FENTON ART GLASS:
A CENTURY OF SUCCESS
By: Dr. James Measell
(Associate Historian, Fenton Art Glass Co.)
"Every long journey," itís said, "begins with a single step." At 17, Frank L. Fenton took the first steps toward the century-long journey of the Fenton Art Glass Company. He joined the decorating department of Harry Northwoodís glass plant in the summer of 1897. The young man was an eager employee, and family stories recount that he soon developed his own ideas for decoration designs on glass.
After Northwood returned to England in late 1899, Frank L. Fenton and several of his brothers went with Harry Bastow to the Jefferson Glass Company in Steubenville, Ohio. When Bastow left in 1903 to start the Bastow Glass Co. in Coudersport, Pa., the Fentons followed. The Bastow plant was destroyed by fire in mid-1904, but Frank L. Fenton and his brother John were soon employed once more by Harry Northwood, this time in Wheeling. They worked there for less than a year before deciding to start their own business.
One family story says that John had told Frank to come to him if he wanted financial help in starting his own business. When Frank did so in early 1905, John asked, "How much money do you have?" When Frank replied that he had about $280, John responded with enthusiasm: "Good. Between us, we have $284.86. Letís get started!"
They rented space at the Haskins Glass Company in Martins Ferry, bought glass blanks (plain items) from nearby companies, and applied handpainted decorations to pitchers and tumblers to create distinctive lemonade sets. The new company was soon successful, and orders rolled in.
Within a few months, the Fenton brothers were having trouble getting glass blanks, so they decided to build a factory.
Ground was broken for the Fenton plant in Williamstown, West Virginia, on October 7, 1906, and, on January 2, 1907, the first piece of Fenton glass was made. Within a few months, company letterhead listed these glass colors: "blue, green, amethyst, ruby, chocolate and Onyx." The man responsible was Jacob Rosenthal, an experienced factory manager and color chemist.
By late 1907, the glass plant was off to an auspicious start. But the best was yet to come, for Fenton was about to unveil a new product that would change the direction of the American glass tableware industry. Called "iridescent ware," it was made by spraying hot glass with a metallic salt solution. Collectors today call it "Carnival glass."
After WWI, this highly-patterned iridescent ware gave way to plain articles in iridized pastel colors such as Celeste Blue, Florentine Green, Persian Pearl, Tangerine, Topaz, and Wisteria. Collectors of "stretch" glass value these today.
In the late 1920s and early 1930s, Fenton produced innovative opaque colors: Chinese Yellow, Jade Green, Lilac, Mandarin Red, Mongolian Green, Moonstone, Pekin Blue, Periwinkle Blue, and Venetian Red.
The Great Depression forced some glass plants to close, and Fenton faced difficulties. The company introduced new patterns (Georgian, Lincoln Inn, and Plymouth), and its Jade Green and Ruby glass were selling, but times were tough.
Fenton made some Hobnail barber bottles for the L. G. Wright Glass Co., and a perfume company executive happened to see one. The Chicago-based Allen B. Wrisley Co. soon contracted with Fenton for thousands of perfume bottles. The Depression was over, and Fentonís Hobnail pattern began its four-decade run!
In the late 1940s, events thrust a new generation into leadership positions. Company founder Frank L. Fenton passed away in May, and his elder brother, sales manager Robert C. Fenton, Sr., died in November. The first generation was gone. Factory manager Paul Rosenthal was responsible for Fentonís glass colors, and his retirement in 1949 left another void.
Frank M. Fenton, 32, and Wilmer C. "Bill" Fenton, 24, became President and Vice-President, respectively. Frank had been at the company since graduation from Marietta College in 1936, and Bill had worked in sales since being discharged from the Army in May, 1946. "There was an awful lot we didnít know," Frank recalls. "Designs for new items had been handled by my father and the mouldmakers, so I became determined to study both old and contemporary glass to better understand the design and manufacturing processes."
Fortunately, Fenton had several lines, such as Coin Dot and Hobnail in various opalescent colors, which were strong performers in the late 1940s. Milk Glass began to sell well during the 1950s, and Fentonís Hobnail line was soon an industry leader.
