Cranberry Glass

What can you give the person that has everything? The answer is not as difficult as you might think. If the individual on your gift list is a collector of antiques, or even recent-vintage items, the answer is even simpler: cranberry glass. In England, and in Europe generally, the delicate, pink-hued glass still goes by its original name, ruby glass. That older name, incidentally, aptly describes a product that also makes an ideal gift for couples celebrating their 40th wedding anniversary. Conversely, in North America ruby has given way to 'cranberry,' a term that more closely describes the glass's delicate, pink colour. There are several explanations why the term 'cranberry' was adopted on this side of the Atlantic.

The most likely reason appears to be because numerous American glass manufacturers producing this type of glassware were congregated in the New England states where cranberries were being grown. Because the cranberry colour so accurately describes the shade of the glass, the descriptive new name became an ideal marketing device for American manufacturers. A second explanation for the adoption of the cranberry name credits the well-to-do American tourists visiting Victorian homes in Britain who referred to the red-coloured glass after their favourite North American berry.

Whether Queen Victoria's alleged fondness for cranberry tarts gave added weight to the cranberry appellation remains an open question. In any event, the 'cranberry' name has stuck in North America, particularly for the light pink shade of glass whose popularity has remained steadfast since glass's heyday that culminated with the first World's Fair held in London, England in 1851. Organized by Queen Victoria's husband, Price Albert, the fair, officially known as 'The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations,' is better known today as 'The Crystal Palace Exhibition.' The displayed exhibits were housed in a gigantic glass building that took up an area of about twenty acres or 81,000 square meters. It required nearly 1 million square feet of hand-blown windowpanes because sheet-glass making machines had not yet been invented.

Mechanization of glass production did not become widespread until about 1900, or 50 years after The Crystal Palace Exhibition. For cranberry glass aficionados, there is always another piece that has to be added to their collections to enhance the decor of a room or, more likely, several rooms in the home. These dazzling cranberry glass pieces look equally delightful on an end or coffee table, sideboard, mantel, or hutch. Equally important, the wide assortment of cranberry glass produced over the last century and a half can satisfy the demands of the most discerning connoisseurs or the novice enthusiasts just starting out on their cranberry glass adventure. A collector friend recently allowed me to ogle over her extensive cranberry glass collection consisting of an assortment of imaginative creations of glass apples, pears, strawberries, lamps, vases, bowls, pitchers, and various similar objects sparkling from behind the glass doors of a curio-cabinet.

Other cranberry pieces were displayed with a most pleasing effect on a highly polished credenza, on a coffee and end tables, and on a sideboard. Not even the dining room table was spared as a strategic site to enhance the rooms' cranberry theme. Most of this astute collector's pieces are decorative although some items have practical applications such as a pair of coal-oil lamps, much too attractive for such mundane use, gracing a set of end tables.

Serious cranberry glass collectors, including my friend Aggie, appear to run out of space for displaying their prized possessions. "This one is a little dusty," Aggie tells me as she whisks a dust cloth over a piece that she has just removed from a drawer. Her eyesight is obviously better than mine as I failed to see the dust she referred to. My friend, clearly, takes good care of her collection as each piece is either tastefully displayed, to enhance the home's d?cor, or securely packed away in storage. Still other pieces, ensconced in a corner cabinet, freely reflect their lustrous sheen like stained glass bathed in piercing sunlight. When it comes to cranberry's reflective effervescence, what glitters is, quite literally, gold as cranberry gets its sparkle from the 22-carat gold that is its heart.

Although manufacturers have attempted to produce cranberry by less expensive means such as, for example, with the use of copper rather than gold these pieces invariably end up with a red-amber hue that lacks the shimmering quality that has given cranberry glass its enviable reputation and earned it a devoted following by faithful collectors. Nor is gold the only factor in cranberry's long-lasting popularity with collectors and with the general public alike. What lady would not appreciate a shimmering cranberry glass bauble on a sideboard or buffet to enhance the ambience of her dining room?

To get some idea of the popularity of this red glass, we need look only at its fascinating history that dates back 2,000 or more years to the Roman era. We do know that the famous Lycurgus Cup, presently housed in the British Museum, London, dating from the fourth century AD, contains both silver and gold. Of Roman origin, the cup of red glass is surrounded by a frieze showing the mythical King Lycurgus being dragged into the underworld. Although its gilded bronze base and rim were added in more recent times the cup, a close cousin of today's cranberry glass, is original. As with much of history lost in the mists of time the origin of cranberry glass remains shrouded in mystery.

