This blog post was written by Nancy Magrath, Library Collections Management team member.
Glassworkers have a long tradition of making whimsies—fanciful objects to show off their creativity, skill, and humor. These were personal items made during work breaks and at the end of long, hot days at the factory in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Glassworkers made chains, sock darners, rolling pins, paperweights, animals—whatever struck their fancy. In England, these objects were called “friggers,” but in the United States the term was considered too vulgar, so the term “whimsy” was born.
One particularly flamboyant type of whimsy was the cane, as in a walking stick. Canes were made in different colors and sizes with varying degrees and types of ornamentation—the more extravagant the better! Some glass canes were 6 to 8 feet long and were topped by objects such as fish bowls, goblets, and musical instruments to display the glassworker’s special skill. Canes, like other whimsies, were often given as gifts or sold to family, friends, and coworkers. Canes were also bartered; local bars often had a collection of canes displayed on their walls, accepted in exchange for drinks.
Glass canes played roles on ceremonial occasions and in parades. Glassworkers in the U.S., decked out in their finest clothes and labor union colors, marched in the July 4th and Labor Day parades to show union solidarity, proudly carrying their glass canes. This 1910 image shows Pairpoint glassworkers on parade in New Bedford, Mass., carrying their canes.
Glass canes had superstitious and practical uses as well. They were conspicuously hung above mantels and doorways, as well as in pubs in England. Glassworkers believed the canes kept evil spirits away. In the U.S., marchers would break their canes at the end of the parade season to create bigger and better ones for the next year. One source says that glassworkers symbolically broke their canes at the gravesites of fellow union members. In both England and the United States, canes were also put to more mundane uses as curtain rods or useful household objects.
Canes were made in two basic forms: hollow blown and solid worked canes. The blown canes are sometimes called batons and were decorated with ribbons of color, mirrored or colored inside, and sometimes filled with beverages, candies, or sand. Solid canes could be twisted, ribbed, or cased. Handle styles varied and glassworkers used the glass colors available at the factory. A pair of skilled cane makers could create one in under 30 minutes. Even though these canes were virtuoso expressions of glassmaking skill, the maker’s identity and location are rarely known.
Other canes in the collection include:
- Translucent orange and colorless blown cane filled with a chalky white powder, about 113 inches long, Olean Glass Company, New York, circa 1880. 2012.4.100
- Aquamarine twisted solid cane, about 32 inches long, Redwood Glass Company, New York, 1830-1850. 64.4.11
- Colorless solid cane with a shepherd’s hook, 42.5 inches long, Cleveland Glass Company, New York, 1840-1900. 64.4.42
- Aquamarine blown cane with a hollow stopper and stem, 56 inches long, Corning Glass Works, Wellsboro, Pennsylvania, given as a gift to a young boy, about 1906-1907. 66.4.64
- Red, orange, and white ribbon blown cane with a hollow ball end, 63 inches long, Macbeth Evans Glass Company, Charleroi, Pennsylvania, about 1912-1914. 71.4.119
The advent of mechanization in glass factories brought fewer opportunities for making whimsies like glass canes. Glass canes now provide a historical look at glassworkers’ proud traditions of craftmanship in England and the United States.
Find other examples of whimsies in the Museum’s collection.
The Rakow Research Library is open to the public 9 am to 5 pm every day. We encourage everyone to explore our collections in person or online. If you have questions or need help with your research, please use our Ask a Glass Question service.