Hughes Corn Flower
Walter Lemiski, M.A.
The founder of the W.J. Hughes Corn Flower Company, William John Hughes, was born in Amaranth County, Ontario in 1881. Tragically his mother died when he was a young boy and his father was left to care for William John and his five siblings. They lived a very meager subsistence. Although he only acquired a Grade Two education, Jack Hughes’ determination, winning personality and business sense were the ingredients that made it possible for him to become a Canadian success story.
New Martinsville amber Moondrops 3-lite candlestick
As a young man he was employed by Roden Brothers silversmiths starting in 1901. The brothers, Frank and Thomas, had their factory on Carlaw Avenue in Toronto. Initially W.J. Hughes, known to most as “Jack”, worked in the “metal room”. There he measured out silver for the silvering process. Fortunately for him and for glass collectors, when that firm expanded their lines to include cut lead glass in 1907, Jack was asked to learn the art of cutting. Roden catalogues from this era indicate that floral patterns were in vogue. They produced such patterns as Aster, Mayflower, Daisy, Poppy, Sunflower, and most notably Corn Flower. Jack Hughes was a dedicated worker and within a relatively short time became the foreman of the cutting shop.
Starting in 1912, he began to experiment in the basement of his home on Wychwood Avenue in Toronto, on a cutting frame that he built himself, with his own original “grey” cut glass patterns (shallower cuts on lighter glass). In 1914, Hughes left Rod Brothers to devote himself full time to producing and selling his own original cut glass. Amongst his cut patterns were pieces cut with birds, floral patterns, geometric shapes, and moons. It may prove impossible to categorically identify many of thes early cut patterns since the items were not photographed and never signed or labelled. However, a certain 12-petalled floral cut that the young Hughes developed was to have a very long lasting popularity indeed.
The Hughes Corn Flower pattern is distinctive with its petalled flower, grid like interior and elegant sweeping stems. Care was taken to maintain the integrity of the pattern throughout the three quarters of a century of production life. The hand-cutt glass of Corn Flower was done in a five step process: Step One: “spotting”—marking out the positioning of the flowers with dash-like cuts Step Two: “six-siding” and “stemming”:—the interior grid-like design of authentic Corn Flower forms hexagonal patterns; graceful arching stems also were cut in this stage. Step Three: “leafing”—distinctive leaves formed with a pair of elongated semi-circles that end in a point Step Four: “petalling”—a series of shallow cuts usually forming twelve petals, however this number did vary when space was restricted on smaller surfaces. On items with very little room a Corn Flower bud design was used. Step Five: “fringing” or “nicking”—the tips of the petals were decorated with a series of small cut lines.
Tiffin blue #8307 bonbon & cover
The business had started on a rather small scale. Indeed for most of the first thirty-some years the production of Corn Flower was done from the basement of the family’s home. W.J. Hughes, would receive a barrel shipment of glass, cut the glass, and then go on the road to sell and deliver the product to various outlets. Amongst his favourites were the owners of small independent jewellery and gift stores in small southern Ontario towns. He also was able to land contracts with the major department stores, Eaton’s and Simpsons, as his reputation for production of quality glassware grew. By the thirties, his business was thriving and he was able to employ a handful of cutters, many who he trained himself, to help him to keep up with the steady flow of orders. One such cutter was R.G. “Bobby” Sherriff who began as an apprentice in Hughes’ workshop in 1923. After many years spent producing Corn Flower glass Sherriff left to set up his own quite successful shop in Toronto in 1940. Sherriff, unfortunately, began to produce cut glassware quite similar to Hughes Corn Flower. Eventually this led to legal proceedings. Although hand cut glass objects couldn’t be copyrighted, Sherriff was ordered to discontinue use of his labels that copied Corn Flower labels right down to their shape and colour. Other imitators did emerge over the years, mainly being cutters who at one time had worked for Hughes. However, with a little bit of study the imitations actually are fairly easy to spot. There also were similar American floral cuts, although each of those had their own distinctive design differences.
