Richard V. Simpson
The New England Glass Company’s successful 1882 introduction of Amberina glass predestined the success of Mt. Washington’s Burmese glass. Public acceptance of New England’s parti-colored crystal opened the Victorian-era market for all sorts of new, previously unknown, colorful novelty glassware. Of the many novelty glassware developed before the turn of the century Frederick Shirley’s Mt. Washington Burmese glass is still one of the most desirable to Art Glass collectors.
The Key Ingredient: Uranium Oxide
For many generations in Europe and America glass makers used oxide of uranium as a colorant. It was long known the use of uranium in a batch of molten glass imparts a very pleasing yellow color to the glass.
In Bohemia the resulting glass was known as Annagelb and Chroysopras; the former a transparent uranium-yellow, the latter an opaque uranium-yellow with a decided opalescent quality. Interestingly, the Bostonand Sandwich glass works used uranium oxide to make Canary Yellow.
We read in Revi’s 1967 book Nineteenth Century Glass that in a batch of metal weighing about two hundred pounds, less than $1.00 worth of uranium was used in the manufacture of Burmese (circa 1886-1890).
The Genealogy of Burmese Art Glass
Frederick Shirley, general manager of the Mt. Washington Glass Company, was energetic and enterprising, but he never made a piece of glass. Shirley was a curious experimenter; he dabbled in the effects produced by making small changes in glass formulas.
In 1881, he tried his hand at making a small pot of ruby class—the color ruby is made with the addition of gold. As with many others before him, Shirley’s gold sank to the bottom of the pot and initial gathers did not strike ruby upon being introduced to the heat of the glory hole. Continuing, he added uranium oxide to the same pot—uranium is widely known to produce the color yellow.
By this time the gold had begun to throw off its coloring oxide and when the gaffer began reheating a gather of the metal at the glory hole the gather turned coral color around the edges of the vessel being shaped. This, we believe, is the way the glass called Burmese was created.
Shirley’s patent reveals the formula used for his Burmese glass:
"100 pounds of white sand
36 pounds of refined lead oxide
25 pounds of purified potash
7 pounds of niter
5 pounds of bicarbonate of soda
6 pounds of fluor-spar (sic)
5 pounds of feldspar.”
This chemical batch weighing 184 pounds produced a well-known mixture for translucent white or opal glass. To this mix Mr. Shirley added: 2 pounds of oxide of uranium and 1 & ½ pennyweights of prepared gold.
The patent continues:
“The addition of two pounds of uranium oxide made the ordinarily translucent white opal glass melt a pale yellow in color. Adding a small amount of gold, made soluble in a solution of aqua regia and colloidally dispersed throughout the entire batch, made the glass sensitive to thermal changes. After the article was formed from this glass it was allowed to cool below a glowing red heat and reheated at the glory hole. The reheated portions of the article struck a salmon-pink color which shaded down into the original body color of pale yellow.”
Another interesting fact revealed by Shirley in his Burmese patent states: “…should it be desired, the workman by reheating the edges to a melting-point, can restore the original yellow color on the part so reheated, thus producing varied effects of color-shadings not previously obtainable.”
After continued refinement of the formula, design, and production Shirley himself, in September 1886, was carrying several pieces of Burmese to England for presentation to Queen Victoria, and Princess Beatrice. The exact identity of the American’s gift to the British royals is unknown; contemporary description is “pretty vases” and by inference, a decorated “specimen”.
The reliable source used for this article, the New Bedford Glass Museum’s 1985 Catalogue for the Burmese Centennial Exhibit says shortly after Shirley’s gift was received, an order was placed by Victoria’s secretary for a tea set and a pair of vases. Payment of £250 followed in January, 1887.
The term “Queen’s Pattern” was applied to the design of the Queen’s tea set and is always referred to as such.
Mr. Shirley allowed the myth to circulate that Victoria herself named the ware—the color of which reminded her of “a Burmese sunset.” Since Victoria had never visited Burma and the name was in use in 1886, the naming of Burmese was more prosaic, considering Shirley had an appreciation for “snob appeal.”
