Quintessential America

The American Cut Crystal Industry

A Look at Irish Influence in the American Brilliant Cut Glass Era


by Gwendolyn Whiston McMurray

Many of the customers who visit my store ask about the trends in collectibles today. In the last few years, there has been increasing interest in cut crystal and cut glass. With the collecting of wine, Champagne, beer, and bourbon, we are seeing great interest from people to find the right glass to sip their favorite beverage from. From Pilsner glasses to Belgium beer snifters, cocktail saucers, double rocks glasses, and port/sherry glasses—everyone wants to add the right glass to their bar.

Although people are familiar with the Waterford crystal name, they are not familiar with the other names that were instrumental in American cut glass history. American glass cutters from Europe excelled in moving the American Brilliant Era cut glass to its prominence in the late 1800s—especially Thomas Gibbons Hawkes from Ireland, who was known as a major influence in the making of glass, and glass cutting, etching, and designing that is now antique, collectible, and functional art. Many collectors are now appreciating this important art and its influential history again.

T.G. Hawkes & Company

T.G. Hawkes & Company drove the market with the top cutters of the time. They used the deep-cut method which was dependent on top quality crystal “blanks” that had to be without any flaws that could cause the cuts to break the leaded crystal.

At 17, T.G. Hawkes moved from Ireland to the United States to pursue an engineering career. Unable to find any engineering position, he went to work as a foreman for J. Hoare & Co. (then named Hoare & Dailey) for 10 years. John Hoare, also from County Cork, Ireland, had found his way to the United States in 1853 after learning the glass trade at Thomas Webb and other glass companies of England.

Hawkes ancestors were of the Penrose family of Waterford and the Hawkes family of Dudley, England, also a glass industry family. But Hawkes had no glass experience being born in 1846 and Waterford closing in 1851.

“Cut glass” is glass that has been decorated entirely by hand by use of rotating wheels. Cuts are made in an otherwise completely smooth surface of the glass blank by artisans holding and moving the piece against various sized metal or stone wheels, to create a predetermined pattern. Cut glass usually refers to a glass object that has been decorated entirely by cutting.

Although glass making was the first industry to be established in America at Jamestown, Virginia in 1608, no glass is known to have been cut in the New World until 160 years later. Henry William Stiegel, an immigrant from Cologne, Germany, founded the American Flint Glass Manufactory in Manheim, Penn., and it was there in about 1771 that the first cut glass was produced in America.

The Early, Middle, and American Brilliant Cut Glass Eras

For the next 60 years, the “Early Period” of American cut glass, the works were indistinguishable from English, Irish, and continental patterns, as most of the cutters came from Europe. During 1830, which historians label the beginning of the “Middle Period”

of American cut glass, ingenuity and originality influenced the industry, and a national style began to develop. In 1876, the “Brilliant Period” began. From about 1876 until World War I, American cut glass craftsmen excelled above all others worldwide, and produced examples of the cut glass art that may never again be equaled. Cut glass became a symbol of elegance and leisure, and demand for beautiful glass products spurred intense competition and creativity within the industry.

Setting Up Shop

T.G. Hawkes left the Hoare Company, which eventually moved from Brooklyn to Corning, N.Y. in 1868. In 1880, Hawkes set up his own cutting shop in Corning, a Steuben County village, after working briefly at a Hoare and Dailey branch in Rochester, N.Y. A few years later, he referred to his business as T.G. Hawkes, Rich Cut Glass Manufacturer, Corning, New York. In 1890, he incorporated as T.G. Hawkes & Company. In 1889, at the Paris World Exposition, Hawkes’ cut glass whiskey jug in the Chrysanthemum pattern took the Grand Prize—a significant boost for his business.

Hawkes’ expertise in deep-cutting crystal glass was known as the American Brilliant Cut Glass Era. Many experts believe this is the point where American cut glassware became the richest in the world for its workmanship, quality of glass, and design. The cutters did not make the glass that they cut. They purchased blanks from other glass companies like Thomas Webb of England, Dorflinger, Hoare, Libbey, and others.

To control the quality of the glass, Hawkes brought Frederick Carder from England to open Steuben Glass to make the blanks for their cutting and etching. Many pieces were custom-made for kings, prominent citizens, and were used in the White House from 1885 until 1938. Yet, after World War II, company sales declined. In 1962, they closed and sold to Tiffin Glass Company of Tiffin, Ohio. Very few of the designs were continued.

Both Hawkes and Hoare seldom signed their pieces. Their patterns were their signature of the times. Although Hawkes crystal is hard to locate and not often found at estate sales—you may be lucky to find a few pieces. The rare signed pieces sell at auction for top dollar. Replacements, Ltd. has a new book with pictures of some of Hawkes patterns to help to identify stems: “A Collection of American Crystal; A Stemware Identification Guide for Glastonbury/Lotus, Libbey/Rock Sharpe & Hawkes”.

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Gwendolyn Whiston McMurray is the owner of Paris Market Antiques, an antique consignment shop located in the historic Ice House Mall at 200 Applebee St. in Barrington. McMurray has been in the antiques business for more than 20 years. For more information, call 847-756-4174. For help with estate sales: Larry McMurray offers estate and moving sale services. Tivoli Estate Sales can evaluate your estate and answer any questions you may have. Call him at 847-912-9339 for an appointment.

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