As somewhat of a perfectionist, W.J. Hughes would not sell any slightly miscut items to his main customers. He would however take these seconds to sell to folks in his neighbourhood at a reduced price or give some of these items to friends or relatives. For his company image he wished to exude quality. Even through the depression years he could always be spotted on his sales trips looking quite dapper in a beautifully tailored suit with a sparkling diamond stickpin in his tie and fine diamond rings on each hand. Hughes was heard to have said that “if a man is poor, there is no need to look poor.” Even though he showed the trappings of his success, Jack never forgot his humble beginnings. Throughout his lifetime he gave generously to many charities in Toronto and back in his home county of Dufferin.
Duncan Miller crystal 4-part relish
There were a total of eight companies that have been identified to date as suppliers of blanks for Hughes Corn Flower during the first thirty years. This number may be somewhat confounded by reports that Hughes would undertake custom cuttings for customers who brought in their own uncut pieces for treatment. These eight companies were all major players in the American elegant glass field: Fostoria, Heisey, Imperial, Lancaster, New Martinsville, Paden City, Tiffin Glass, and West Virginia Specialty Glass company.
BW.J. Hughes imported almost exclusively American elegant glassware blanks for production of his Corn Flower over the first thirty years of business. To this date little documentation has been unearthed from these early years. Hughes apparently believed that word-of-mouth was the best way to grow a business. Consequently, and unfortunately for researchers, he did virtually nothing to advertise his wares through standard trade magazines or through print media. Several 1920’s Heisey invoices are mentioned in Hughes Corn Flower correspondence from the late 1960’s. Other evidence has been gathered through viewing of Corn Flower collections and observations as to what has been available at Depression Glass Shows, general line shows and antique markets. By far the most informative, intriguing and at the same time puzzling source of information about glass blanks purchased by W.J. Hughes in the 1930’s is found in the advertising photographs. This catalogue was produced in the late 1930’s for use in the Hughes’ showroom and for his first distributor, Haddy, Body and Company, by the Toronto-based photographer J. Thornley Wrench. Shapes found in this early catalogue on which Corn Flower was cut include: stemware, serving pieces such as platters and relish dishes, cream and sugar sets, salad plates, sherbet dishes, vases and bowls.
With the onset of WWII American glass became more difficult for the Hughes Corn Flower Company to import. Even after the war, in the mid-1940’s, glass manufacturers in the States could not keep up with the rebound in domestic demand, let alone supply the Canadian market. The Hughes’ were forced to look elsewhere and therefore turned to Europe to take up the slack for mouth-blown glassware. European glass was imported from Belgium, Czechoslovakia, Germany, Hungary, Rumania, and Sweden. Importing from Europe also was not without its challenges. Quality, quantity and timely delivery were all matters of concern for the Hughes Corn Flower company.
Tiffin green #315 high footed compote
The most constant source of glass blanks for Corn Flower over the years was the Imperial Glass Company, established in 1901, in Bellaire, Ohio. Imperial’s Line #400, best known as Candlewick, was a favourite medium for the Hughes Corn Flower cut. Introduced in 1936, this line flourished until the closure of the Imperial Glass Company in 1986. Three main reasons exist for the long working relationship that Corn Flower enjoyed with Imperial. First of all, the quality of Candlewick in its consistency a clarity made it excellent for cutting. Secondly, the number of items in this huge line of blanks, numbering some three hundred in all over the years, gave a fine selection of pieces with ample smooth surface area for working. Lastly, the Candlewick line was in production for an astoundingly long period of time, fifty years. Ed Kleiner, the Imperial Glass Company’s sales representative for Canada through to the mid-1950’s, stated that only once in his career did he receive an order for an entire box car-load of Candlewick—that order was shipped to Hughes Corn Flower Limited.
In 1923 Jack Hughes was admitted to Grace Hospital in Toronto for an appendectomy. It was to be an important happening for the continuation of Corn Flower. Jack was already forty-one years old and was twice a widower. It was while at Grace Hospital that he lost not only his appendix, but also his heart, for training as a nurse there at that time was Hazel Graham. After a two year courtship Jack and Hazel were married.
Within a couple of years there daughter Lois June was born to them. Lois was to be involved with Corn Flower for some sixty years. As a young girl she learned to answer the phone saying “W.J. Hughes”. Later she helped with making out invoices and even tried her hand at cutting Corn Flower. Lois married a young RCAF pilot from British Columbia, Phillip Charles “Pete” Kayser, in 1944. In 1945, Pete Kayser started to work part-time for the firm. In 1948, Jack Hughes formed a partnership with his wife Hazel and with Pete Kayser. Shortly thereafter they built a factory on Kenwood Avenue, about a block away from their Wychwood home.
