The Fenton Art Glass Company
Brothers Frank L. and John W. Fenton opened The Fenton Art Glass Company as a cutting and decorating shop in July 1905, in Martins Ferry, Ohio. The business began as a decorating shop that used blanks supplied by various glass manufacturing companies. As the firm prospered it became evident to the Fentons that their suppliers either could not or would not meet their increasing demands for more glassware. Therefore, it was an almost inevitable decision that to survive and prosper, they would have to produce their own glass. A decision was made to purchase a site and build a plant in Williamstown, West Virginia. The first glass from the new Fenton Art Glass plant was produced on January, 2, 1907.
The first plant manager was Jacob Rosenthal, a seasoned veteran of the glassmaking business. He had learned his skills in over twenty-five years of working at the various glasshouses around the country. He brought with him many secret formulas and his knowledge of color was soon tested by the fledgling Fenton operation. Colored glassware in opalescents, Persian blue, and chocolate was soon pouring from the plant. Upon Jacobs retirement, his son Paul became plant manager and glassware continued to be produced with the same unique formulas.
Early glassware also included pressed glass pieces in green, crystal, topaz opalescent, blue opalescent, ruby, and amethyst. Iridescent glassware soon became the rage and the Fenton plant produced vast amounts of carnival glass. Patterns were numerous, production expanded, and the company prospered. In 1912, the company was back into the decorating business. By 1918, the volume in the cutting shop peaked and then gradually declined until Fenton finally phased out the cutting operation in the early 1930s.
The general appeal of pressed pattern carnival glass began to recede during the early 1920s. Thus, Fenton countered with another type of iridescent glass stretch glass. Also another line of new colors was introduced about this time. These were solid opaque colors called jades in green, yellow, blue, and moonstone. Sales of the new types of glass reached lofty heights.
In 1925, Frank L. Fenton tried a different approach in the production of handmade glassware when he hired a group of highly skilled European workers to create off-hand art glass. They produced beautiful and highly artistic pieces, but this endeavor failed when the public refused to pay the necessary price for these creations. A year later Fenton was no longer producing off-hand art glass, but it was still trying to market much of what had been produced.
I n 1939, Fenton stepped up production of the No. 289 Hobnail cologne bottle for Wrisley. At times there were as many as 8 to 10 shops making this piece. Production for the regular line of was concentrated on the Spiral patterns in Steigel Blue Opalescent, French Opalescent, Green Opalescent, Blue Ridge and Cranberry. Demand for the patterns and treatments that were popular in the mid-1930's was tapering off. Thus, most of the pieces in the Daisy and Button, Georgian, Lincoln Inn and Plymouth patterns were discontinued. Satin finished patterns were also diminishing in popularity and were phased out. Peach Blo--a cased glass with a gold ruby interior and a milk glass exterior layer--also entered the line for a single year.
The outbreak of war, in late 1939, resulted in a desperate scramble among importers to establish new sources of supply to replace their old links which were interrupted. Fenton was able to accommodate this new business and the relationship with the importers continued until about 1947. By that time the war had ended and many of the plants that were damaged by the war had been rebuilt. The importers then re-established their old contacts and abandoned their American suppliers.
Although orders for the No. 289 cologne bottle from Wrisley were diminishing, Fenton made a major commitment to the future of both opalescent colored glassware and the Hobnail pattern. The 1940 general catalog showcases the introduction of the No. 389 Hobnail line in Blue Opalescent, French Opalescent, Green Opalescent and Cranberry.
Crest patterns were also highlighted. Peach Crest spruced up and replaced the original Peach Blo pattern. Blue Ridge was discontinued, and the new "Crest" pattern was Ivory Crest. This pattern featured a pale yellow body with a spun crystal edge.
June 29, 1940--the day the stack fell--was among one of the more memorable days around the Fenton plant that year. The disaster left one person dead and several injured. Partial production resumed about three weeks later utilizing the day tanks. These tanks were located in an area of the factory that had only sustained minor damage and could be used to produced certain types of glassware. Meanwhile the stack and the main roof of the plant were undergoing reconstruction. Repairs proceeded quickly and the factory was back in full production by the beginning of September.
