Just too late for Paris

A near-black vase with bright swatches of green, blue and pink marks America's 1878 entry into what we now call Art Glass.

Mount Washington Lava Vase (34K)

1878 — all fashionable manufacturers went to Paris for its Universal Exposition, the latest World's Fair. Gallé, Webb and the Venice and Murano Company displayed adventurous glass designs. An American visitor wanted to shout out loud,

"to impress on the minds of our [American] manufacturers the necessity, growing more every day, of traveling out of the now beaten path of ordinary goods, and taking up the making of the beautiful fancy articles which were to be seen in such profusion in the Exhibition. We are sadly behind the times in these wares; we are at the head in pressed glass, why should we not strive also to reach that position in fancy wares?"

Frederick Shirley led the charge. This vase required innovations in both color and decoration. 1878 saw Shirley, one of the great inventors in American glass, patent dense black glass made using lava, and new techniques for decorating glass. These combine in this vase as vivid swatches of colored glass backed by white glass on a form inspired by ancient Rome made of lava glass straight from a volcano! No wonder his Mt. Washington Glass Company marketed this glass as Sicilian.

Shirley set out to emulate ancient and oriental vases. His patent illustrates vases with figures set against a black background, with details added in enamel or gilding. He claimed to be able to transfer a complete design to a vessel and embed it in its surface. However, the process relied upon luck that was not achieved in practice. If the cloth-like color swatches ended up well placed, a design could be drawn around them in enamel and gilding — like turning an ink blot into a cat or a flower. Yet all surviving decoration is abstract.

Sicilian vases were a striking departure in glass design, an American creation perfected just too late for Paris.