One line of research suggests that the formula for red glass had been lost for hundreds of years before it was rediscovered in Bohemia (now part of the Czech Republic) in the 1600s. We are further led to believe that artisans and glassblowers had attempted to recreate this red glass during the 12-odd centuries between the time of the creation of the Lycurgus Cup and the time that the secret of red glass was rediscovered in Bohemia. Another explanation of the history of red glass is that Venetian glassmakers had been attempting to make the effervescent red glass for hundreds of years but without success. Finally, in 1612, Italian glassmaker Antonio Neri came up with the right formula when he added a touch of gold to the molten glass. The concoction turned into a "wondrous red glass that shimmered with the natural beauty of rubies," we are told.

It needs to be pointed out that it is not the actual metal that we think of when we talk of the gold that is added to the molten glass to turn it into shimmering cranberry. Rather, it is gold chloride, a gold and chlorine solution produced by dissolving the gold metal in nitric and hydrochloric acid, also known as Aqua Regia. Tin in the form of stannic chloride may also be added to the molten glass but in very small amounts. Looking at the raw materials of glass, consisting of sand, soda ash, and lime, we can appreciate that making cranberry glass is obviously not a do-it-yourself job. In fact, even professional glassmakers buy their cranberry glass in the form of rods from specialist manufacturers. The degree of 'redness' in cranberry glass depends on the amount of gold added to the glass compound.

Obviously, the higher the gold content, the darker and richer the hue of the glass. True cranberry glass can vary from the lightest of pinks to a deep, ruby red but the manufacturing process is the same for all shades. Because the amount of gold in cranberry glass is miniscule it has little bearing on the price that a particular piece of cranberry glass commands. As with most art, it is the artistic quality of the creation that determines its worth. Antique cranberry pieces are valued more highly than their modern counterparts but even Victorian-era cranberry glass can vary tremendously in price. When contemplating a purchase, it is well to remember that the law of supply and demand is universal. For example, wine glasses were produced in ample quantities in Victorian times and they are still reasonably priced, their provenance notwithstanding. Items produced in lesser quantities, such as oil lamps, for instance, will command a higher price than wine glasses simply because there are fewer around. Higher prices are also justified for items that have added gilding or hand cutting. Simply put, better Victorian pieces, and it goes without saying that buyers need to satisfy themselves that they are really buying an antique item before they lay our the money, can sell from several hundred dollars to several thousand.

Obviously, the higher the gold content, the darker and richer the hue of the glass. True cranberry glass can vary from the lightest of pinks to a deep, ruby red but the manufacturing process is the same for all shades. Because the amount of gold in cranberry glass is miniscule it has little bearing on the price that a particular piece of cranberry glass commands. As with most art, it is the artistic quality of the creation that determines its worth. Antique cranberry pieces are valued more highly than their modern counterparts but even Victorian-era cranberry glass can vary tremendously in price. When contemplating a purchase, it is well to remember that the law of supply and demand is universal. For example, wine glasses were produced in ample quantities in Victorian times and they are still reasonably priced, their provenance notwithstanding. Items produced in lesser quantities, such as oil lamps, for instance, will command a higher price than wine glasses simply because there are fewer around. Higher prices are also justified for items that have added gilding or hand cutting. Simply put, better Victorian pieces, and it goes without saying that buyers need to satisfy themselves that they are really buying an antique item before they lay our the money, can sell from several hundred dollars to several thousand.

A good weight of a cranberry glass piece may also be an indicator that it is genuine but it is always wise to deal with reputable dealers who know their products and will stand behind what they sell. Modern cranberry glass is quite distinguishable from older pieces but that is not always the case with reproductions. Besides educating yourself, the best advice for the novice cranberry glass collector before buying a purported antique is caveat emptor: let the buyer beware. Along with many other desirable antiques, cranberry glass began disappearing about fifty years ago. To fill the void, entrepreneurs began to manufacture reproductions to satisfy demand. And some of those manufacturers were not all that conscientious in marking their wares as reproductions and an inexperienced collector might have difficulty differentiating the genuine piece from a well-crafted imitation. Most reproductions should sell for well under $100; some for less than a quarter of that amount. But simply because there are imitations around does not detract from the wares of the many fine and talented glassmakers producing items with artistic merit.