The war years were difficult times for the American glass industry. Fenton, along with the rest of the industry, struggled to maintain an uninterrupted output. Due to the many wartime restrictions, the demand for attractive glassware completely surpassed Fenton's production capability. Although the basic ingredients for making glass were plentiful, there was great difficulty in obtaining essential ingredients for producing colors. Perhaps the greatest changes during these years were the elimination of some colors that could no longer be made and the introduction of new colors that were easier to produce. New colors in the line this year included Mulberry, Crystal Crest and Ruby Overlay. A major style change was effected with the introduction of the No. 192 Melon Rib shape. Over the next few years, obtaining iron to produce new molds was almost impossible. Therefore, old molds were used throughout the war years with very few changes in the items produced.
After the war ended, boom times continued with strong orders from jobbers who normally bought their products from foreign suppliers. Fenton boasted about a year backlog in orders at the end of the war. The Fenton plant also got some needed repairs and improvements the wartime shortages had prohibited.
In 1947, the Coin Dot pattern was added to the regular line in Blue Opalescent, French Opalescent, and Cranberry colors. On the economic front, the boom resulting from the limited competition of the war years was coming to an end. Increased competition from foreign manufacturers resulted in a sharp decrease in orders from domestic retailers.
A year later Fenton Art Glass co-founder Frank L. Fenton died on May 18, at age 68 from complications resulting from a heart attack on April 23. About six months later his older brother, Robert C. Fenton also died. These losses were particularly critical since the younger generation ,which included Frank M. Fenton and Wilmer C. Fenton had a very limited knowledge of company's operations. Also, at this time many glass and pottery companies were having difficulties surviving the challenges of increased foreign competition.
The Diamond Lace pattern was introduced to the line and Coin Dot was added in the Honeysuckle color. Honeysuckle Coin Dot only remained in the line until the end of 1949 although lamp parts in Coin Dot were made in this color during the 1950's.
During 1949, Paul Rosenthal, Fenton's chief chemist at the time of Frank L. Fenton's death decided to retire. After his retirement the Rosenthal formulas were acquired by Fenton and Rosenthal's son-in-law took over the job of "glass maker." However, a dispute quickly arose about his lack of record keeping and he soon departed. As a result, a search began for a new chemist who could implement the old formulas and develop new ones. Meanwhile, Frank M. Fenton had the added responsibility of supervising the chemical mixing.
In a style modification, the No. 711 Beaded Melon shape replaced the No. 192 Melon Rib shape. This style change was incorporated into the new crest and overlay colors that also debuted this year. New overlay colors included Ivy, Green Overlay and gold Overlay. Emerald Crest also made a debut.
As the never ending effort to expand the market for Fenton glassware continued, Fenton developed a stronger sales relationship with the A. L. Randall Company of Chicago. The wholesale catalog for florists from the A. L. Randall Company illustrates numerous items made by Fenton in a 20 page layout. Patterns illustrated include Coin Dot, Hobnail, Diamond Lace, and Crests. The introductory message to the trade proclaims, "Because of the many years we have served the Floral Industry, Fenton Art Glass Company felt we were best qualified to handle the Floral end of their business. For this reason they have designated us their sole distributor to the Florist." Over the next several years. the A. L. Randall Company became one of Fenton's largest customers.
During the early 1950's numerous changes were implemented as the new generation became more familiar with the company's operations. Isaac Willard, a young chemical engineering graduate from the University of Pittsburgh came to Fenton to assume the duties of chief chemist. The sales organization was revamped to eliminate the role of jobbers in the sale of Fenton glassware. From now on only manufacturer's representatives would handle the sales. Manufacturer's representatives are sales specialists who work on sales commissions and usually represent several companies for specialized products. In addition, to spark interest in Fenton glassware, a national advertising campaign was begun.
However, on the labor front, a 17 day strike during September,1950 by members of the National Glassworkers Union helped to compound problems for the company and its new leaders. One result of this strike and the resulting agreement was the realization that the two different types of manufacturers-- hand and machine--could not be represented by the same organization. Over the next several years all of the major hand manufacturing companies withdrew from the National Organization. This move allowed them to bargain with the union on an individual basis rather the being forced to accept the national agreement which favored the needs of the larger and more influential machine made operations.
Also, the advertising budget was sacrificed in favor of putting more money into product design. Industry sales continued to slump and numerous Fenton patterns were not doing well. The recently introduced Tiara line, Priscilla and Snowcrest items were not selling as well as anticipated. The square shaped Hobnail entry was a complete failure, although other pieces of Hobnail still sold well.
