Lead Glass Tumblers by Stourbridge Flint Glass Works (1835)

Curator's Choice tells the stories behind prized objects and artifacts from the collections of historical organizations and cultural institutions in Pennsylvania.

Research for a landmark exhibit re­cently opened at the John Heinz Pittsburgh Regional History Center, “Glass: Shattering Notions,” has uncov­ered new information about an early nineteenth-century pair of colorless lead glass tumblers. In the collections of the Historical Society of Western Pennsylvania (which administers the center) since the 1970s, the tumblers, with finely cut and engraved decora­tion, were made by James Lee at the Stourbridge Flint Glass Works in Pittsburgh about 1835. They were given to the institution by Lily Lee Nixon.

On Christmas Day in 1826, fifteen­-year-old James Lee entered into a contractual agreement to apprentice as a glass blower at the Pittsburgh factory of John Robinson. In exchange for learning the “art and mystery” of the glass blower’s trade, Lee received his lodging, subsistence, clothes, and twelve months of schooling. His apprenticeship lasted six years, after which he continued to work at Robinson’s Stourbridge Flint Glass Works.

When James Lee entered the indus­try, Pittsburgh was a thriving national center of glassmaking. Western Pennsylvania’s first factory opened in 1797 and by 1837 the region claimed twenty-eight factories – fifteen of which were in Pittsburgh alone. Early products were win­dow glass and bottles, but glasshouses, such as Bakewell and Company, began manufacturing fine decorated lead glass table­ware. The Stourbridge Flint Glass Works competed with Bakewell and Company for the high-end market, so Lee would have trained with an elite corps of skilled craftsmen.

Shortly before his marriage in 1835 to Charlotte Barker, Lee presented her with the tumblers engraved with a shield bearing her initials. The tumblers also bear a thistle representing Lee’s Scottish heritage and a rose for Barker’s English background. Above the shield are two doves, commonly used as symbols of peace and love in marriage. The oppo­site sides bear a basket of fruit with fern-like plants and draping leaves, symbolic of fertility and abundance.

Researchers believe Lee played an active role in the design and creation of the tumblers. A skilled blower, he could well have made them himself. The pieces were cut with panels at the base and engraved by decorators of the Stourbridge Flint Glass Works. The workmanship is accom­plished and indicates the quality of Pittsburgh glass in this period. The tumblers are showcased in “Glass: Shattering Notions,” which is accompa­nied by an exhibition catalogue (see “Currents,” Spring 1998).

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