Friday, September 30, 2016

The J. B. Higbee Glass Company

September 29, 2016

The Bridgeville Area Historical Society kicked off a new series of audience-friendly workshops, eponymously called “Second Tuesday”, to remind each of us that they will be scheduled at 7:00 pm on the second Tuesday of each month, at the History Center in the old Pennsylvania Railroad Station in Bridgeville.

Our first subject was the J. B. Higbee Glass Company, and there certainly appear to be lots of folks interested in it.  The Higbee Glass Plant produced glass tableware in this area from 1907 through 1918 at which time General Electric purchased it, primarily to manufacture light bulbs.

The workshop began with a discussion of the process for making glass, a simple one involving heating a mixture of sand (silica), soda, magnesia, and alumina to about 3100 degrees Fahrenheit and then pouring it into moulds to form finished pieces of tableware. The moulding works by inserting the exact volume for the finished pitcher or vase into the mould and then blowing it against the surface of the mould.

The J. B. Higbee Glass Company was the successor to Bryce, Higbee and Company, a joint venture of John B. Higbee and two Bryce Brothers, which built a plant in Homestead in 1879.  The company prospered until 1907 when a combination of financial problems blamed on Charles Bryce and a disastrous flood that destroyed the plant drove it into receivership.

John B. Higbee’s son Orlando (Ollie) was able to acquire the equipment and moulds that had survived the flood.  He incorporated a new company, named for his deceased father and decided to locate it in Kirwan Heights in a new industrial complex being developed by the Bridgeville Land Development Company (C. P. Mayer).

The Higbees were long term residents of this area, having a large farm in the area now known as Mitchell’s Corner. Larry Godwin brought a copy of the excellent Upper St. Clair Arcadia book, which he wrote, and showed us a photograph of a log house called Higbee School which may well be the first school west of the Alleghenies.

John B. Higbee married a neighbor, Jennie Espy. They had two sons – Ollie and Joseph – and a daughter, Clarinda.  She married William Wilson Lesnett, the gentleman who built the well-known octagonal barn on Lesnett Road, adjacent to their homestead.

The Lesnetts had two daughters, one of whom, Sadie, married Harry Schneider, a union that produced four sons – Bill, Ed, Dick, and Jim – and a daughter, Clarinda.  We were fortunate in having Dick Schneider at our workshop, as well as Clarinda’s son, Harry Smith. Their contribution to the discussion was very much appreciated.

A unique characteristic of J. B. Higbee glassware is their “bumblebee” trademark, which is imprinted at the center of every piece produced in Bridgeville.  The letter “H” is embossed on one wing of a bumblebee; “I”, on its body; and “G”, on the other wing. Committed J. B. Higbee collectors insist on examining pieces to confirm authenticity by looking for this trademark. Harry Smith reported that the New Martinsville Glass Company ended up with the Higbee moulds when J. B. Higbee Company sold the plant to General Electric. They were allowed to use the bumblebee trademark, without the letters H, I, and G.

J. B. Higbee Company produced a remarkable variety of glass tableware in at least a dozen different patterns. They were sold in Higbee stores in Pittsburgh and New York and by catalogue. Each pattern was patented, preventing any competitor from copying it. We also examined one of Ollie Higbee’s seven patents for one of the very first thermos bottles. Thanks to Dana Spriggs, the Historical Society has one of these bottles in its Higbee collection – we were all glad to examine it.

An important resource for any collector of Higbee glass is a book entitled “Bryce, Higbee and J. B. Higbee Glass” by Lola and Wayne Higby. There are a few of these available on the Internet at a reasonable cost. It is an outstanding book with an impressive amount of information on the two companies and the many patterns and pieces they produced. The Higbee collection at the History Center includes a paperback copy of the book.

The National Depression Glass Association’s website lists twenty eight organizations interested in collecting specific types of glassware, including the well-known Duncan Glass Society in Washington, Pa. and the previously unheralded National Toothpick Holder Collector Society in Archer City, Texas. So far, there is no organization of Higbee Bumblebee Glass collectors, suggesting an opportunity for the Historical Society to occupy a special niche.

The second Tuesday of October is the 11th; we are looking forward to another opportunity to discuss a Bridgeville history topic that evening. Our subject will be the Greenwood neighborhood; we are currently working hard to locate folks who are better acquainted with it than we are.

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