In the Spirit of Wistarburgh
South Jersey’s Glass Tradition Advances Into the 21st Century
My glass journey began by enrolling in the scientific glassblowing program at Salem County Vocational Technical Institute, now Salem Community College (“SCC”), in Carneys Point, New Jersey. After graduating from the program in 1963, I went to work in glass factories that produced laboratory apparatuses, such as Andrews Glass Co. in Vineland. While working in these factories, I was intrigued by the old-timers’ mythical stories about the South Jersey glass tradition, specifically paperweight making and the esteemed Millville Rose design. When I first held an example of the Millville Rose in my hand, I felt the weight of South Jersey’s glass history and of the skills accumulated over generations. This experience inspired me to begin experimenting on nights and weekends and eventually to leave my career in industry for the creative side of glassblowing.
For over 50 years, my career has been centered on crafting glass at the torch with hand skills I mastered in industry and adapted to create glass art. At this point in my career, teaching is my way of giving back to the glass community, in South Jersey and beyond. Educating the next generation of glass artists is the best way to perpetuate the tradition in the belief that it will become more vibrant in the future. So I find it ironic when I teach Glass Art at SCC’s Glass Educational Center in Alloway, New Jersey that a few farms—and a few centuries—away the Wistarburgh Glass Company operated from 1738 – 1782 and represented the birth of the American glass industry.
On my commute from my home in Mantua to Alloway, I often think of the thousands of people who have made their living by making glass in South Jersey in the past 280 years. It’s interesting to think that it all started with the observation and vision of one industrious man. When Casper Wistar traveled through Salem County selling buttons in the early 1700’s, he noticed that Alloway had all of the geographic and natural resources to support a successful glass factory: clay, white sand, wood, water for transportation, and salt hay from the swamps to pack the glass for shipping. And though it started in Alloway, the glass industry quickly spread to and flourished in Cumberland and Gloucester Counties. One of the most successful Wistarburgh Glass spin-offs was located in Glassboro. Founded in 1779 by the Stanger family, it later evolved into Whitney Brothers Glass Company, at one time employing over 1,000 workers. By the late nineteenth century, and with the founding of Wheaton Industries in Millville, South Jersey became the largest glass producing region in the world.
Even more interesting, from my perspective, is the creative spirit born in the factories that now defines the South Jersey glass tradition. Dating back to Wistarburgh, glassblowers made “end-of-day whimsies” with left-over glass. These whimsies included paperweights, colorful canes and batons for parades, toys and animal figures. Most were brought home for the workers’ wives and children, but others were traded in taverns for drinks. The tradition of workers playing with leftover glass gave rise to South Jersey glass folk art. And the best of these folk art items—the Millville Rose, among others—are still highly valued and treasured.
I’ve benefited a great deal from two institutions dedicated to preserving and advancing South Jersey’s glass tradition: Wheaton Arts and Cultural Center and SCC’s Glass Education Center. Wheaton Arts, with its Museum of American Glass and Creative Glass Center of America, celebrates the glass community’s ingenuity, both industrial and creative. SCC’s Glass Education Center prepares students for industry and the arts through its Scientific Glass Technology and Glass Art Programs. With these two institutions in place as we move into the twenty-first century, South Jersey is in as strong a position as it has ever been to perpetuate its legacy as a glass industry leader.
This essay was commissioned by the New Jersey State Department to commemorate the 350th Anniversary of New Jersey.