Macy’s Glass Cutting Operation (1880 – Unknown)

As stated earlier, Macy died in 1877. Three years after Macy’s death, but eight years before the Straus family had an ownership in the store, Macy’s produced a catalog in 1880 which contained the following quote:

We make a specialty of decorating china to order with initials, monograms, photographs and crests also of cutting and engraving glass. Work done on the premises by competent workman from the best European factories.”

Carlson4a

Caption: R. H. Macy & Co. 1880 catalog
Courtesy of the Federated Department Stores.

This is the first known reference to a glass cutting shop at Macy’s. As we have already seen, the Straus family operated many factories in Europe so it would not be unusual for them to start up a glass cutting operation in America.

In October of 1882, Macy’s ran the following advertisement in the Century magazine:

Our Richly-cut Table Glass, which is cut on the premises by skilled artists from the pure crystal metal specially imported by us from the celebrated Cristalleries de Baccarat, Paris, merits special attention; and as we are the only house in the city employing glass cutters and engravers, we are enabled to offer superior advantages, both in quality and price.”

By 1886 the Macy’s glass cutting department was going strong. An article in the November 11, 1886 Crockery and Glass Journal had this to say about one of the glass cutters at Macy’s:

Macy’s glass cutting department claims to have the finest artist in this line in this country, or perhaps in the world. He never draws a line on the glass for any of his designs, but executes at once as he conceives the pattern. One thousand dollars was paid for a complete set of cut glass of this artist’s own design last Friday in Macy’s glass and china department.”

In 1890 Macy’s issued a booklet that contained a photo of their glass cutting shop:

Carlson4b

Caption: Macy’s Glass Cutting Operation in 1890
Courtesy of the Author

 

Here is how the 1890 booklet described the Macy operation:

The view on page 20 illustrates our Glass cutting shop. We are the only house that does its own cutting on the premise, hence we give our patrons exclusive designs and far lower prices than can be named elsewhere.   The brilliancy and excellence of our workmanship is unsurpassed, and besides cutting all the popular patterns, we furnish original and exclusive designs and also make a specialty of cutting crests, monograms, and names of yachts and clubs. The artistic merit of our own richly cut glassware is best exemplified by the fact that we took first prize at the American Institute Fair in 1885 and our cutting shop has since then been improved and enlarged to a considerable extent.”

Carlson4c

Caption: 1885 award won by Macy’s as illustrated in the
R.
H. Macy & Co. 1887 catalog
Courtesy of the Federated Department Stores.

  On October 9, 1887 The New York Times had the following story describing some of the early patterns for Macy’s cut glass:

There is probably no better place in the country to study the character, the gracefulness of outline, the delicacy of blending shades and quiet and brilliant colorings in pottery and glassware than at R. H. Macy & Co.’s. The line of cut and engraved glass tableware is deserving of more than a passing reference, as the cutting and engraving is done on the premises by the most skilled and celebrated artisans. This work is done in every design and form upon the purest crystal blanks expressly imported for the purpose. The ‘strawberry’ and ‘octagon diamond’ and ‘polar star’ designs in cut glass, the last mentioned pattern being original with the house, are examples of jewel work that are pronounced to be superior to anything produced abroad and are exceedingly popular with those who prize elegant tableware. Of the many different designs of glassware shown in this establishment, the firm controls exclusively over 1,000 patterns from the best makers in all parts of the world. In fact, a visit to this department at Macy & Co.’s is something to be long remembered by any one interested in art pottery and glassware. The firm fills orders for those goods in any part of the country.

Macy’s played up their on-premises cut glass operation and often encouraged the public to come in and see how the cut glass was made. In one of their New York Times ads dated December 6, 1898, Macy’s says:

Right here, on the premises, we have a Cut Glass factory. It is full of interest. You are invited to visit the workrooms and witness the peculiar and difficult process of cutting and polishing these dining-room diamonds.”

In 1902, Macy’s moved from their Fourteenth Street location to 34th Street at Herald’s Square. Cut glass continued to play an important part at Macy’s new store and visitors were again encouraged to visit the glass cutting operation. Here is what was said in the Macy 1906-07 catalog:

“In addition, on the eighth floor of our mammoth store, we have a CHINA DECORATING PLANT AND CUT GLASS SHOP. No other department store in the world operates a Cut Glass plant. Our Cut Glass and Decorating Shops are always open for inspection, and are a source of great interest to store visitors.”

This is what the 1906-07 Macy’s catalog had to say about Straus Cut Glass:

All the Cut Glass sold by us (we sell more than any other store in America) is produced in our own Cut Glass Factory.

 That the Straus Cut Glass is the finest produced needs no argument; it was awarded first honors at the Chicago World’s Fair. We use only the finest blanks and the cuttings are perfect. Straus cuttings have a heavy, rich, brilliant effect.