Although expensive for both maker and consumer, the wear’s popularity was established upon its initial offering on the fancy glass market. By 1886, almost 200 forms of Burmese were in production. Shirley patented Burmese in England, and sold the license to produce the formula to the English glass house of Thomas Webb and Sons, under the trade name, “Queen’s Burmese Ware.”
There is some reason to believe that Webb altered the formula to produce a darker coral.
The Longevity of Burmese Art Glass
Burmese was blown plain and pattern molded in diamond quilted, hobnail and melon ribbed, in glossy and plush and decorated with enamel paints. The ware was made in a great variety of forms and each form was made in several sizes.
George C. Avila writes in his 1968 Pairpoint Glass Story, “Burmese was expensive to make, so, in 1900 the company discontinued it.”
Contrary to Avila, we read in the 1985 Catalogue for the Burmese Centennial Exhibit, “It is difficult to date the decline of Burmese’s favor with the public; the wear was in continuous production until 1920.
Avila continues, “In 1932, the story goes, two pounds of uranium oxide was found in the storage room where it had been for half a century. A glass maker found the yellow powder and poured it into some glass batter. About 132 pieces came out of the furnaces.”
The original Mt. Washington Glass Company reorganized several times during the 20th century. Burmese glass made infrequent returns to the market by the Pairpoint Corporation, 1932; the Gundersen Pairpoint, 1952 and 1956; and finally Robert Bryden’s Pairpoint Glass Company revived production briefly in 1970, 1975, 1978 and 1988. Their heavy, sometimes unimpressive shapes and darker color easily identify the 1932 production.
At the reincarnated Pairpoint Glass Company of Sagamore, Massachusetts, Robert Bryden made Burmese four times between 1970 and 1988. Typical Bryden pieces are often miniature, scaled-down reproductions of Mt.Washington shapes that approximate the originals in all but color and thickness. Twenty-first century collectors should have no trouble identifying Bryden’s pieces from any of the earlier production, thanks to Bryden’s restraint.
Enamel Decorated Burmese
The Smith Brothers
It is reasonable to believe that Alfred and Harry Smith and their talented cadre of artists are responsible for the wonderful enamel embellishment of nineteenth-century Burmese Ware because they were operating the Mt.Washington in-house decorating shop during the years when Burmese was in production.
In 1871, the Smith brothers became in-house contractors at William Langdon Libbey’s Mt. Washington Glass Works in New Bedford, Massachusetts. There, they established that firm’s first glass decorating shop.
The Smiths severed their contractual ties with the Mt. Washington operation in 1874 after they bought Mt.Washington stock and founded their own company called, Smith Brothers – Fine Decorated Glass Ware. After hiring away almost the entire staff of Mt. Washington’s decorating shop, they continued to operate in leased rooms in the glasswork’s sprawling building complex.
For almost three decades (1871 – 1899), the Smith brothers’ decorating shop enjoyed enormous success. Despite the fame and awards garnered by the Smith’s beautifully decorated glass, the times and the tastes of the buying public had shifted and the Smiths failed to change in accordance with them. By the turn of the twentieth-century, the Smith Brothers’ firm was forced to file bankruptcy and the company’s doors closed for good.
Robert Bryden hired aspiring young New Bedford artist Peter Kiluk as the first decorator at his new Sagamore, Massachusetts Pairpoint Glass Company. Kiluk’s earliest work at Pairpoint are signed P.K., later he signed P. Kulik on the bottom of each piece he decorated. Usually he added the Pairpoint diamond P logo and the date decorated. Occasionally, you will find his P.K. initials hidden in the floral decoration. I have not found a piece of Kulik decorated glass dated after 1971.
Lois worked as a Pairpoint decorator at about the same time as Kulik. Her designs are elegant and said to be superior to Kulik’s. She did not sign her work, but always incorporated the Pairpoint diamond P logo.
Robert Bryden’s wife Cynthia, a graduate of the Parsons School of Design in New York, began decorating Pairpoint glass in 1973, shortly after Kuluk left the company. She signed her work C.B. with the Pairpoint diamond P logo on the bottoms of her work; she worked at the company for a very short time and only decorated a small number of pieces. Examples of her enamel decorated glass are scarce.
