Treasure: New gallery showcases transparent treasures


The Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn boasts more than 10,000 pieces of glass in its extensive collection, much of which remains in storage. Until now, collectors and others curious have had to be satisfied with limited displays within the museum. Last month, the organization treated visitors to the new Davidson-Gerson Gallery of Glass, appropriately located adjacent to the glassblowing area within the seasonal Greenfield Village.

According to instructive panels throughout the exhibit, glassmaking was America’s first industry, traceable to Jamestown, Virginia, and 1608. The museum’s collection is one of the most comprehensive in the U.S., and some 700 items from that esteemed collection dating from the 18th to 21st centuries are now included in the whitewashed and sunlit space, originally an 1888 machine shop in Lapeer.

Arranged chronologically, the gallery starts with a case that explores “Glass in Early America,” which includes British imports and the fledgling U.S.’s first factory, founded by German immigrant Caspar Wistar in New Jersey in the mid-1700s. Pittsburgh soon became the leading center because of its abundant coal and geographic siting on a river that allowed transportation to the Western Frontier.

Utility gave way to ostentation by about 1820, explained in “Glass for Showing Off,” which allowed 19th-century Americans to indulge in a new desire for showing off wealth and good taste. Early 19th-century cut and colored glass mimicked the designs and materials coming out of cosmopolitan Europe.

My favorite section is “Art Glass,” dating from 1880-1930, an era that started with the invention of Amberina, created by adding flecks of gold, and culminated with the work of glass master Louis Comfort Tiffany. A gorgeous display of vases and vessels in shimmering blues and golds explains that Tiffany patented an iridescent process known as favrile that imitated the eroded surface of long-buried ancient glass. Don’t miss the classic Tiffany lamp, which will make its many imitators pale in comparison, and the streamlined and sinuous hood ornaments of a dragonfly and greyhound from the 1920s by Rene Lalique.

More affordable examples of the medium can be found in the “Pressed Glass” section, which chronicles the 19th century rise of machine technology that allowed molten glass to be pressed into metal molds, a skill that soon made America the world leader in glass production.

Many visitors will relate best to the “20th Century Mainstream Glass” section, which includes a blue Ball canning jar from 1920, cheerful 1930s Depression glass in pink and green, a 1940s Pyrex mixing bowl set, and a 1959 Corning casserole dish, among others. The gallery ends with “Studio Glass from 1980-Present,” including a large and luminous piece by Dale Chihuly known as “Fireside Yellow & Red Persian,” from 2000, which dominates its large case.

Chihuly and Tiffany might be out of reach for the average collector, but the new gallery offers information and ideas for fans of transparent treasures as well as the chance to reassess an art form and industry too often taken for granted.

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