Current and Coming features detailed information about current and forthcoming programs, events, exhibits and activities of historical and cultural institutions in Pennsylvania. Originated as “Currents.” Retitled “Current and Coming,” Winter 2003, and then retitled “Out and About,” Fall 2005. Revived as “Current and Coming,” Winter 2013. Ran regularly, Spring 1984 to Spring 2008, and then occasionally, Winter 2013 to Spring 2015.

Setting Sail

One of Pennsylvania’s most exciting museums-and certainly its newest-will open its doors during the Memorial Day weekend (see “Executive Director’s Message” in the spring 1998 edition). The Erie Maritime Museum, with the U.S. Brig Niagara as its centerpiece, will join more than two dozen historic sites and museums along the well-traveled Pennsylvania Trail of History, administered by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission (PHMC).

Housed in the former Penelec (now GPU Energy) Front Street Generator Plant, built in 1917, the sixty-six thousand square foot facility is a cornerstone of the revitalized Erie bay front. The museum is adjacent to the new Erie County Public Library and the Northwestern Pennsylvania Technical Institute.

It was on the afternoon of September 10, 1813, during the Battle of Lake Erie, that Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry (1785-1819) made his daring transfer from his crippled flagship, the Lawrence, to the Niagara. Aboard the Niagara, and under a flag bearing the immortal words, “Don’t Give Up the Ship,” Perry and his forces trounced the British fleet (see “The Battle of Lake Erie: A Victory for Commodore Perry” by James E. Valle in the Fall 1988 edition). Through sheer bravery and tenacity, Perry had accomplished a victory of epic significance. No other American commander has ever successfully shifted his flag in the midst of a fierce engagement. None has ever forced the surrender of an entire enemy squadron and brought back every captured ship to his base as a prize of war.

In preparation for the one hundred and seventy-fifth anniversary in 1988 of Commodore Perry’s stirring naval tri­umph, the Niagara (originally recon­structed for the battle’s centennial in 1913) was completely dismantled and a new ship built. The reconstructed Niagara was commissioned on August 18, 1990. The ship serves as the official flagship of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and as an educational “hands-on” living history museum (see “Sail On, O Ship of State: An Interview with Capt. Walter Rybka of the U.S. Brig Niagara” by Diane B. Reed in the Summer 1993 edition). When in port, in its new five million-dollar berth, the Niagara will offer visitors an exciting opportunity to examine, firsthand, an unusual sailing museum.

A graphically illustrated exhibit chronicling the ecological and geological history of the vast region, “The Great Lakes: Treasure of Two Nations,” opened to the public this past winter. From the earliest Native American presence in the Great Lakes region to the more recent, continuing saga of environmental stabilization and restoration, the exhibit is a dramatic capsule history of the world’s largest inland waterway. “The Great Lakes: Treasure of Two Nations” was created with the support of the Coastal Zone Management program and the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection. The exhibit serves as a prelude for the museum’s interpretation of the richly layered maritime history addressed in exhibitions which will be unveiled during the museum’s grand opening.

The Erie Maritime Museum will also feature a re-creation of the mid-section of the Lawrence, Perry’s first flagship during the Battle of Lake Erie, complete with mast, spars, and rigging for “hands-on” learning. Another section of the Lawrence – actually blasted with thirty­-two-pound cannon balls from the newly reconstructed Niagara‘s carronades – will illustrate the damage caused during bat­tle at sea. A “live fire” exhibit will demonstrate the horrific carnage inflicted on ships and sailors during the Battle of Lake Erie and throughout the period.

The museum’s opening weekend, from Thursday through Monday, May 21-25 [1998], will offer visitors a wide range of educational and interactive programs de­signed for the entire family, including a living history encampment, maritime and early American folk music, talks by au­thors and historians, a maritime heritage fair for students, walking tours of Erie’s bay front, and a children’s maritime matinee of adventure films. Special events will continue through 1998.

Additional information about the grand opening festivities and exhibits and related programming is available by writing: Erie Maritime Museum, 150 East Front St., Erie, PA 16507; by telephoning (814) 452-2744; or by visiting the Erie Maritime Museum website. Admission is charged.


A Glass Act

Pittsburgh’s siting on an inland river system made it a natural location for the manufacture of glass. In 1797, two facto­ries began production in the region, the New Geneva Glass Works of financier and statesman Albert Gallatin and the Pittsburgh Glass Works of James O’Hara and Isaac Craig. The Pittsburgh factory took advantage of the abundant supply of coal for fuel, and both concerns uti­lized the network of rivers for transportation and trade. Between 1800 and 1850, the western market for glass swelled as population in the country’s interior burgeoned from three hundred thousand to more than five million. Pittsburgh glassmakers experimented with marketing their glass in the east and, as early as the 1820s, tapped the markets of Central and South America.

During the period from 1797 to 1825, glassmakers concentrated on firmly establishing and stabilizing their industry. After 1825, the application of new technology prompted major changes. As in other industries of the region and the nation – textile, printing, and steam engine factories – the mid­-nineteenth century was a time of unbridled innovation and invention in the glass industry. New pressing techniques found wide application in Pittsburgh’s factories, eventually making the city the pressed glass capital of the world. By 1837, twenty-six factories were located in the region, of which thirteen were in Pittsburgh.