Robert Bryden’s Last Batch of Burmese
What is the mystery and romance that surrounds this homogenous glass? Simply, it is that the formula used by Pairpoint is the original Mt. Washington Glass Company’s formula patented by Frederick S. Shirley in 1885.During two eventful weeks in February 1988, when Bryden gaffers began plying their magic with that last batch of glass alchemy, vessels and whimsies materialized to take their place on collector shelves. The shapes available for a very limited time in the factory store included candlesticks, Jack vases, and trumpet vases, all about eight inches tall. Also a jar and a cruet with a curve handle, both of these items without stoppers; the jar is about six inches tall and the cruet about seven inches. Miniatures included hat-shaped toothpick holders, sugar bowls and creamers, and some creamers with reeded handles, others plain; these vessels were diamond quilted, or ribbed, others plain. Among the whimsies were tiny hats, pears, penguins, pigs and fish Some of the larger pieces were enamel decorated with tiny butterflies and floral motifs.
All the decorated pieces are signed with the company Diamond P Pairpoint logo incorporated in the design. All other first-quality pieces receive the company logo in a circular sticker with the Sagamore address and/or an acid etched Diamond P on the base of the object. Additionally, a decorated tri-corn vase was made in limited numbers exclusively for the Old Dartmouth Historical Society Museum.
The romance of Mt. Washington’s original designs and colors has been renewed though the hands of Pairpoint Glass Company’s late twentieth-century gaffers. These skilled craftsmen have succeeded in making graceful, thin-walled vessels, and they have expertly controlled the reheating process, which accounts for the delicate shading of this parti-colored art glass. It is the pure gold and spent-uranium oxide in the formula which imparts to each object the blush of a Burmese sunrise.
When purchasing my selections of Burmese from the Pairpoint factory store in 1988, Bryden told me the current batch of Burmese from the original recipe would most likely be the last ever produced because of government restrictions on the commercial use of uranium oxide.
Less then twenty-five years after Bryden’s 1988 reintroduction of Burmese, a secondary market has developed for this last edition and prices are on the rise. One may be assured values of the earlier glasses will rise in relation to the new.
Facsimiles of Mt. Washington Burmese
The Fenton Art Glass Company of West Virginia is the only contemporary American glass maker to produce Burmese-type glassware, The Fenton product, typically thick-walled and usually decorated with patterns that bear no resemblance to the earlier classic patterns is easily distinguished from the New Bedford and Sagamore creations. Additionally, since about 1950 Fenton has been adding their company logo to the bottoms of most hand blown and molded pieces.
Glass works of Murano, Italy have been producing mock-Burmese glassware since the 1950s and perhaps earlier. The color of the Murano product differs markedly from the Mt. Washington because the required uranium oxide in the formula is reduced or entirely eliminated. Even the beginner collector will notice the uninspired continental designs and heavy-handed construction, as opposed to Mt. Washington’s simple graceful classic designs and thin-walls.
AUTHOR’S NOTE: It is important to observe the sometimes subtle and sometimes bold change of the salmon-color by the several makers over the 100 years of Burmese manufacture. Any one of several factors could cause this change: change in formula, inadequate heat of the melt or the gaffer’s control of the glory hole reheating.
For a greater in-depth history of the Mt. Washington and Pairpoint glass works by this author see:
Mt. Washington to Pairpoint; Antiques & Collecting Magazine, December 1991.
The Legacy of Pairpoint Glass; Antiques & Collecting Magazine, March, 1997.
Richard V. Simpson is a collector and dealer of objects from the Victorian to Art Nouveau periods. He has written exclusively for Antiques & Collecting Magazine on these subjects since January 1989. Browse Simpson’s Bristol Art Exchange store at ebay.com, where he is now offering for sale many of the art objects that have illustrated his A&C articles. He is the author of twenty-one books on Rhode Island history including five on America’s Cup yachts. You can find Simpson’s book titles by a Google search of his name.