Copyright © 2017 John F. Oyler
June 22, 2017
A few months ago the Bridgeville Area Historical Society was contacted by the Three Rivers Depression Era Glass Collectors Society with a request for a program on the John B. Higbee Glass Company. Since I had done a workshop on Higbee glass last Fall, I was drafted to make the presentation.
A week before the event I dug out the Power Point slides for the workshop, made a few modifications, and figured I was in good shape. After all, a bunch of “Depression Glass” collectors would hardly know anything about Higbee Glass, which is of an earlier era, known as EAPG (Early American Pattern Glass).
I gathered up my meager collection of Higbee pieces, stopped at the History Center to borrow a handful more, and reported at Peter’s Place well before the event was to begin as instructed so I could “set up”. I plugged in my projector, connected my laptop to it, and confirmed my hardware was in working order.
Along one wall was a long table with a table cloth, just right for me to display the eleven pieces I had brought. I had printed out pages from my presentation to illustrate the various patterns of Higbee glass I had brought to put under each piece and was quite impressed with my display.
At about this point the members of the audience began to arrive and to set out their specimens of Higbee glass and to discuss them with me. I shoved my display together a little to provide them with room. This process I repeated two more times as more items arrived.
By now it had become obvious that I had underestimated the knowledge my audience had of the evening’s subject and was getting very uneasy about what I had planned to present. I was shaken further when a lady asked me if I knew the story behind the Delta pattern, also known as paneled thistle because of the prominent thistle in it.
She then proceeded to explain that Andrew Carnegie had engaged Higbee Glass to provide a set of table settings to commemorate the founding of Carnegie Institute of Technology. Since the thistle is the floral emblem of Scotland, Carnegie included it in the Institute’s crest and wanted it incorporated in the pattern of the glass. Apparently Carnegie was upset when Higbee called the pattern Delta rather than Thistle, his choice.
Another lady proudly showed me an ashtray with a very large version of the Higbee “bumblebee” pattern visible. My initial reaction was “I don’t think Higbee ever made ashtrays”, and promptly dug out my Higbee book to prove it. When I searched for ashtrays in the index, I grimaced when it referred me to page 184, on which, of course, was a photograph of the very ashtray she had.
Another lady had brought three versions of the same piece, a children’s ABC plate with the head of a dog on it. One was produced by Higbee’s predecessor company, Bryce, Higbee and Company; one by John B. Higbee Company; and one by Viking. The Viking piece had the bumblebee trademark and a “V” and the initials “SI” which apparently all glass collectors know denotes replicas commissioned by the Smithsonian Institute.
By now it was time for dinner. I had lost my appetite, worrying about what I was going to say. This obviously was an audience who knew far more about Higbee glass than I did. Eventually I realized that my best strategy was to acknowledge that fact.
I began by confessing that I was an amateur when it came to collecting glass and that I had been drafted solely because of my status as an expert on local history. My slide show began with the history of the Higbee company and its predecessors as well as of the Higbee family and their local connections, so I stretched that out as far as I could. Turned out the audience was interested in history after all.
At some point I mentioned that I had originally assumed that a bunch of collectors of Depression Glass were probably flaky and that that made me feel at home. After all who is flakier than an octogenarian who belongs to the Theodore Burr Covered Bridge Society, the International Brick Collectors Association, and the Society for the Preservation of Old Mills (and half a dozen more niche organizations)?
I then thanked the three ladies who had enhanced my knowledge of Higbee Glass with their stories and ended with a sales pitch for local historical societies in general and for the Bridgeville Area Historical Society in particular.
Feedback after the presentation suggests that this specific group of collectors was happy to think about something other than the specific manufacturer and year for a piece of glassware and that a brief history lesson was appropriate after all. I certainly heaved a sigh of relief when it was over.