
popularity of Cape Cod and Candlewick, along with other patterns, would
enable Imperial to remain strong during the W.W.II years to come.
the end of W.W.II, Cape Cod grew to nearly 200 items and Candlewick
continued to expand as well. In 1949, Imperial introduced it's unique
Cathay line and followed it the next year with the introduction of it's
Milk Glass line. Following patent approval, a new trademark appeared
in 1951, an 'I' superimposed over a 'G'. This 'IG' and the early 'Iron
Cross', would prove to become two of Imperial's most-recognizible trademarks.
1950's were, in large part, successful for Imperial, but as this decade
drew to a close, ominous portents of change were evident. On the rise
were costs for labor and raw materials. The inexpensive energy resources,
so prevalent in 1900, were becoming exhausted, and consumer acceptance
of machine-made glass was coming into vogue. These factors, combined
with the growing popularity of less expensive foreign imports, spelled
difficult times ahead for the American handmade glass industry.
In 1958, the A. H. Heisey Company of Newark Ohio became the first major
victim of these changes. Due to a long time friendship with T. Clarence
Heisey, Gustkey was able arrange the purchase of Heisey's equipment
and moulds. Two years later, in 1960, the same series of events would
befall the Cambridge Glass Company. Well aware of the challenges the
industry faced, as well as the thinning ranks of it's domestic competitors,
Imperial hoped the 1960's would provide new openings for it's glassware.
the early 1960's Imperial's new Slag Glass items quickly became an industry
standard for their beauty and quality. These were joined by Peachblow
vases. A revival of some of Imperial's original patterns appeared. Called
'New Carnival' and 'Collectors Crystal', these items were produced from
the moulds of some of the old NUCUT and Iridescent ware so popular some
fifty years earlier. New colors appeared and were joined by an expanded
offering of decorated items, keeping Imperial's Decorating Department
working at full capacity.
Imperial would suffer a tragic blow in 1967. On October 26 Carl Gustkey
passed away. On December 7, Imperial's Board of Directors elected Executive
Vice President Carl Uhrmann to succeed Mr. Gustkey as President and
General Manager. Over the next few years foreign competition and a deteriorating
economy would have its effect on Imperial's ability to stay afloat.
Imperial stock-holders, unwilling to face yet another bankruptcy, elected
to sell the company to Lenox Inc, of New Jersey in December 1972. Mr.
Uhrmann was largely responsible for the Lenox acquisition which did
result in a positive gain in stock value and benefited many residents
major reorganization in management and marketing approach quickly ensued.
Lenox's intention was to use their new subsidiary to go after the highly
competitive, crystal giftware business. For nearly seventy years, in
good times and bad, Imperial had been master of its own fate. Now, as
a subsidiary of Lenox, Imperial's decline picked up it's pace. With
each passing year the work force continued to dwindle, and badly needed
capital improvements were neglected. By early 1981, the largest handmade
glass house in the country had become a shadow of it's former self.
The Bellaire community feared the plant would close. Indeed, many felt
that the End was only a matter of time..
elected to sell the company in May of 1981. Arthur Lorch, a New York
investor, announced plans to turn Imperial into an exclusive hand-crafted
glass house, marketing specialized items based on the company's original
lines. This meant the huge plant would be reduced to making limited
production items based on sporadic orders from customers. Lorch's lack
of a background in the handmade glass industry and his ill-conceived
marketing plan quickly spelled out doom for Imperial. By the fall of
1982 foreclosure seemed imminent. Lorch's precarious position resulted
in his asking the remaining employees to accept a reduction in wages.
The ensuing strike by the Glassworkers Union forced Lorch to sell to
Robert Stahl, a Minneapolis investor.
back into bankruptcy and under the provision of Chapter 11, a skeleton
crew was allowed to continue operation. In effect, the end had came
at last. In August 1984, Chapter 7 bankruptcy was filed. The once great
Imperial Glass Corporation passed into history. Due to the many ownership
changes in it's last years, many parts of the Imperial's history are
might think, with the razing of the old Imperial factory building in
July of 1995, we would have reached the conclusion of Imperial's story.
Today, a modern shopping center now exists in it's place. But the memories
of what once stood there and the many people involved, be they management
or skilled workers, still linger on. Imperial's glassware, produced
along side the banks of the Ohio River in Bellaire, is now sought by
collectors everywhere, either for investment purposes or to be appreciated
and then passed on to future generations.
National Imperial Glass Collectors' Society, itself having grown from
a handful of people in 1976 to a membership of over 1000 today, continues
to find ways of preserving Imperial's legacy. Each year the NIGCS holds
it Annual Convention in St. Clairsville, bringing together those who
desire to share their love of Imperial Glass. In doing so, the memory
of the 'Big I' lives on. In addition to publishing a 3-volume Imperial
Glass Encyclopedia, a longtime goal of the Society has been to establish
a National Imperial Glass Museum, dedicated to Imperial's glassware,
it's history and the workers who created it. In April of this year,
the NIGCS happily announced the purchase of a building in downtown Bellaire
which will be utilized for this purpose. In the not far-distant future,
phase one of the Museum will open, In doing so, the story of the Imperial
Glass Corporation, one of the greatest of the many American handmade
glass companies, will be told all over again.
Mike Wilson is the Publicity Secretary for the National Imperial
Glass Collectors Society. He wishes to acknowledge a special appreciation
to all those who provided assistance in reviewing 'Imperial Remembered'
for historical accuracy and to his wife, Mary Lee whose special efforts
improved this work immeasurably.