Through the Looking Glass

Mason jars – the preservation step in the harvest exhibit at the Ohio Glass Museum in Lancaster, Ohio.

Although Lancaster, Ohio isn’t necessarily off the beaten path from little ‘ol Athens, I wouldn’t consider the Ohio Glass Museum a typical outing for most, sans my mother who collected glasses growing up. But alas, that is exactly where I found myself on Wednesday, analyzing vast collections of mason jars, colorful dishes and cups, and witnessing first hand the process of making hand-blown glass.

As I walked into the museum slash visitor’s center that afternoon, I was greeted by two elderly men – Director Bill Eckman and volunteer-employee Jack. Jack left to help a few patrons in the gift shop while Bill invited me to visit the museum’s glass blowing studio to experience the art of creating hand-blown glass first hand.

I watched glass-blower Aaron make a cup, tediously moving back and forth between the “glory hole” – a 2,300 degree oven to re-heat the molten glass – to his work station, manually twisting the glass on a long rod. The soon-to-be-cup took shape using jacks – long, tong-like tools – and Aaron blowing into a long hose, expanding the glass.

Glass production and glass blowing have a long history woven throughout the Egyptian and Roman empires, through Jamestown and the first years of America, and have an extensive influence in Lancaster, Ohio.

An exhibit in the museum showcases the five eras of glass making, starting with the “Obsidian Period.” The volcanic glass was prominently used by Native Americans to create arrow heads and other tools, and today the museum boasts a huge chunk of natural obsidian, sent to the museum from Oregon.

The “Egyptian Period” was the first period where glass blowing was developed, produced “from a mixture of silica-sand, lime and soda, colored with the copper ore malachite and fused at a high temperature.” The Egyptians used this new technology to create vases, glass beads and ceremonial figures.

The “Roman Period” of glass making and blowing – taking molten glass and manually blowing into a gob, expanding and forming it into a usable shape – allowed the technology to expand across the Roman’s extensive empire. Glass-blowing continued to evolve to become the first industry in America, specifically in Jamestown.

Although glass production has had a long history over the past few thousand years, I learned that Lancaster has had an even more complicated history. The two most prominent and influential glass companies in Lancaster were Anchor Hocking and the now closed Lancaster Glass Company, both which evolved from dozens of defunct glass companies that opened and closed, opened and closed, over the past 100 years.

I learned all about Lancaster’s glass history while watching BORN OF FIRE (yes, it is necessary to put that in all caps because of its epic title), a 15-minute long video highlighting the prominence and importance of glass in the area.

According to tidbits from the film and Eckman’s own vast knowledge, Ohio, West Virginia, western Pennsylvania and eastern Indiana were and are especially great areas for glass making because of the natural gases in the area. I’m not sure what that means exactly, but I continued to listen and learned that in 2006 the Ohio State Legislature designated Lancaster as “The Pressed Glass Capital of Ohio.” Who knew?

Cups made and printed in Lancaster, Ohio, now and forever to be shown in the Treasures of Ohio room.

The Ohio Glass museum opened in 2002 to “honor the more than 100-years history of glass making in Fairfield, Ohio,” according to the museum’s welcome pamphlet. What grew from a single-roomed museum with a small gift shop has evolved to incorporate the glass making studio, which offers classes at a price, the history room, “Treasures of Ohio” room and extensive 6-month long exhibits.

After we finished watching Aaron create his cup, and I should mention that I also spoke with Mike Stepanski, the manager of the glass studio, Eckman led me around the museum. Our first stop: the main exhibit titled “It’s Harvest Time… From the Fields to the Table.”

“We’re going from the farm, to the dining table. We didn’t have too many pieces we could get from the farm, so we have this wonderful collection of John Deere tractors, so we put that in as the farm side of it, and this is the preparation, and we go into preservation and canning. And then it goes into the serving side of it, kind of a less formal and formal area.”

The long, brightly lit room shows the current exhibit, which is only on display for a few more weeks. It starts with the harvest, and as Eckman said, the museum was only able to obtain a (quite impressive) collection of miniature John Deere tractors. The two display cases following the green tractors were full collections of peach and yellow dinnerware, donated to the museum from a local glass enthusiast. And after that, my favorite, a case full of clear and colorful mason jars – the preservation aspect of the harvest. Then finally, the serving portion of the exhibit, fully equipped with a table set up with all of the necessary tableware, which of course are made of glass.

To celebrate each new exhibit, the museum hosts a gala – and they have a sense of humor, too! For the depressed glass exhibit, volunteers dressed up as 1930’s characters, holding signs that said, “Spare A Dime?” (Get it? The Great Depression? It took me a few minutes, too). For the cranberry glass exhibit, the museum served cranberry juice, cranberry cheesecake and even had faux cranberry bogs – buckets of water filled with floating cranberries. Ha ha.

Personally, the most exciting room/exhibit in the small museum was the “Treasures of Ohio” room, which only showcases pieces created in Ohio. Most pieces are collector’s antiques – hand blown or mass-produced glass from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but some modern glass as well – made only a few years ago.

The next exhibit, which is replacing the harvest, is titled “We’re Cracked, We’re Goofy and We’ve Lost Our Marbles.” It opens mid-March and will run until mid-September and will feature crackle glass, goofus glass – glass in which paint has chipped off – and glass marbles.

While the $6 entrance fee is a little steep for the small museum, it offers a brief history into the importance of glass and glass making for this small southeastern city, as well as a plethora of glass from all eras and all over Ohio. Check out the Ohio Glass Museum for yourself, Tuesdays through Sundays, 1-4 p.m. on Main Street in Lancaster. It’s one of four museums within walking distance in the area, so make it a day trip and visit the Sherman House Museum, the Decorative Arts Center of Ohio or The Georgian Museum as well.


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