I. Free Hand & Lead Lustre: Their Story

A.  Inspiration / Business Plan:

Although the glass discussed here is indeed decorative art, please remember that Imperial Glass was a business, not an artists colony. Free Hand was the fulfillment of the two decade dream of Victor Wicke, President of Imperial from 1910 until his death in 1929. His goal was to add a profitable "art glass" line to Imperial's prodigious output of utilitarian wares. Originally hired away from New York City in 1905 to be Imperial's Sales Manager, Wicke was always atune to the public's ever-changing tastes in glassware. He was a sophisticated business man as well. Knowing that Quezal was using skilled immigrants to create art glass similar to that of the great European glass houses, e.g. Loetz Witwe & Sons, he wanted to compete for a share of that market. He reasoned that retail store buyers would "Buy American" if they not only got a comparable quality product, but also got it cheaper and quicker than shipments from Europe.
A detailed 2001 article on "Imperial's Art Glass Gamble" can be found here.


B. Time & Place in America:
Remember, a Free Hand or Lead Lustre vase is more than merely an "object". It is part of our past; a reminder of daily life in America at the time it was made. This adds a layer of richness and meaning. It makes what you are holding more complete. It gives it a soul. For example, you might find something touching in the words from a single page out of an old manuscript. When you learn that  page is from a diary written in the 1940's by a young girl named Anne Frank, everything changes. You realize how special what  you are holding really is.

With this in mind,  the following picture and "banners" associated with the 1920's will give you a flavor  for the era that Free Hand and Lead Lustre were born in, lived in and died in .   .  .    .    .     .    .  


Prohibition        The Flapper        Jazz

                  Talkies          Babe Ruth       Lindbergh             Hemingway

Art  Deco      19th Amendment 
                                                                 Stock Market Crash/Great  Depression
C. Time & Place at Imperial Glass:

From an old Imperial catalog: "Free Hand, made by the hands of an artist, no molds or forms of any kind used" .  .  .                                                                                                                                                                               




. . . and no two pieces exactly alike.     

Free Hand was introduced in 1923.  A June 7th, 1923 article in the Crockery & Glass Journal
heralded "New Imperial Line Rivals World's Finest Glassware" and a design patent for the FH paper label was obtained on December 12th, 1923.

It was initially produced by a handful of men, some of whom had originally immigrated from Sweden. Emil Larson, born in Sweden, in 1878 and William Wedenbine, born in Pennsylvania in 1885, were prominent among them, as was Oscar Ekstedt. Wedenbine or Ekstedt appears to have headed the group, Larson only staying at Imperial for two months, October to December 1923.  Being very expensive to produce and subsequently buy (in 1924 a Free Hand vase was $25 retail while a box of Kellogg's Corn Flakes cost 9 cents), sales were poor and Free Hand was not a financial success. When Wedenbine left in December, 1924 it appears production ceased. Thus Free Hand was only made for a little more than one year.
Looking for a cheaper alternative, Lead Lustre, made in paste molds before being decorated/finished, was introduced the next month, in January 1925. The Supplement to Imperial’s Bargain Book served to announce Lead Lustre to the marketplace and an advertisement for Lead Lustre appeared in China, Glass & Lamps on January 12, 1925. Some of it was decorated to resemble Free Hand but whereas wholesale Free Hand had sold 12 pieces for $50.00, the same $50.00 got you 25 pieces of Lead Lustre.
Local men, Daniel Wood being one, had become skilled enough to produce and decorate the Lead Lustre glass after the original Free Hand artisans had left Imperial. NOTE: While the skills necessary to decorate Imperial's Lead Lustre had been incorporated into production and other skill shortfalls had been overcome by using molds, the most important element in making art glass, creativity, was limited primarily to lustre "glaze" techniques - quite successfully in some instances.
In 1926 Imperial Catalog 201 offered Lead Lustre vases but the selection was left up to Imperial, not the customer. This likely signified a close out sale and that production had stopped. Lead Lustre does not appear in any subsequent Imperial catalogs. Thus Lead Lustre was only made for a little more than one year also, although remaining inventory is believed to have been sold as late as 1929.
The foregoing is an extremely brief look at the Imperial art glass story. For a comprehensive history of the Imperial Glass Company, including Free Hand and Lead Lustre, please click here.
Here is a related article on Durand Art Glass by 
MacNeil, VP Doyle Auctions:

