Quality and Adaptability Hallmark Libbey Glass

Libbey Princess Cut Wine c.1890'sLibbey by Douglas Nash Silhouette Kangaroo StemLibbey by Douglas Nash Skyscraper Champagne

The firm that would become Libbey Glass Company began life as the New England Glass Company. They produced an array of glassware, including mercury glass, colored art glass, pressed glass, and a variety of pedestrian items like doorknobs and railroad lamps. Their glass was often decorated with gilding but also with cutting and engraving as well, a foreshadowing of what was to come.

Although they created fine products, the company found itself in financial difficulty and was offered for sale in 1877. It was purchased by William L. Libbey, and thusly renamed. He died in 1883, and passed the reins on to his son, Edward Libbey. Libbey moved production to Toledo, Ohio in 1888, where raw materials were readily available. The sword underneath the script part of the old signature is a nod to the renowned steel of Toledo, Spain, from which the city in Ohio takes its name.

Libbey hired Joseph Locke, an English designer, in 1882.  While working at Libbey he patented (among other things like Peach Blow, Maize and Pomona) Amberina, the Victorian era glass that has distinctive amber to red shading.  Libbey produced it up to the turn of the century. It was a difficult type of glass to make in a cost-effective manner; the red shading came from real gold and was expensive to produce. Locke’s glass brought the company worldwide recognition for the first time. In the ‘20s, Amberina was produced again in the Toledo factory, although briefly. The ‘20s Libbey Amberina is often signed.

Libbey was the leading producer of Brilliant Cut glass in the world during its period (1878-1915). The glass was highly leaded- one company was rumored to use up to 60% in the formula. The lead facilitated cutting by softening the glass, as well as adding weight, brilliance, and a lovely ringing sound if struck. The design was created by a master craftsman, then cut and polished by a production line. During the World’s Columbian Exhibition in 1892 and the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904 the company won prizes for exhibitions of their fine glass, which the public was reminded of ad infinitum in advertisements thereafter.

In the ‘20s, with the wane in popularity of Brilliant Cut- and also due to WWI shortages- Libbey turned to less labor-intensive wares. During the ‘20s they mostly produced patented “Safedge Glassware”, which resisted chipping, to restaurants and hotels.

In 1933 they began producing fabulous stemware, which today is very collectable. The designer Douglas Nash, a former Tiffany’s executive, was employed to breathe life into the waning market for hand crafted high-end stemware. Some of the Art Deco Libbey-Nash stems created were American Prestige, Knickerbocker, Syncopation (which, with an ice cube shaped stem, is one of the rarest today), and Embassy. Embassy was produced with an eagle-and-star etch especially for the US Pavilion at the ’39 World’s Fair.

The Silhouette line c.1933 by Douglas Nash had a different animal decorating the stem of each type of glass: the water goblets were cat stemmed, cordials were greyhounds, kangaroos were on the wine stems, monkeys adorned the sherries, and bears were for the clarets. The Silhouette line’s figural stems came with a selection of colors: black, opalescent, or frosted crystal. The Skyscraper stems- so called because of the skyscraper shaped stem- come with a variety of hand done etches. One type of Nash’s designs, the Victoria cameo etch, required 80 hours of engraving per piece and was priced at $2500 a dozen. Obviously this type of glassware had little market in the Depression years, and production ceased in 1935.

One can also find decent quality Libbey glass known as Rock Sharpe. Its name refers to a company Libbey acquired and the line of stemware was very popular, c40s and ‘50s. It comes in a variety of cuttings on the blanks, and is quite reasonably priced and readily available.

Also a number of figural stems were produced in the ‘70s; Old Crow is perhaps the most common- featuring, of course, a stem shaped like a crow wearing a top hat. The quality of the glass is lesser than the Art Deco era stems, and they lack hand finishing, but the quirky aesthetic is intact and the prices are generally right. Also made in that time period, and of similar quality, was the Liberty pattern, which had a figural eagle stem.

The last completely hand made Libbey glass dates to 1940, the Modern American line. The company, through its long tenure, did produce many different products, after Brilliant Cut passed out of the scene c. WWI. Libbey Glass today is synonymous with incredibly elaborate Brilliant Cut glass, and the company is still in production today- though mostly of restaurant ware.

Unfortunately, there is a dearth of information on Libbey’s glassware, excepting the famous Brilliant Cut. A whole century is mostly documented piecemeal. There is one comprehensive book on Libbey Glass Company, by Carl Fauster. Published in 1979, it is out of print and now sells for $180- $300. Fortunately, this lack of information is not indicative of a lack of other areas of Libbey to collect.

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