From the December/January 2015 Issue:

Art & Antiques: More Than a Grain of Salt

    By: Leslie Gilbert Elman |

Pressed-glass saltcellars combine history and technology in a petite package


Article Photo
enlarge | A rare pressed-glass salt made by the Jersey Glass Co. of Jersey City. Similar salts, decorated with fruit baskets and flowers, were made by other companies. What makes this one unique is the manufacturer’s stamp on the underside: “Jersey Glass Co. Nr. [near] N[ew] York.” Photo courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art
People love salt. We always have. It’s been a valuable commodity throughout history. Economies have been built upon it. Physiologically speaking, we can’t live without it. And the recent wave of interest in fancy salt—Himalayan pink, alaea red Hawaiian sea salt and gray sel gris among other varieties—has made salt a thing of beauty and an object of fascination.

What better reason to devote attention to vessels created specifically to hold it?

Saltcellars, or simply “salts,” are the sort of tabletop item whose purpose you might not recognize immediately. We’re used to seeing salt standing on the dinner table beside its partner pepper; they’ve been a pair for more than a century. Until the early 20th century, however, salt was served in an open dish from which diners would take pinches with their fingers or a small spoon.

Often, diners would help themselves from a larger dish known as a master salt. Around the mid-19th century it became more common to serve salt in individual dishes for each diner. Such little “salts,” measuring just two or three inches across, are charming objects that lend themselves to collecting, and those made from pressed glass tell a story about the influence of technology on the typical American household of the 19th century.


Article Photo
enlarge | Purple and white marbled glassware was a trademark of Challinor, Taylor and Co. of Taren­tum, Pennsylvania (near Pittsburgh). This piece is about 2 inches wide and about 2½ inches tall. It’s part of a collection that American artist Emily Winthrop Miles gave to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Photo courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art
Pressed Into Service
In the 3,000-year history of glass-working, pressed glass might be the most important innovation arising from the United States. Around 1825 (some sources say September 1824), John P. Bakewell of Pittsburgh filed an application with the U.S. Patent Office for “the improved method of making glass furniture knobs or handles.” This process involved pressing molten glass into a cast iron mold to produce a desired shape.

Almost immediately, other makers of glassware for household and commercial use began to experiment with and refine the glass-pressing process. Its potential benefits were easy to see. If it were possible to make fully formed vessels from molten glass using a mechanical press, then manufacturing could be done on a large scale by laborers rather than by artisans who crafted pieces individually. This would lower the cost of production and make glass objects more affordable for the common consumer.

Among those seeking to take advantage of the opportunity was Phineas C. Dummer of Jersey City, who received a patent for “the construction and use of moulds with a core for pressing glass into various useful forms” in 1827. With his brother George, Phineas had founded the Jersey Glass Co. (later the P.C. Dummer Glass Co.) in 1824. Their factory was located on Washington Street between Essex Street and the Morris Canal in Jersey City, and the brothers were prominent figures in the city. Phineas even served as mayor from 1844 to 1848.

The New England Glass Co. of Cambridge, Mass­achusetts, was the first to use glass presses in a way that could be considered mass production. By 1834 the company had 60 or 70 in operation. Its cofounder, Deming Jarves, who held a number of patents himself, went on to found the Boston & Sandwich Glass Co., which became one of the premier producers of pressed glass in America. (The silica it used to make glass came from New Jersey.)


Article Photo
enlarge | Probably made by the Boston & Sandwich Glass Co. between 1830 and 1840, this pressed-glass salt is decorated with patriotic motifs—eagles, a striped escutcheon and a coiled nautical rope. The decorations demonstrate national pride and serve to hide manufacturing imperfections. Photo courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art
Seemingly Seamless
Early examples of pressed glass are rare, but not especially refined. Edges may be rough or uneven, and the different cooling rates of the glass and the cast iron molds caused imperfections on the surface. To mask the defects, glassmakers began making pieces with stippled surfaces, covered with tiny bumps that refracted light and gave the glass a lacy appearance. Collectors refer to this as lacy glass. The style remained popular even after the manufacturing process improved and surface imperfections were less common.

Moldmakers, who were perhaps most responsible for technical innovations in pressed glass, devised molds that incorporated the seams created by the pressing process into the finished piece. Shapes and surface decoration became more complex, and the use of color, such as ombré-shaded Amberina glass or the unique marbled glass made by Challinor, Taylor and Co. of Pennsylvania, turned humble pressed glass salts into attractive ornaments for the table of an ordinary middle-class American family.

Leslie Gilbert Elman is the author of Weird But True: 200 Astounding, Outrageous and Totally Off the Wall Facts. She writes about antiques and other subjects for Design NJ.

Antique pressed-glass salts are widely available for sale by dealers and at auction, often in mixed lots for reasonable prices. To learn more about them and about the history of American pressed glass, visit the Museum of American Glass at the Wheaton Arts and Cultural Center in Millville (wheatonarts.org) and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City (metmuseum.org).