American Art Nouveau glass began its rise in popularity in the 1890s. Manufactured for a relatively short time, Durand art glass was introduced into the market nearly a quarter of a century later and can be seen as America’s last hoorah in the realm of rich and lustrous hand blown iridescent art glass. Its popularity followed in the footsteps and traditions of earlier American manufacturers, namely, Louis Comfort Tiffany, Frederick Carder and Martin Bach, whose combined artistic visions helped to create and then satisfy the elite market demand for luxury glass.

Victor Durand Jr. was born in Baccarat, France, in 1870. Like his father, grandfather and perhaps even his great-grandfather, he once worked in the world-renowned glass factory of the Cristalleries de Baccarat in Baccarat, France. He was only twelve or thirteen at the time, and his association with this factory was brief, perhaps only a year or two. At age fourteen, he left France to join his father at Whitall Tatum and Company in Millville, New Jersey, where his father had already been working for a year. The younger Durand worked at this company for several years until he went to work at a nearby glassworks, the Wheaton Glass Company, also in Millville, where he learned additional aspects of glassmaking, including glassblowing. Subsequently, he worked at other glassworks in Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia, Glassboro (New Jersey) and even in Canada.

With the acquisition in 1897 of the lease of a Vineland, New Jersey, glassworks named the Vineland Glass Manufacturing Company, Victor Durand Jr. and his father were able to establish a factory of their own, which they named the Vineland Flint Glass Works. Since the former factory had manufactured what is called in the trade “greenware” or green glass – common bottles and jars – the Durands had to convert the original furnace to one for flint glass (heavy brilliant glass containing lead oxide and having a high refractive index). At first, the company gained a reputation as a manufacturer of hand blown tubing, lamp chimneys, beer and whiskey bottles, and medicine bottles. Around 1915, additional product lines were added, including opal and colored glass bathroom fixtures, thermos bottle blanks, and lastly, scientific and laboratory glassware. By 1920, Victor Durand Jr. became sole proprietor of the Vineland Flint Glass Works, which, incidentally, became the largest individually owned glass factory in the country.

Victor Durand Jr., however, was not content simply to produce commercial glassware. He also harbored a desire to establish a “fancy shop” or art glass shop that would manufacture artistic glassware similar to Louis Comfort Tiffany’s Favrile glass, Frederick Carder’s Aurene glass, and Quezal art glass, which was made by the Quezal Art Glass and Decorating Company in Maspeth, Queens. In fact, as early as October 15, 1921, Durand wrote to Martin Bach Jr., who had learned the formulas for mixing glass from his father at the Quezal glassworks, and invited him to discuss the possibility of establishing an art glass shop in Vineland. When Victor Durand Jr. learned the Quezal Art Glass and Decorating Company was winding down its affairs, he contacted and invited Martin Bach Jr. to Vineland to demonstrate his expertise and ability in mixing the requisite formulas for art glass. In one letter to Bach, Durand wrote:

“If you would come to Vineland and show us how all this work is done I would be willing to pay you what it was worth, or if you could work for us I would like to have you very much. We are going into this line as we have some very good glassblowers in our employ at this time. If you care to come to Vineland to talk the matter over I will pay your expenses, or if you prefer I can arrange to come to Toledo sometime in the near future. Please advise me before doing anything, as I am away a good deal of the time.”

In 1924, Martin Bach Jr. accepted Durand’s offer and was hired as the shop’s superintendent, formula maker and designer. He was placed in full charge of the operations in the Durand Art Glass division, which was blowing its first glass by December 1, 1924. An employment contract drawn for Martin Bach Jr. covering the first year of operation, 1924 to 1925, provided Bach with a substantial annual salary. The art glass division proved so successful that the following year, the contract was torn up and Bach’s salary was doubled.