Competition in the glass industry was stiff in the mid-1960s, but Fenton responded by developing the kinds of glass products people wanted. Designer Tony Rosena was hired in 1967, and he helped Fenton secure the services of decorator Louise Piper in 1968. Two beautiful art glass colors, Burmese and Rosalene, were perfected in the late 1960s by research chemist Charles Goe. Louise Piper developed a handpainted floral decoration called Violets in the Snow.
Adding to the success of Burmese and Rosalene and decorated ware was Fentonís revival of its early twentieth-century iridescent ware. Because collectors were voicing concerns about re-issues of old glass treatments, Fenton began to mark all of its products with a logo, the name "Fenton" within an oval.
Frankís four sons and Billís children (two daughters and two sons) were finishing school in the 1960s and 1970s, and all but one (Frankís eldest son) chose careers in the glass company or the Fenton Gift Shop. As their children assumed increasing management responsibilities, Frank and Bill began to step back.
When George Fenton became President in 1986, both the glass industry and the company were again in difficult times.
Several major manufacturers had recently closed for good, and others, including Fenton, were facing a variety of pressures. By the mid-1980s, the third generation of Fentons held key positions in the glass company or the Fenton Gift Shop. Included were three of FrankĎs four sons--George (President), Tom (Vice-President--Manufacturing) and Mike (Purchasing Manager and Safety Director) as well as Billís children--Don (Vice-President--Sales), Shelley (Graphics Manager), Randy (Gift Shop Treasurer), and Christine (Gift Shop Data Processor). Nancy Gollinger Fenton, who is married to George, was named Director of Design.
This new generation faced stiff challenges, including a generally poor economy and competitive pressures from imported giftware. Several of Fentonís longtime competitors (Fostoria, Imperial, Viking and Westmoreland) shut down for good. After exploring some alternative directions, Fenton went "back to basics," emphasizing traditional styles while creating innovative colors and distinctive handpainted decorations.
The Dusty Rose color gained steadily in popularity after its introduction in 1984, and a cute novelty called the "Birthstone Bear" really caught hold, too. Talented Fenton decorators developed items for limited edition groupings, such as the Childhood Treasures Series (1983-1989) and the Birds of Winter Series (1987-1990).
Beginning in the mid-1980s, Fenton began to create annual groupings of special colors, such as Pink Opalescent and Topaz Opalescent. Once called "Collectorís Extravaganza," these offerings evolved into the limited edition "Historic Collections" which continue today. Each Historic Collection color has admirers, but some are especially noteworthy:
Persian Blue Opalescent (1990); Stiegel Green Stretch (1994); Mulberry (1996); and Royal Purple (1998). Lotus Mist Burmese, introduced in 2000, is another collector favorite.
Other Fenton limited editions made their presence felt in the 1980s and 1990s. The Connoisseur Collection, begun in 1983, annually attracts much collector interest, as the company continues to strive for the finest in art glass.
Fentonís relationship with the QVC network began in 1988, and the resulting television broadcasts made Fenton fans of many viewers.
The Family Signature Series debuted in 1993, and the Floral Interlude tulip vase with Georgeís and Nancyís signature was chosen as "Decorative Collectible of the Year" for 1998 by the National Association of Limited Edition Dealers (NALED).
Other noteworthy limited editions from the 1990s which continue are Mary Gregory and the Glass Messenger Subscriber Exclusives.
Sculptor Jon Saffell came to Fenton in 1994, and his talents were reflected in a number of new moulds, including several vases and baskets as well as a twelve-piece Nativity Set and some new animal figurines. Throughout the 1990s, Fentonís decorating designers--Frances Burton, Kim Plauche, Martha Reynolds and Robin Spindler--showcased their talents on Connoisseur Collection pieces and many other items, including the Designer Bells Series. Several organizations honored Fenton decorating designers with awards for their work.
During the 1990s, two more Fenton family members joined the organization. Lynn Fenton Erb started in 1994 as Sales and Marketing Specialist, and she was instrumental in launching the Glass Messenger newsletter in 1996. Scott Fenton joined the company in early 1998 after graduation from college and is now National Sales Manager.
The 1990s and the early twenty-first century were a time of growth and development for Fenton Art Glass. During 2005, the Company and more than 400 employees can both reflect on 100 years of history and look forward to more success in the future.