After the demise of the Paden City Glass Company, Fenton began supplying glass to Rubel. Many of these items are dark green in color. Pieces produced include mustards and heart-shaped bowls that were intended to be placed into metal holders for use as condiment sets. Some pieces were also made in milk glass with an emerald crest. The association with Rubel continued until 1959. At that time Rubel was no longer buying glassware fron Fenton, but the molds were still in Fenton's possession. Fenton acquired the molds from Rubel and has used those molds to produce glassware over the years.
Modernistic designer Stan Fistick was hired, in 1952, to implement contemporary design in the company's products. His first creation was a set of cookie canisters which proved difficult to make; thus, they were soon discontinued. Modern style cased glass vases in ruby and dark green were also produced, but did not sell well and were discontinued at the end of the year. He forged ahead to design the New World shapes, but this pattern only enjoyed limited success and Fenton's experiment with contemporary style was put on hold. Fistick became disillusioned and moved on to academia. On the more traditional side, a few select pieces of Hobnail were introduced in Peach Blo and new items were introduced in milk glass Hobnail. Plates and bowls were drilled and combined with metal parts to provide useful items such as planters and tidbits.
The Diamond Optic and Rib Optic patterns from the past were revived with new shapes appearing in satin opalescent colors. The first three of Fenton's Lacy Edge shapes entered the line in milk glass at mid year. This pattern was expanded over the next few years and many of the shapes were also made in Blue Pastel, Green Pastel, Rose Pastel and Turquoise during the mid 1950's.
In 1953, the Daisy and Button pattern re-entered the Fenton line in mid-year in milk glass and Fenton's new pastel colors--Blue Pastel, Green Pastel and Rose Pastel. New Hobnail and Lacy Edge shapes in milk glass were featured in the catalog supplement and these opaque shapes began to outdistance the sales of opalescent glassware. Black Rose was the new crest pattern. The Swirled Feather pattern debuted in satin opalescent colors. Notable among the pieces included in this pattern was the introduction of Fenton's first fairy light. New novelty items such as the fish vase, Happiness bird, Madonna vase, chicken egg server and hen on nest covered boxes were designed to appeal to a market that was eagerly seeking decorative accessories. New World was finally introduced, but the modernistic styles and colors did not sell well. Items in Dusk were discontinued before the end of the year, but the opalescent colors fared somewhat better and remained in the line for several years. Georgian tumblers like those appearing in the 1930's were brought back into the line in several sizes and colors.
A noteworthy event for 1955 was the production of the first catalog with full color photographs. Milk glass Hobnail became the leading seller as more pieces were added to that line. The Polka Dot pattern was introduced in Cranberry, but sales for this pattern were less than spectacular. New colors in the general line included Cased Lilac and the opaque Turquoise and Rose Pastel colors . Fenton's interpretation of the old Hobbs, Brockunier, and Company Block and Star pattern made its debut in Turquoise and milk glass. A Teardrop mustard in Fenton's Turquoise and milk glass colors entered the line in January. More pieces in these same colors followed in the July supplement. Fenton began to investigate the possibilities of supplying glassware to catalog wholesalers and small retail outlets. In order to serve this market, a secondary line that was separate from the regular Fenton line was developed. Thumbprint in milk glass was the first pattern created for this line that later became known as Olde Virginia Glass.
In 1959, the Cactus pattern, a reproduction of an earlier Greentown pattern with both original shapes and Fenton creations from new moulds, made an appearance in the line in Topaz Opalescent and Milk at the start of the year. Cactus appeared just in time for use with Fenton's more dense milk glass formula. This denser formula was developed as a response to complaints from customers that Fenton's milk glass was too transparent. Pieces also often had a sandy appearance or an objectionable gray ring. The new denser formula eliminated these problems and was used for all patterns of milk glass produced after this date. New colors in Hobnail included Green Opalescent and Plum Opalescent. The new green color was much more of a blue-green than any of the earlier green opalescent colors. The Plum color came about as a result of trying to produce pressed items in Cranberry. The Micheal Lax contemporary creation officially dubbed "Horizon" was introduced in the July catalog supplement. The assortment was comprised of hanging bowls with leather thongs, candleholders with inserts, salt and pepper shakers, nut dishes and various other accessory pieces. The candleholders were fitted with porcelain inserts and bases and other pieces such as sugar bowls and shakers were graced with walnut tops.
