By DEBORAH WEISBERG
Glass collectors will gather this weekend to celebrate what once was clearly a part of the region’s industrial heritage at the 39th annual Duncan & Miller Glass Show & Sale today and Sunday at the Washington County Fair Ground and Expo Center.
The event raises funds for the National Duncan & Miller Glass Museum in Washington and provides enthusiasts with an opportunity to purchase collectibles and to learn how southwestern Pennsylvania once produced more than half of the world’s decorative and utilitarian glass.
“The show is pretty spectacular,” says Arlene Ricker of North Strabane, a volunteer with the National Duncan Glass Society, which runs the museum and organizes the two-day event. “Thousands of pieces will be on display — a lot of it Duncan & Miller, but other makers, too. There will be plenty of people who love to talk about glass.”
Ricker became involved with the society through her own Duncan & Miller Glass Co. collection, including the signature swan.
“They did a lot of interesting things over the years. They went through the same design phases the rest of the decorator world went through, but the swan is their iconic piece,” she says. “The production of each one required 14 skilled craftsmen.”
At its peak, Duncan & Miller was one of the region’s most successful glassmakers, out-competing dozens of neighboring companies in quality and design, says museum committee chairwoman Sherry Cooper of East Washington.
“Duncan & Miller sold their glass at Bailey Banks & Biddle, Kaufmann’s, Shreve, Crump & Low in Boston — stores of that caliber. Like all the companies, they stayed alive by producing millions of items for barbershops and bars. But their forte was high-end tableware, on par with Orrefors, Baccarat and Saint-Louis.”
The company’s roots date to the mid-1800s, when glassmaking procedures were rapidly advancing and coal was readily available to fuel the furnaces used to melt sand to be made into glass. “It’s rumored that factory workers from some companies would simply dig coal out of nearby hillsides,” Cooper says.
George Duncan was a partner in Ripley & Co. at 10th and Carson streets on the South Side, Cooper says. “After Ripley died, Duncan bought out the heirs in 1874 and named the company after himself.”
He produced blown and pressed glass pieces and, with the rise of the middle class, began making tableware with a soda ash and calcium carbonate formula (soda lime) that yielded a cheap alternative to leaded glass.
After Duncan died and his South Side factory burned down, his sons moved operations to Washington, opening a state-of-the-art factory in 1893. Their renowned designer, John Ernest Miller, moved with them and became a partner in 1900.
“Miller designed the iron molds that became pitchers, creamers and other items, and was excellent at it,” says Cooper. “There are a number of patents in his name.”
The company employed skilled craftsmen who could execute Miller’s work, she says. “Being able to blow glass into an iron mold and have pieces release cleanly without chipping or breaking is an art.”
It was a winning combination that would spawn generations of collectors.
“The company was unbelievably successful. They shipped glass all over the world,” says Cooper, who once spied a Duncan & Miller swan at a London flea market.
Duncan & Miller’s heyday was during World War II, when Czech- and Italian-made glass, including then-popular animal-shaped novelties, couldn’t leave Europe. “That’s when Duncan designed their beautiful, graceful swan,” Cooper says.
After the war, though, machine-made glass was becoming popular, and Duncan & Miller, failing to compete, ceased operations in 1955. “It was the end of an era,” Cooper says.
Because of the company’s place in Washington County history, a group of local residents, eager to preserve the heritage, joined in 1975 to form the National Duncan Glass Society.
Heirs of a Duncan factory employee sold the society a period home, circa 1910, at a favorable price so it could be turned into a museum that exhibits rare glass and glassmaking techniques, Cooper says. “There’s also a gift shop where we sell Duncan & Miller pieces that people have donated to us. Proceeds help support our society.”
A $4 ticket to this weekend’s show covers both days as well as Glass ID on Sunday, when attendees can bring in two of their own items to show to an expert.
“We’ll tell you all about your pieces, but we don’t do appraisals,” Cooper says.