“The most historic glass is here,” says Alan Borlak.
He’s the tour guide at Wheaton Arts in Millville — New Jersey’s historic center for glassmaking — and one of the state’s reopened and socially distanced museums (about 90 minutes by car from the Princeton area).
It’s worth a fall weekend day trip — especially since the glass shops help jumpstart holiday shopping.
On this particular pre-pandemic day, I am one of several standing at The Museum of American Glass’ first station, the Colonial era, and will be walking through time to the current day.
Professorially dressed — jacket, vest, and tie — Borlak is enthusiastic and glancing at his watch as he begins shepherding us through nearly three centuries of American glassmaking contained in the museum’s Victorian-era building.
Stopping at a station containing an antique vessel, Borlak says with reverence, “It was made in 1739.”
He then reveals that its maker, Casper Wistar, “came from Germany and found South Jersey was rich for glass. But Great Britain forbade manufacturing in New Jersey.”
So, adds Borlak, Wistar continued anyway, and since he was friends with Benjamin Franklin, whose son was the last colonial governor, Wistar’s connections were able to keep his activities out of sight and help a fledging enterprise.
“After the Revolution and the War of 1812, there was a boom of glassmaking in America,” Borlak says, showing rows of early glass and explaining as the viewer’s questions are formulating. The blue light green glass comes from the soil, which his high iron. The clear uses magnesium.
As he talks the wall text behind him indicates the importance of the place and enterprise. It’s a quote by American poet Carl Sandburg, “Down in southern New Jersey, they make glass. By day and night, the fires burn on in Millville and bid the sand let in the light.”
Southern New Jersey was noted for its glass — a major industry that lasted until the mid-20th century. Wheaton Village maintains that history with both the museum and serving as a center for glass artists, who demonstrate glass making techniques throughout the year.
Borlak tells us that unlike numerous people who visit the museum, he has no family that was involved with glass making. He got interested on his own and became a volunteer docent.
His personal interest is evident when he leads the group to a cabinet and points to a jar on the bottom shelf. “That is the first ever basic Mason jar. It was made in Batsto,” a Colonial village in New Jersey that originally produced iron and then glass. Like Wheaton, Batsto is open for visitors.
Borlak then moves the group to a few other glassware cabinets and points out some high selling glass in the first half of the 1800s: commemorative flasks. “One of the most popular was Jenny Lind. She was on tour,” he says about the singer known as the “Swedish Nightingale” who came to American in 1850 for a concert tour arranged by showman P.T. Barnum.
Another good seller in the 19th century was a “celery vase.” As Borlak explains it, “People of affluence had celery, and if you had celery you had a celery vase and you used it to display your celery.”
Nearby are flat-bottom jars, “Pillar bottles,” says Borlak. “For ships and travel, they didn’t fall over as easily.”
Then there is the Amberina glass with ruby color. “It’s very expensive. You had to use gold (to make it). Victorians loved the stuff because it was so pretty.”
Then, “Over here is vaseline or uranium glass. It’s called that because there is uranium in it. It’s been used from the time of the Romans. No one knew it was radioactive. And it glows under a blacklight.”
To make the claim clear, Ada, presses a button that lets blacklight wash over the glass and makes the edges gleam orange. “There is a chemical bond that keeps the radioactivity in the glass,” Borlak says as he moves to another unexpected eyeful: the world’s largest blown glass bottle. It was created at Wheaton and is in the Guinness Book of World Records.
“It’s actually recreated,” says Borlak. “The original was 108 gallons. It got broken. Glassmakers here decided to recreate it, but made it 188 gallons. It was all mouth blown.”
“And this is the ‘Whimsy’ or ‘End of Day Glass,’” Borlak continues. “Once glass makers made their quota, they were allowed to work on their own projects. They would make gifts for friends or things to sell.” That includes glass objects made to look like flowers, fish, turtles, and even ships.
Pointing to several baseball-sized globes in a display cabinet, Borlak says “these are Witches Balls. They were very popular during the Victorian period. You hung them on your windows, and they’d capture evil energy.”
What about those glass canes? Borlak says glassmakers made them to use in holiday parades. “There was a legend that if you polished your cane every day you’d have good luck.”
Another legend said that when a fellow glassmaker died, other glassmakers would break the tip of their canes in their colleague’s grave to show solidarity.
“Anybody know what this is?” asks Borlak, pointing to three tiny glass bottles in a case. After a few incorrect tries, Borlak undoes the mystery: “Teardrop bottles for lost love. The Victorians loved it.”
When the tour members start chatting about odd items, Borlak says, “We have 24,000 objects in the collection. But only about 6,000 are on display. Now, let’s go into my favorite parts: the paper weights.”
He leads us into a section that reflects America’s 18th and 19th century ascendency to an economically powerful nation with a population of means and a desire for beautiful objects — such as the cases filled with gleaming and bright globes used for mundane tasks.
The display also reflects the rise of a self-taught group of artisans who were able to create such desired objects that benefited them and the region.
“John Ruhlander was the da Vinci of glass,” says Borlak about one artisan’s ability to create complex glass pieces, like a 16-chamber canister. “This was clearly a difficult process,” Borlak says, again with reverence.
Borlak says Ruhlander, along with several other Wheaton glassmakers, represent the region’s “American folk artists, who didn’t go to art school.” Instead they began work with the companies when they were 5 or 6 years old, lived the business, and knew the craft. They also created one of the region’s most prestigious products: the Millville Rose paperweight.
“They were valuable,” says Borlak of the globes. The cost was $25, “a pricey sum in those days,” says Borlak, who adds that in order to fend off competition, “They would lock the door and work in secret.”
The tour then moves to more general glassmaking, such as the development in 1820 of pressed glass, a machine where one individual could pour hot glass and the other could press it in a mold. The result was fast yet imperfect glass whose blemishes could be hidden by adding designs.
As glassware became more popular, new techniques, like adding soda lime into the mixture, sped up the process and created a better product.
And to satisfy the porcelain market, glassmakers developed milky glass by adding a handy and ready ingredient, bat guano, and additional techniques were developed, such as cut glass, also known as crystal glass.
And while business seemed healthy for the time, the enterprise was not. “There was a high mortality among the workers,” says Borlak. “These guys had skill and talent, but they didn’t last.” The culprits were “chemicals, lead, and toxicity.”
Then, despite efforts of regional glass companies to compete with world markets and create fine or attractive everyday products — like Carnival glass (aka the poor Man’s Tiffany — the industry in the region collapsed.
But not the history or the artistry, as Borlak indicates at the final station that connects to the center’s educational program and visiting artists.
“They come here and work here. And once they leave, they leave a piece of their art.”
That includes one of the world’s most celebrated glass makers, Dale Chihuly, whose two works are not far from that original 18th century bottle – the one that lit the fire for glassmaking in America.
Wheaton Arts, 1501 Glasstown Road, Millville. Saturdays and Sundays, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. General admission is $7. 856-825-6800 or www.wheatonarts.org.