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MassMu Collection: Glass Canes & Whimsies

Massillon Glass Canes & Whimsies
by Margy Vogt, Massillon Historian

Reed Glass House Factory Employees c.1898
Collection of the Massillon Museum (62.35.5)

Along the Tuscarawas River, natural resources for glassmaking were plentiful in the 1880s, when Lorenz Stoehr first built a glass works there.  The silica sand was perfect, and the coal to fire the kilns was abundant.  Additional entrepreneurs soon created competition by locating new plants along the river and the Ohio and Erie Canal.  The Massillon Glass Works, also known as Reed and Company, began making bottles in 1881.  By 1900, its operations covered five acres, filled twelve buildings, and employed an average of three hundred hands to produce green and amber beer bottles for sale throughout the western and southern states and Mexico, where raw materials for glassmaking were less plentiful.  By 1910, the Rhodes Bottle Company employed two hundred workers and produced thousands of bottles a day.  It was the lone remaining glass manufacturer in Massillon when it closed in 1923, the victim of automation and Prohibition.

Two glass cane handles show the swirled pattern, and difference in colors of clear, amber, black, and light blue (which glows when lit with a flash).
Collection Massillon Museum

Most of the glassblowers moved to Massillon with their families from New Jersey, returning to the coast by chartered train for the summer months, when it was too hot to fire the kilns.  They were highly skilled and amply paid workers—earning as much in a week as most laborers garnered in a month.  As members of a national union, the Glass Bottle Blowers Association, the glassblowers avoided draft beer and smashed any beer bottles that they emptied.

At the end of each workday, glassblowers were permitted to use remaining molten glass to make “whimsies,” which they kept for themselves and their friends.  They made goblets, glass hats, turtles, chains, flowers, and hollow balls.  The most prized whimsies are paperweights—many with names and dates inside—and long glass canes, which the glassblowers carried when they marched together in Massillon’s much-anticipated Labor Day parades.  A colorful local legend claims that the glassmen stopped at all the saloons along the parade route, became inebriated, and smashed their canes at the end of the event.  To control the rowdiness, the marshal banned them from the bars.  To circumvent the law, the craftsmen blew hollow canes and filled them with whiskey (and still smashed the canes at the conclusion of the walk).

Fortunately, some canes survived after the 1920s demise of Massillon’s glass industry.  Some are in private collections; 34 are preserved in the Massillon Museum’s permanent collection.

Seven of the thirty-four glass canes preserved in the collection show the variety of shape, size, and color of the cane whimsies created by glass factory workers.
Collection Massillon Museum

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