The production of Durand art glass took place in a single shop staffed by approximately ten individuals: Martin Bach Jr., the batch mixer; Emil Larson, an expert glassblower, who as head of the shop, was a designer of prototypes, responsible for the finishing of objects and also for the overall supervision of the entire glassmaking operation; William Wiedebine, the servitor, who worked directly under Larson and was responsible for shaping and forming; Harry Britton, the “second footmaker” and a fine blower, who was the chief decorator and responsible for performing the threading and whorled designs; Harry’s brother, Jack (Percy), was the gatherer; and lastly, five “boys” who assisted with other activities, such as spraying, warming up (which required two youths), and handling. Another artisan, Charles Newman, whom Bach knew either from a glassworks in Toledo, Ohio, or else from the Quezal glassworks, also worked in the Durand art glass shop.

Durand’s dream to create a line of beautiful and artistic glassware was certainly fulfilled and affirmed when in 1926, Durand Art Glass was awarded a medal of honor at the Sesqui-Centennial International Exposition in Philadelphia.

The art glass department produced a full range of colorful and stylish articles for the well-appointed modern household, including vases, compotes, tableware, stemware, rose bowls and console sets as well as harmoniously decorated lamp bases and art glass shades for lamps, torcheres, chandeliers and sconces. Items were available in brilliant metallic solid colors such as blue or gold. Also, different colors were cased and then inlaid to create distinctive designs that resulted in iridescent coiled or wavy patterns, pulled feathers or leaf and vine motifs. A line of cased translucent colored glass combined with colorless glass was also made in rich colors of ruby, sapphire and emerald. Durand art glass was retailed in various cities throughout the country and by many famous retailers, including Macy’s in New York City, Marshall Field’s in Chicago and Bailey Banks & Biddle Company in Philadelphia. Early examples of this lovely glassware were not signed by the factory. Eventually, however, items came to be signed either in script “Durand” or else in block letters “DURAND” above the letter “V” together with the item’s shape or model number and height.

Fortunately, some of the original motif designations are known, including Heart and Clinging Vine, Peacock Feather, and Spider Webbing, which was also called threaded glass. Two very popular and distinctive types of Durand art glass are called Moorish or Egyptian Crackle glass and King Tut glass. In all likelihood, King Tut was selected as a product name in order to capitalize on the popularity and interest in King Tut, whose tomb and rich artifacts were discovered by Howard Carter in Egypt in 1922.

In 1931, merger talks were already underway between the Vineland Flint Glass Works and the Kimble Glass Company when Victor Durand Jr. was unexpectedly killed in an automobile accident while returning from a visit to his dentist in Philadelphia. Durand and Bach had planned to merge their company with the Kimble Glass Company, with the exception, however, of the art glass division, which they intended to close and reopen elsewhere in New Jersey as a brand-new and distinct company. The plan to open yet another art glass company never materialized because of Durand’s death. In 1932, the Kimble Glass Company absorbed the Vineland Flint Glass Works and ceased production of art glass. In all likelihood, by the early 1930s the popularity of art glass had probably diminished considerably as a result of the Great Depression and the availability of inexpensive iridescent pressed glass, today commonly referred to as carnival glass. Consequently, the art glass division was probably only marginally, if at all, profitable. The Depression caused the market for art glass and other luxuries to take a back seat to necessities such as food, clothing and shelter. Furthermore, Victor Durand’s widow had at least a partial ownership of her late husband’s company and, preferring to sever her association with the firm, sold her interest in the company.

Although Durand’s entry into the luxury art glass market was late, and it was only made for a relatively short duration of time, namely, between 1925 and 1931, the realization of Victor Durand Jr.’s dream remains an enduring legacy of the glassmaker’s art.


Copyright © 2009 Ernie Albanese

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