“The Influence of the Figured Blank”

An address by H. C. Fry delivered at the second annual convention of the
National Association of Cut Glass Manufacturers, New York City, 6 Jun 1912
 


Henry Clay Fry (1840-1929) was one of the most active glassmen of the late nineteenth/early twentieth century. He founded the Rochester (PA) Glass Company in 1901. Its name was changed to the H. C. Fry Glass Company the following year when the plant became operational. The company specialized in producing glass blanks for cutting.

Fry’s address, together with speeches by William F. Dorflinger (“Sales and Credits”) and J. D. Robinson (“The Value of Co-operation”) were printed, presumably in their entirety, in the June 13th, 1912 issue of Crockery and Glass Journal. At the time of the N.A.C.G.M. convention, H. C. Fry was widely regarded as the dean of the American flint glass fraternity. It is not surprising, therefore, to read that his talk was “most interesting, and was listened to with marked attention.”  There is no record of what, if any, response was forthcoming from Fry’s colleagues to this example of “speaking plainly”. The talk is reprinted here exactly as it was originally printed, awkward wording and all.


From the classic times of Greece you find that art, like the world, moves along the line of least resistance. Figure and form, simplicity and adaptation, are the four things that artists and inventors combine. The figured blank embraces all four, and is therefore a combination of art and invention.

When we contrast the United States with other countries we marvel at the vast transformation from early methods in all things. Here we see a thing done in a different way, because we study the face value and apply our wits to adapt it to real commercial value. We go after sensible methods to produce the same effect at less expense — the influence of modern civilization and science. The American Indian had the same land, the same coal, the same iron ore, the same sand; but he lacked the knowledge.

Neither are we like the Old World in matters of everyday life. We are not governed by the same influences; consequently we use different methods in manufacture. We have seen steam take the place of the coach, the dynamo the place of steam, the electric car the place of horse car. We see the multiple-disc clutch and the air brake. We have different classes of labor, different systems of organization, different regulations of capital and labor; we have diversities in all things; and we face these as Lincoln faced slavery, in an honest effort for betterment.

If Napoleon had not hesitated on that fatal day at Waterloo French history would have a different story; but when at seven o’clock in the morning and he was ready for battle it rained and he called a conference with his officers, and action was postponed until 11 a.m. to meet defeat at 4 p.m. after Wellington was reinforced just when the battle was almost lost. Napoleon, that great man of France, had to run through the mud and hide in the woods. The influence of that delay has changed the history of the world.

Mistakes make history, mistakes make opportunities, mistakes cause ruination; mistakes have been made with the figured blank.

Arthur Symons says: “In art there must be a complete marriage or interpenetration of substance and form.”  In the figured blank we have not strayed from the definition. A short time ago a booklet was mailed me entitled “How to Know Cut Glass.”  It begins with this sentence: “The story of glass excites the imagination at every step from its primitive beginning to the point where craftsmen leave the well-worn paths of mediaeval methods and press forward into the broader highway of modern science.” In the figured blank we have not strayed from this definition of T. G. Hawkes & Co.

The influence of the figured blank was felt when that booklet was published, and it has been pressing forward ever since. After much descriptive matter about the figured blank, the last sentence in that booklet reads: “Should the purchaser be puzzled, let him ask the dealer to guarantee the article to be cut from a plain blank.”

It is safer to shorten one’s yardstick before measuring the faults of one’s competitor. Remember, from the same flower the bee extracts honey the wasp extracts gall. The opposition endeavored to belittle the value of cut glass from figured blanks, and talk was heard about the “grain” of the metal and what the microscope disclosed; yet the finished product from both kinds of blanks was undistinguishable when under examination.

Ten years ago, when we commenced operations under our patents for glass-cutters’ blanks, more than one well-established cut glass manufacturer found fault with our method, and to-day some few prejudiced people are unwilling to acknowledge their superiority. At that time there were about forty-five shops employing less than 1,500 men. In ten years the business has been thoroughly revolutionized, and now there are about 200 shops employing 6,000 men. The product is no longer an exclusive luxury or a fad for the rich, but a much used commercial article. It is found in the home of the average man, in the club and in the hotel. It is bought by all classes of people; and not only is the influence of the figured blank felt in the expansion of business, but in the cleverness of designing, in the great variety of shapes and novelties, and in creations demonstrating the mastery of art and science. Ten years ago it was feared that the industry would pass away. Punch bowls then sold for $125; you can buy the same to-day for $30.

Its influence has been far greater as a labor-saving device: due entirely to competition and application. Competition made it a necessity to work fast; it set aside the old theory that an apprentice had to work three years before he could smooth; it stopped “loafing on the job;” the piecework system was introduced; and with the decrease in cost came the increase in production. Articles cut from plain blanks had to come in competition with the figured, and the same speed had to be met. These were sold according to merit, and were compared with the figured blank. Those who smoothed a roughed article had to follow the pace set by the smoother of the figured blanks.

