The Wonderful World of Wheeling Glass

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Wheeling, WVa. (WTRF)- Oglebay Institute’s Curator Of Glass Holly McCluskey says, “Wheeling glass was everywhere. It was in every home, not only in America, but throughout the world as well. It’s a tremendous legacy of glass.” 

Why Wheeling?  

The ingredients of silicia, soda ash and lime were ever important to make a glass batch, but a heat source, in fact, was the most significant aspect of glassmaking.

Natural gas or coal were necessary components to create molten glass.

Wheeling had a great deal of both.

Heat reaching 2,100 degrees Fahrenheit to mould the glass.  

McCluskey says, “It could set up quicker in a mould. It was made to work faster therefore, it was produced at a quarter of the cost prior to this formula existing.” 

This famous pressed glass formula was invented by Wheeling-based Hobbs Brockunier who used a special soda lime ingredient. 

McCluskey adds that, “The scientific formula for making glass was developed by one of the most significant glass factories in American history.” 

It was this formula that revolutionized the glass industry to make glass flawless. 

Hobbs Brockunier was located right in South Wheeling. 

She continues, “It employed over 350 people. The furnace ran literally 24/7. It had some of the most innovative products that people had ever seen in the glass industry.” 

One out of 10 people worked in glass factories in Wheeling circa 1900.  

There were about 100 glass companies in the Ohio River Corridor between Pittsburgh and Wheeling.

There were five main Wheeling glasshouses.

Hobbs Brockunier and Central Glass were two powerhouse glass firms. 

According to McCluskey, “These two firms together had glass shipped not only all over the United States, but also everywhere, South America, Europe, Iceland and Greenland. I believe I was reading there was a market in Persia. This glass is literally anywhere you could think.” 

Did you know that young children worked in the glass factories?

Some glasshouses even had their own coal mines.

The coal miners were on the payroll.  

McCluskey also says, “It was sort of like the Henry Ford of glassmaking here because of this formula. We made glass on a massive scale and it was mass produced. Literally tons of glass would be produced and sent throughout the world.” 

Another very successful firm was owned by the Sweeney family. 

This company made cut lead crystal and is most remembered for making a total of three glass bowls. 

She says, “One was sent to NYC where it was on display and when it was being packed and returned to Wheeling via steamboat it never came back. It’s been missing since 1851. It is still a mystery, but we think it sunk on the steamboat.” 

Then there was the second Sweeney Punch Bowl given to a Kentucky Statesman. 

McCluskey adds, “One was given to Henry Clay who was a great champion for protective tariffs for glass factories and domestic manufacturing in Wheeling. Henry Clay received this wonderful gift and it was actually presented to him by the Sweeney brothers. He called it his vase. It was at a family members home, in 1930, when that particular house burned to the ground thus destroying that.” 

Today, the Sweeney Punch Bowl as is commonly called is the largest cut glass crystal ever made.

It stands five feet, weighs 225 pounds and holds 16 gallons of liquid. 

McCluskey says, “This punch bowl has the most interesting history of all because it sat on Mister Sweeney’s grave for 74 years in Greenwood Cemetery where it was pretty much undisturbed for all of these years, but in 1949 the family was concerned basically about its well-being left in the cemetery. So, the family asked Oglebay Institute to take it. It was on display in the Mansion Museum for many years from 1949-1993 then we moved it here to its present location.”  

Continuing the tour of the Olgebay Institute’s Glass Museum, it is easy to see how glass has impacted Wheeling. 

In the 1830’s, the wealthy would put their prized vegetables on centerpieces on their table in exquisite glass vases. 

McCluskey says, “Celery was a symbol of wealth in Victorian America. It was a originally from the Mediterranean and therefore it was exotic, hard to grow and an instant status symbol to the wealthy who could afford celery.” 

Harry Northwood was best known for his colorful pressed glass tableware and ornate carnival glass.

Most do not know that Northwood himself created an amazing cobalt and milk glass cameo broach.

He hand-carved it for his fiancee’. 

It is the only hand-carved cameo piece of glass made in the United States.  

Instead of receiving a written invitation, in August of 1887, U.S. President Grover Cleveland received an invitation to Wheeling on a pink-colored glass vase.   

McCluskey also takes us back in time as she talks about the historical meaning of a coin glass bread plate that was of great significance in 1892.  

“Coin glass is the first collectable glass to ever be made in America and it was made here in Wheeling by the Central Glass Company. It was issued in 1892 to commemorate the foundry of the U.S. Mint’s exact rendition of silver dollars, quarters, dimes and other coins which were designed in the mould. It was perfectly made, but it was considered a technical violation of counterfeiting laws. Therefore, the production of this type of glass had to cease after only four months, so it became an instant collector’s item after that time.” 

McCluskey says peachblow glass was quite an expensive product.

Peachblow was very popular then and still remains a forever favorite today.

To get the soft cranberry color of this particular glass, McCluskey says, gold is added when it is made.

In the 1880’s, glass replicas of the sandstone towers of the Wheeling Suspension Bridge were even made.  

Wheeling glass in its glory would have certainly been something to see. 

You may not have known that the city of Wheeling was so well-known for all of its glassmaking wonder, but now that you do, the next time you can be the one to share the story telling them never to take Wheeling glass for granted.

The Oglebay Institute’s Glass Museum opens its doors to the public beginning April 1st from 10 AM to 5 PM daily. It is located on the hilltop at Oglebay Park.

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