Mt. Washington and its successor, the Pairpoint Corporation, was one of America’s longest-running luxury glass companies (1837-1957), one that rivaled its better known contemporaries, Tiffany and Steuben. It constantly reinvented and re-invigorated its business through creativity in texture, decoration, pattern, and color - developing a variety of styles and decorating techniques which were so technically complex that few are even practiced today.
The Mt. Washington Glass Company was founded in South Boston in 1837, and moved to New Bedford, Massachusetts, in 1870. In 1880, Thomas J. Pairpoint, an English silversmith, was hired to run the Pairpoint Manufacturing Company, another company in New Bedford which Mt. Washington’s owners established to produce ornate silver-plated mounts for Mt. Washington glass.
In 1894, the Pairpoint Manufacturing Company absorbed Mt. Washington, and the company was renamed the Pairpoint Corporation in 1900, which remained the company’s name until it went out of business in 1938. It was revived briefly as the Gundersen-Pairpoint Glass Company but closed permanently in 1957. The company’s most successful years were from 1880 (in the height of the opulent Gilded Age) to 1930 (the end of the exuberant Roaring Twenties).
Mt. Washington Art Glass and Cut Glass
Englishman Frederick Shirley was hired in 1872 to run Mt. Washington’s chandelier department, and two years later was put in charge of the entire company. Shirley was entrepreneurial and litigious, quick to adopt new designs and quick to complain if he thought any other firm was copying his wares. By the time he resigned in 1891, he had amassed a total of 27 patents and five design patents for various types of glass, most of which were quite successful.
In 1878, Shirley introduced Sicilian (known as Lava glass by collectors), the first artistic glassware patented by the firm. This shiny black glass supposedly included volcanic lava among its ingredients. Most of the objects made were ornamental vases. In August 1883, Shirley created Rose Amber glass, a transparent glass that shaded from red to amber. This marked the beginning of the 15 years or so when elaborately colored and decorated art glasses were all the rage to decorate upper middle-class homes.
In 1885, Shirley introduced Burmese glass, a translucent glass that shaded from yellow to pink, which was highly decorated in the elegant and sophisticated style characteristic of the day. It became an immediate success on the Art Glass market. Shirley was a good businessman and took advantage of the dawning age of advertising to promote Burmese glass extensively.
Mt. Washington’s large decorating shop specialized in enameling. The decorators who worked on Burmese glass also applied their skills to a variety of other decorated glasses with exotic names like Royal Flemish, Crown Milano, Colonial, and Pearl Satin Ware. By 1890, the company was advertising itself as “Headquarters in America for Art Glass Wares.”
Mt. Washington also produced elaborate cut glass which was then quite fashionable in the United States. Because their cut patterns were similar to those made by a number of other companies at the same time, Mt. Washington is not as well known today for its cut glass.
Kerosene and Electric Lamps
With the invention of the light bulb in 1878, Mt. Washington’s lighting business became central to their success. Their products ranged from the gas chandeliers that Shirley was originally hired to produce, to decorated art glass and cut glass kerosene lamps, which were still widely used in the 1880s and 1890s.
Shortly after the turn of the century, the company (which by this time had been absorbed by Pairpoint) introduced Electroliers with elaborate metal bases and reverse-painted shades. These were immediately popular, especially the type with mold-blown sculptural shades which were painted to look like clusters of flowers. Unique to Pairpoint, they were visually striking when lit.
In the teens and 1920s, Pairpoint concentrated on table wares and lighting with a variety of decorations. Most of the glass was transparent, either colorless or colored, and often with engraved and/or cut decoration. There were also a variety of wares with applied colored decoration including silver deposit, colored threading, and colored swirls in the glass. All of these extravagantly ornate decorations were successful in the 1920s but the Depression eventually destroyed the market.
At its height, around the turn of the century, the company had more than 1,000 workers, but by 1938, only 20 employees were left and work had stopped. The company closed that year, but reopened under new ownership the following year, and managed to stay in business until 1957, when it closed permanently, and glassmaking in New Bedford came to an end. A small glass firm named Pairpoint now exists in Sagamore, Massachusetts, but it has no direct connection to the original company.