While the familiar shades of pink and ruby are the defining characteristics of cranberry glass, there is more to cranberry's story than its cheerful sheen and reflecting light: it lends itself to additional decorative touches. For example, opalescent materials featuring flower pedals, leaf and fruit patterns, or other decorative touches by artists with a keen eye for beauty and a steady hand will attract a class of buyers beyond those strictly interested in the red and pink glass. Today's collectors can choose from wares with an almost endless variety of styles that compliment the decorative themes of the particular piece while simultaneously reflecting the artistry of glassmakers who create these works of wonder. Because the quantity of cranberry items on the market is limited only by the imagination of the artisans that produce them, there are an almost unlimited number of different creations to choose from.

How then, and where, should a novice collector begin? By the time the zenith of cranberry glass manufacturing had arrived between the latter part of the 19th century and the early decades of the 20th century, countries such as Bavaria, Belgium, Bohemia, France, and England were all producing it in significant quantities. Probably one of the best-known regions where cranberry glass was manufactured in commercial quantities is in the Stourbridge area of the Black Country in central England. Because the raw material to fashion cranberry glass, that is the glass rods, was available from commercial suppliers, glassblowers were able to go into business in many small, 'backyard' factories.

But its manufacture was not confined to backyard workshops. Major manufactures such as, for example, Webb, Stuart, Richardson, Stevens & Williams, together with numerous producers across the European continent, played significant roles in satisfying the demands of the day with the sought-after ruby red glass. In the United States, as already mentioned, most cranberry glass was produced in New England where, by coincidence, cranberries just happened to be grown. Were it not for this coincidence, we would still be calling the red glass ruby, as they do in England. Not surprisingly, given the continuous popularity of cranberry glass, America's oldest glassmaker, Pairpoint Glass Works, is still in operation and continues to turn out cranberry glass works of art. Located along the Cape Cod Canal in Massachusetts, this venerable old firm maintains its high standards for its products. The company's glassblowers still use the old techniques and proven formulas that have ensured the company's success over the years.

In Canada, we have master glass blower Angelo Rossi who learned his craft in Murano, Italy, beginning at the tender age of 10. By the time he reached the age of 18, he had a substantial body of work to his credit and had mastered many of the intricacies of this art form. For 15 years, following his move to Canada, this artisan worked out of a studio in Cornwall, Ontario, where he experimented with various batches of molten glass to get the right consistency that he demanded for his finished products. His work, devoted solely to cranberry glass, is collected by individuals here at home and abroad. As the sole manufacturer of cranberry glass in Canada, it should come as no surprise that he has one of the largest selections of hand blown cranberry glass by for sale in the country. “I have a friend who grew up in Cornwall and was familiar with Rossi's work,” explains Aggie. “Many of my pieces are Rossi creations that my friend got for me whenever she visited her hometown.” With that connection to Cornwall through her friend, Aggie's cranberry collection could hardly have taken another form given that Rossi has reproduced in glass just about everything imaginable: an assortment of animals, baskets, bowls, candy dishes, figurines, flowers, fruits and fruit bowls, vases, vegetables, and wine glasses, among other pieces. Not surprisingly, many of these items are among the top sellers of molten glass. For example, the overall cranberry glass best sellers are bowls - probably because they are attractive to the eye while also being functional.

The next two items on the top-seller list are strictly decorative: angels and Christmas ornaments, mainly glass balls. Also popular are various fruits, swans, pitchers, candleholders, and vases. Price is obviously a determining factor in the determination of hot-selling items. Toward the bottom of bestseller list are the more expensive pieces such as decanter and tumbler sets, lamps, and lighting fixtures. But whatever types of cranberry items you decide to buy they will be sure to give you years of pleasure. When that special occasion rolls around to give someone a memorable gift and you simply cannot think of what to buy, there is always a piece of cranberry that will be sure to please.

From that aged, antiquarian Victorian piece to the latest cranberry creation, there is an item that will brighten the recipient's day with a splash of colour that can be displayed proudly on the mantel, hutch, buffet, or coffee table. For a lucky few individuals, their new acquisitions will sprout into a full-fledged collection that will bring a lifetime of joy from a hobby that is both affordable and a pleasure to pursue.

Tony Shaman is a freelance writer and editor of The Canadian Philatelist, the official journal of The Royal Philatelic Society of Canada. He can be contacted at tshaman@rogers.com