The production of glass exploded during the Civil War era after William Leighton of Wheeling, West Virginia, substituted cheap, plentiful soda lime for lead in the formula for colorless glass. This substitution meant that colorless glass could be produced less expensively and, when coupled with the technological innovation of pressing, ensured that decorated or patterned wares could be manufactured inexpensively, opening the market for a new class of consumers. Other advances – in chemistry, in furnace design, in the mixing and melting of batch, in the application of new fuels such as natural gas, in the annealing process, and in even the design and scale of factories – followed. By 1880, Pittsburgh had no rival in glass production. One quarter of the nation’s factories, producing nearly thirty percent of the country’s glass, were located in Allegheny County.

While Pittsburgh evolved as the leader in the production of glass, it also assumed a central role in the market­place for glass. In 1880, the national trade show for glass tableware was orga­nized in Pittsburgh, attracting wholesale and retail buyers from throughout the nation and Canada. Companies set up displays in hotels to premiere their new lines and booked one-quarter of their yearly orders – totaling forty million dol­lars! – at the 1924 show. By the 1950s, though, the Pittsburgh Show had been superseded by competing housewares exhibits in Chicago and New York.

Forces of change – in the organization of the national and international market­places, competition from new materials such as plastics and aluminum, and in political, cultural, and social life – dra­matically affected the glass industry. Although no longer the center of the national industry, western Pennsylvania is home to more than a dozen manufac­turers.

For years the region’s iron and steel industries have received significant attention, but its glass industry – which produced forty-five percent of the nation’s output by the Civil War and more than eighty percent by the 1920s – ­has never been studied in depth. “Glass: Shattering Notions,” an exhibit opening Friday, April 24 [1998], at the Senator John Heinz Pittsburgh Regional History Center, will present the first detailed examination of this major industry that integrates an understanding of business development, industrial production, technological innovation, design and its evolution, marketing strategies, and pat­terns of consumption. The exhibit will incorporate new scholarship relevant to researchers of social history, labor histo­ry, business history, the history of tech­nology, and material culture studies. A long-term exhibition chronicling two hundred years of glass and glassmaking in western Pennsylvania, “Glass: Shattering Notions” will interpret the national significance of the region as a producer of, innovator in, and market­place for the glass industry. The exhibit will also involve visitors in an explo­ration of the symbolic and utilitarian roles glass has played in American life – and to look at glass, rather than through it, and to think about its multiple functions and myriad forms.

“Glass: Shattering Notions” will be accompanied by an exhibition catalogue, curriculum materials for use in schools, and a schedule of related programs.

The Senator John Heinz Pittsburgh Regional History Center, operated by the Historical Society of Western Pennsylvania, is open daily. Admission is charged.

For more information, write: Senator John Heinz Pittsburgh Regional History Center, 1212 Smallman St., Pittsburgh, PA 15222-4200; or telephone (412) 454-6000.


Benét Centennial

Writer, poet, and dramatist – and Pennsylvania native – Stephen Vincent Benét (1898-1943) became a national celebrity in 1928 with his Civil War narrative poem, “John Brown’s Body,” which historian Henry Steele Commanger called “not only the best poem about the Civil War, and the best narrative,” but also “the best history.” He was twenty-nine years old when he achieved his greatest literary triumph, but he also created many other original works, including shorter poems, novels, radio dramas, and short stories that included the classic “The Devil and Daniel Webster” (1937). He was one of the nation’s best-loved and popular writers, destined – or so it seemed – for a permanent place in the canon of American literature.

Stephen Vincent Benét was born on July 22, 1898, in Fountain Hill, a suburb of Bethlehem, Northampton County. His father, Col. James Walker Benét, an ordnance specialist with the U.S. Army, worked as a liaison with the Bethlehem Iron Works, which later became the Bethlehem Steel Corporation. Frail and suffering ill health – a childhood illness had left him with poor eyesight and a debilitating case of what may have been rheumatoid arthritis – several historians believe he may literally have worked himself to death aiding the Allied cause during World War II.

During his lifetime, Benét received the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1929. A second Pulitzer was awarded posthu­mously for “Western Star,” completed in 1942 and published after his death.

His friends and associates included many of the literary luminaries of the day, among them writer Thornton Wilder (1897-1975), best known for his drama, Our Town (1938); poet Archibald MacLeish (1892-1982), who served as Librarian of Congress from 1939 to 1944; and poet Edna Saint Vincent Millay (1892-1950), who wrote The Harp, Weaver and Other Poems (1952). His brother William Rose Benét (1886-1950) was a respected writer and editor whose works include The Reader’s Encyclopedia (1948).

Benét died suddenly of a heart attack at the age of forty-four. He was com­memorated by the Saturday Review of Literature which issued a special memori­al issued devoted entirely to him. A Liberty Ship was christened the S.S. Stephen Vincent Benét. Americans who loved his works kept his memory alive for years, but by the 1970s, his literary reputation had diminished and critics and anthologists alike began neglecting his contributions. The reasons for Benét’s decline in popularity are several. He died during World War II and, although his death was a great loss to the public, the war overshadowed his passing. Writers and artists, critics believe, tend to naturally go in and out of fashion for a time after their deaths.

This summer Bethlehem will observe the centennial of Benét’s birth with a number of public programs and commemorations. Local public radio station WDIY-FM will broadcast readings of his work, and an internationally known coffee house on the community’s historic South Side, not far from where the writer was born, will host a Stephen Vincent Benét Fiddle Contest, inspired by his jigging poem “Mountain Whippoorwill.”

The U.S. Postal Service will issue a commemorative thirty-two cent postage stamp honoring Benét this year.

Additional information about anniversary programs and observances is available by writing: Stephen Vincent Benét Centennial Committee, Sun Inn Preservation Association, 556 Main St., Bethlehem, PA 18018; or by telephoning (610) 866-6482 or 868-4049.