Ten years ago the cost of a blank was about 40 cents per pound; to-day the same sells at 17 cents and the cost of the metal is greater. The quality is better. Quality first has always been the aim in manufacturing figured blanks, and the clear brilliancy of the metal has been one of its chief assets. We can trace an influence there equal to that of the decrease in labor.

The St. Louis Exposition [of 1904] was the first practical endorsement of the patented blank, and it was due principally to the clearness and brilliancy of the metal over-whelming the objections to the new method at that time; and when you consider that it was only in 1880 that the first curved line was cut, and when you consider that at that time it was just as hard to sell American cut glass to the wealthy class in the United States as it is to-day, since cut glass at that time was usually considered good quality only when of English product, you can forgive their fault-findings and apprehensions in regard to our new methods of making blanks.

The influence of the figured blank was again demonstrated in 1905, and fairly proved a product of merit so long as it has the same critical attention as other blanks. The H. C. Fry Glass Co. advertised as follows in the Crockery and Glass Journal: “We manufacture the figure[d] blank, a modern improvement in the glass-makers’ art; we own the patents and have deposited the method. We propose to exhibit at the Portland Exposition, and will be glad to have competition for the award of merit.” The international jury of awards gave us the highest award and a special gold medal.

Knowing that the influence of the figured blank to a large extent would depreciate the value and lower the standard of the industry unless the quality of the glass was carefully considered, we made it our object at Rochester to show the limitless possibilities of the figured blank, and to demonstrate the special beauty of the metal. Although it may be said that a new epoch in cut glass history is the result of the figured blank, it can not be said that the intrinsic merit of the blank is less. It is appreciated more every year as the best blank ever made, and it is not our fault that the finish of cut glass has fallen so low. We gave you an article of purity and brilliancy; we spent thousands of dollars for the sake of quality, and worked against untold opposition; and it is not the patented blank that takes your cut glass business a step downward. It is your own unfair method of business — your desire to undersell your neighbor, rather than an honest effort to progress. Dishonest work will tear down any industry, and it is suicidal to let the neglect go on.

Return to sane methods, honest work, and stop the deception of putting out partly cut glass. It is not how the blank is made, so long as it is made right, but it is how you cut the blank and polish it. Stop the shabby work, and do it right. The blank is here to stay; it has proven its merit; but some in the cut glass business are not doing good work. You are not facing diversities honestly; you abuse the opportunities and undermine your industry, and hurt others as well. Is it any wonder buyers get disgusted and want to find something else to substitute for cut glass? It is true this condition would not be possible without the figured blank; but the influence is not due to the carelessness of the glass blank manufacture; it is due to the greed of the cut glass manufacture. You say we might stop it. We pay the salary and expense of a good man to inspect your plant and see if you live up to your contract.

Laws are made and laws are broken; otherwise it would not be necessary to have policemen. That’s why we had to have an inspector. But if you will do right you will thank me for speaking plainly. It is not too late to improve. The cut glass business is in its infancy unless you destroy it. The most beautiful landscape can be spoiled it you made a dumping ground out of it. Lime glass and shoddy work has no place in the field of cut glass.

 (A copy of this section of the Crockery and Glass Journal was kindly provided by The Rakow Library, The Corning Museum of Glass.)


Bon-bon dish by the H. C. Fry Glass Company (unsigned). This pattern, Chicago, was first advertised in 1904 and was probably dropped from the company’s inventory in 1910, when other designs typical of the Brilliant Period were also eliminated. (Fry Society 1990, pp. 31-32). Mold-blown, plain blank (not a “figured” blank); shape no. 4331. L on a side = 8″ (20.3 cm), diagonal = 10.25″ (26.0 cm), wt = 2.75 lb (1.2 kg). Sold for $200 in 1988. 

chicago

COMMENTS:

In 1905 the H. C. Fry Glass Company first made the following announcement: “We manufacture and use the figured blank” (House Furnisher, March, p. 8). The only CATALOGUE OF BLANKS from this company that is generally available is one thought to have been in use during 1901-1905. It was reprinted by the American Cut Glass Association in co-operation with The Toledo Museum of Art in 1997 (30 pp). This collection of drawings contains no mention of “figured” blanks. Most of the blanks are plain, but a very few show simple “cuttings” (mainly fluting) that were probably present in the molds. The plain blank used for this bon-bon dish shows its eight scallops, but there are no notches (“teeth”). It weighed 3.5 lb; thus about three-quarters of a pound of glass was lost during the cutting process.

The December 7th, 1905 issue of the Crockery and Glass Journal, reported that “Every piece [of the company’s cut glass] is now marked ‘Fry.'”  The fact that the bon-bon dish shown here is not signed, and is not cut on a “figured” blank, suggests that it was made during the year it was first advertised, 1904. Some items cut in the Chicago pattern are signed, however. They were probably cut after 1904. It is not known whether the Chicago pattern was ever cut on a “figured” blank.