During the mid 1960's Vasa Murrhina made an appearance in Fenton's general line in Rose Mist, Blue Mist, Rose with Aventurine Green and Aventurine Green with Blue. Vasa Murrhina is a special type of cased glassware that has colored glass or mica frit embedded in one layer. The resulting pattern is varied and colorful. The Rose pattern made a seemingly reluctant entry with only a single item--the No. 9222 tall footed comport appearing in amber, blue, green and pink. The July catalog supplement displayed wrought iron holders for Hobnail planters and candles. These holders were designed by Dave Ellies, Inc. of Columbus, Ohio. The Silver Crest footed salt and pepper set was in the line briefly before the mould was enhanced with the Spanish Lace design. Fenton is continually searching for new ideas to expand its product base. As a result, when moulds from defunct companies become available, the possibility of purchasing them is usually explored. Frank Fenton was able to purchase the Verly's of America moulds from Holophane of Newark, Ohio after agreeing that the Verly's name would not be used. Some of these moulds had been used previously by the Heisey Glass Company of Newark.
Fenton explored the possibility of entering the lamp business. Previously, Fenton had made lamp parts for many years for numerous companies who then assembled and marketed the finished product. Recently, milk Hobnail lamps had been successfully tested in the Fenton Gift Shop. Also, other test market results indicated a strong possibility that a line of lamps could be successfully marketed. After this short but successful test marketing period, Fenton entered the lamp business with an initial offering of 18 lamps. Lamp patterns included Rose, Poppy and a large Coin Dot style that Fenton dubbed Thumbprint. Pieces of the Thumbprint pattern made their debut in Ruby.
In 1968, Fenton began utilizing the Verly's moulds by offering an assortment of items in milk glass, orange and opalescent colors. However, production problems resulted in an early discontinuance of these items. Thumbprint entered the line in ebony and was quite popular in this color. In the early 1970's this color was spruced up with a white daisies hand painted decoration. One of the few setbacks in Hobnail occurred with the new entry for 1968. Crystal Hobnail never approached its expected sales projections. On the brighter side, Louise Piper's Violets in the Snow hand painted decoration which first appeared in the July supplement proved to be one of the more popular introductions.
A totally new entry for 1969 was Fenton's Valencia pattern. Anthony Rosena's design, was adapted from a Czechoslovakian Moser piece bought at an antique show by Frank M. Fenton. The line was expanded considerably in 1970, but no new items were created in the following years. The pattern was well received, but production problems greatly hindered Fenton's ability to produced this pattern. The line had dwindled to only two items in the 1972-1973 catalog. A marketing attempt to promote a candle bowl as the "creative candle bowl" was met with stiff resistance. A threatened lawsuit over the registered trademark name "creative" forced the elimination of that word and the description was shortened to simply candle bowl.
Fenton ventured into the 1970's with a brightly iridized new line of wares. This reintroduction of Carnival Glass was the first small step in the development of a major new line of glassware. These new pieces were marked with an embossed Fenton logo and all came complete with a descriptive tag attached. The first in a series of annual Carnival Glass collectible plates in the Craftsman series appeared in the January catalog supplement. The July supplement announced the first plate of an annual limited edition "Christmas in America" series of plates in Blue Satin, White Satin and Carnival. A new light blue color with opal swirls called Blue Marble appeared in the Hobnail and Rose patterns. Fenton began the process of affixing a molded identifying logo onto the bottom of each piece. Moulds were modified as time permitted and the process of incorporating the logo into all the moulds was completed by 1974.
Starting in 1975, Robert Barber developed a relationship as an "resident artist" at Fenton. He was given the freedom to develop his ideas and express them in the glass medium. In April, four of his creations were selected for production and offered to Fenton customers as a limited edition collectible. Fenton dealers responded enthusiastically, therefore, another six shapes of vases was commissioned and put into production. Unfortunately, these items did not sell as well as expected and dealers began to use their special return option. As a result this experiment with a new version of off-hand art glass was abruptly halted. The July, 1975, supplement featured Bicentennial items in Valley Forge White and Patriot Red and Independence Blue. Included in the series were a collectible plate, a large 14 ounce stein, a bell and a large covered Jefferson comport. With Louise Piper at the helm of the decorating department, lines of hand painted glassware had been steadily expanding and maturing. New decorations were developed and implemented and individual artists also began to include their signatures on their work.
Today, Fenton artists are still producing hand crafted and hand decorated works of art.
For more information on the history of Fenton Art Glass or for prices and indentification of pieces please refer to our books "Fenton Art Glass Third Edition 1909-1939 Second Edition" and "Fenton Art Glass Patterns 1939-1980" by Margaret and Kenn Whitmyer. To order your autographed copy today please visit us http://www.kandmantiques.com
For more information please check out the following pages:
Fenton Carnival Patterns