Clevenger glass, a decidedly affordable passion

ANTIQUES

October 17, 1993|By Lita Solis-Cohen and Sally Solis-Cohen | Lita Solis-Cohen and Sally Solis-Cohen,Contributing Writers Solis-Cohen Enterprises Peter R. Solis-Cohen contributed to this story.

Dr. D. Stratton Woodruff often spends his lunch hour nourishing his healthy appetite for cantaloupe-shaped vases and other Clevenger glass delicacies at four thrift shops near his office in Bryn Mawr, Pa. Despite having assembled a smorgasbord of nearly 450 pieces, Dr. Woodruff still hasn't had his fill. A pioneering collector in a little-known field, his heart burns for a piece in each form and color made by Clevenger Bros. Glass Co., of Clayton, N.J., from around 1930 to the 1960s. Bargains remain to be had.

While he thrives on a steady diet of antique reproduction glass blown and molded by Clevenger, Dr. Woodruff readily acknowledges that collectors with a taste for rare 18th- and early 19th-century American glass might view his cache "like a collection of second-hand bubble gum." Nevertheless, the hTC pleasure he derives from his vases, bowls, pitchers, goblets, whiskey flasks and "whimsies" is infectious. Best of all, says the 69-year-old family physician, the price is right. Most of his pieces cost less than $20 each. More than half of his collection was purchased over the last 10 years or so at thrift shops.

Dr. Woodruff's interest in glass stems from his wife's small cache of early 19th-century flint glass made in Pittsburgh. He discovered it was too expensive to buy more than one or two pieces of antique glass a year, and became intrigued by the Clevenger brothers' reproductions he read about. Because it was produced in quantity and old Clevenger trade catalogs survived, Dr. Woodruff knew he could document and pursue examples of the firm's entire output.

Clevenger Bros. Glass Co. was established between 1929 and 1930 by Henry, Lorenzo and William Elbert Clevenger, unemployed glasshouse workers. A weak economy and the invention of an automatic bottle-blowing machine had forced the South Jersey glass company where they all had worked to close in 1912. After unsuccessfully engaging in other trades, the brothers built their own glass furnace in the stable at the family home. Production flourished when the onset of World War II reduced imports of inexpensive European glassware and novelty items.

"As the business grew, old-man Clevenger threw the chickens out of their coop and put in an office, where I'm still working today," says 74-year old James Travis, who has owned and operated the factory since 1966.

The business the Clevengers knew best was South Jersey's rich tradition of glass blowing called "greenblowing," a method of gathering molten glass from the furnace using a long hollow blowpipe. This technique got its name because early-American glass usually was a light-green color.

From the beginning, the Clevenger factory made antique reproductions, copying already collectible free-blown or mold-blown glass forms.

Early Clevenger glass is unmarked, often making it difficult to distinguish from the originals it copied. Around 1955, the initials "CB" were used on a few molded pieces; several others had paper labels. Most Clevenger glass made after 1966 is branded "CB."

Popular old-time patterns such as "Star and Dew Drop," "Stoddard" (decorated with sunbursts and diamonds) and "Hobnail" were sold through distributors, such as Ritter-Carlton Co., of New York, ranging in price from 40 cents each for open salt dishes to $6 for "Jumbo" vases and water bottles standing about 1-foot high, according to a 1939 catalog.

Clevenger secured its reputation by introducing a $2 reproduction of a famous cabin-shaped whiskey bottle made in the mid-19th century by Whitney Brothers of Glassboro, N.J., for Edmund G. Booz, a Philadelphia distiller. Reportedly, the Clevengers decided to open their own glasshouse after seeing an original "Booz" bottle priced $160 at the 1926 Sesquicentennial Exposition in Philadelphia. Their popular version, initially made in a vintage Whitney mold, today still is mistaken for the original. While some Clevenger "Booz" bottles have fetched as much as $200 to $300 each, they still can be purchased for as little as $20 at auction, according to glass auctioneer Norman Heckler, of Norman C. Heckler & Co., 79 Bradford Corner Road, Woodstock Valley, Conn. 06282; (203) 974-1634.

If you know what to look for, it's difficult to mistake Clevenger for 19th-century originals, claims Gay L. Taylor, curator of The Museum of American Glass, at Wheaton Village, in Millville, N.J., which mounted a Clevenger exhibit in 1987 and has around 50 Clevenger pieces on permanent display.

(For museum information call [609] 825-6800.)

Dealers and collectors are fooled only when they haven't studied old catalogs and books, handled enough glass, and don't understand which shapes, colors and patterns existed in the 18th and 19th centuries and which first were produced in the 20th century, according to Clevenger collector Thomas C. Haunton, of Medford, Mass.

Most early free-blown Clevenger glass is heavier than its predecessors, and was made in colors like ruby, amberina, "Vaseline" yellow and shades of blue and green that didn't exist in prior centuries. Clevenger has no flint in its composition, so it won't "ding" like antique glass when tapped lightly with a finger, nor will it fluoresce under a black light, as flint glass does.

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