Lancaster yellow #R1831-3 bowl
W.J. Hughes passed away suddenly from a heart attack on April 17, 1951. He was seventy years old. His many faithful customers and friends travelled from across Canada to pay their respects. Many of the major American glass firms also sent representatives. Pete Kayser, as secretary-treasurer of W.J. Hughes and Sons Corn Flower Limited placed the following notice in the June 1951 edition of The Trader and Canadian Jeweller:** Originator of the world famous Corn Flower pattern, the late W.J. Hughes left behind him a tradition of fine glass cutting which is the exclusive and proud possession of our Company. Because of this inspiration, this heritage, we feel that W.J. Hugh Fine Glassware is in a class by itself.... No pattern ever cut in fine glass has ever proved to be so popular as the Corn Flower which Mr. Hughes originated.
From 1951 onwards Pete Kayser was at the helm of Hughes Corn Flower. The company’s growth from that time on was astounding. Although their Kenwood Avenue factory was just a handful of years old, Pete recognized the limitations of its set-up, since n room was available for expansion. He bought a lot on Tycos Drive in North York and quickly built a new factory that comprised close to 13,000 square feet. By the early fifties, sixteen cutters were on staff at this facility. At the height of the Hughe Corn Flower Company’s production there were no fewer than thirty cutters, and in all some eighty staff, employed at the company’s Tycos Drive plant.
Although most of their large staff was involved directly with Corn Flower glassware, as a savvy entrepreneur Pete Kayser also branched out into other endeavours. Beginning in 1954, W.J. Hughes and Sons became the Canadian agents and distributors for Imperial Candlewick and Imperial Vintage Milk Glass. By 1961, they also served as Canadian representatives for both the Viking Glass Company and for the Fenton Art Glass Company. Starting in the early 1960’s Pete Kayser also had aluminium trays made exclusively for them by Supreme Aluminium Products of Scarborough with the Corn Flower design. In the mid-60’s they introduced a Corn Flower ovenware line consisting of casseroles, mixing bowls, mugs and pans. This milk glass heatproof oven-to-table line was manufactured for them by the Federal Glass Company. The Corn Flower design was fired on in blue paint to the exterior of the white glass. In 1970, the company became the exclusive distributor in Canada for a line of 24% lead crystal stemware that was produced by the Ferunion glassworks of Hungary. Around the same time the Corn Flower Company brought in a line of silveplated reproductions of antique English silver.
Imperial crystal Candlewick cheese compote
Despite their diversity, what ultimately led to the winding down of the company after such a long run was the decrease of available blanks for cutting. The major suppliers from the 1970’s for Corn Flower had been Imperial, Viking and Federal Glass companies. All three of these firms had closed shop by the early 1980’s. With less than half of the Tycos Corn Flower factory being utilized, it was sold in 1985. During the final three years the business operated in the Langstaff area of Concord, Ontario.
Thousands upon thousands of households right across Canada have cherished Corn Flower for generations. Many are the stories of Canadians who remember saving to buy pieces of this lovely glassware, being given Corn Flower as a present on special occasions, or having had it handed down to them as a family heirloom. The longevity of this beautiful glassware, in production for three quarters of a century from 1912 to 1988, in itself serves as a tribute to the Hughes Corn Flower company. W.J. Hughes Cor Flower is indeed a truly amazing Canadian success story.
A permanent display of Corn Flower can also be seen at the Dufferin County Museum which is located at the junction of Highway 89 and Airport Road. For further information call: 1-877-941-7787 or Email: email@example.com
Walter Lemiski is the Director of the Canadian Depression Glass Association. He also runs the bi-annual Vintage Glass Show & Sale -- in 2007 on Saturday, April 14th & Saturday, November 17th. Walt's two books "Elegant Glass with Corn Flower" and "Glass Barware: Deco & Beyond" are available from the author for $35.00 each. For more information about the CDGA, glass books or the Vintage Glass Shows please write firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.waltztime.com