 We sell Straus Cut Glass for less money than others ask for inferior lusterless ware, simply because we produce it in our own cutting shop, and eliminate the middleman’s profits.

 Some houses in their effort to meet our low prices, relying on your credulity, put the ordinary light dull Bohemian glass in competition with ours, therefore be cautious in buying, and if you want the best values procurable in Cut Glass, better buy Straus Cut Glass.

The following article gives an excellent description of the glass cutting operation within Macy’s on 34th Street. It appeared in the June 1911 Pottery and Glass magazine.

A Retail Store That Cuts Its Own Glass

A retail store, with a single department so large that it controls the output of numerous foreign factories in addition to an extensive plant located in the same building and another even larger at a distance of only a few city blocks, may not be found within the business confines of every American city, nor are they of common occurrence in the great city of New York, where nothing is surprising or unusual, and in only one is the plan so thoroughly carried out as in the shopping mecca herein to be described.”

 

Located in the busiest section of a busy city – where two uptown surface lines intersect and cross two others, an Interborough elevated line above them all and an Interstate tube burrowing its way beneath – the Macy store stands boldly out, the center of the New York shopping district. Founded over half a century ago, the business was moved to its present location from Fourteenth Street in 1902. Twenty-four acres of floor space are occupied and employment given to five thousand persons. Taking in the factories and industries controlled by R. H. Macy & Company, the number of employees exceeds ten thousand.

The china and glass department is unique among all others. Of such dimension is the business therein transacted that the firm finds a market for, owns and operates, a glassware factory at Steinschoenau, Bohemia; a pottery at Rudolstadt, Thuringia; a decorating plant at Carlsbad, Austria; a porcelain decorating shop at Limoges, France; a cut-glass and china decorating shop on the premises, and a cut-glass plant on Tenth Avenue. Nor are the goods carried from these alone, but represent also a full assortment of products from other leading manufacturers.

The department together with house furnishings occupies the entire basement floor, open stock dinnerware on the Thirty-fourth Street side, lamps on the Broadway side, cut glass in the center, and the cheaper grades of china and kitchen ware in the rear. Grouped about the cut glass enclosures are sections for art pottery, fancy china, imported glass, marbles and bronzes.

 The cut glass section is in an enclosure separating it somewhat from other sections – a department within a department. Goods are displayed on square tables with mirror tops or in cabinets with mirror or glass shelves and mirror backs. The glass shown is not to be compared with the dull lusterless lines with which the market is flooded – it is Straus cut glass, made to meet the requirements of a trade which its quality has helped to establish. …

 On the eighth floor is a feature which may not be seen in any other department store in the world, a cut glass factory and china decorating plant, the former containing fifty wheels and the latter, four large kilns.

 

The interior of a glass cutting establishment provides a variety of scenes which rivet the attention and makes one loth to leave it. The long rows of toilers at their wheels, the numerous belts in motion and impelling the machinery, the different interesting minor processes, and the profusion of beautiful wares, all have a fascination for the visitor. There are many steps in the operation of evolving a finished cut glass product.

 Carlson4d

Caption: The Macy Glass Cutting Department on the Eighth Floor
June 1911 Pottery and Glass Magazine

Courtesy of Jay and Micki Doros

 

First, the ‘rought grinder’ carves out the design by pressing the form to the edge of a wheel of steel, on which sand falls from a hopper. This is followed by grinding on a wheel made of a stone composition, and this by treatment on a finer wheel, after which come the wooden wheel, polishing and washing, and the application of various other processes not mentioned herein by which are imparted the dazzling luster characteristic of the ware, which brings out the design in all its distinctiveness and beauty. Some of the designs are remarkable for their fineness and intricacy, and the spectator wonders – even as the work goes on under his eyes – how so much artistic minuteness and certainty of touch can be attained by means of mere grindstones. …”

How long Macy’s continued to cut glass remains a mystery. In his1922 book, The Romance of a Great Store by Edward Hungerford, a description of the remnants of the glass cutting operation at Macy’s is described as follows:

“Through a store such as this one may wander, ad libithu, and find a new surprise at nearly every corner of it. Certainly upon each of its floors. Nor are these to be limited, in any way, to the floors to which the public is ordinarily admitted. Once I remember coming through the eighth floor and suddenly emerging upon a clean, crisply lighted workshop. At a long bench underneath an atelier-like window three men, fairly well-advanced in years, were working. One was engraving upon silver – the other two upon glass. The chief of the shop explained to me that in the beginning they were Germans but they had been in Macy’s so many, many years that they were today to be classed as pretty thoroughly Americanized. One of them had sat at that bench – and the one down in Fourteenth Street that had preceded it before the northward trek to Thirty-fourth Street – for over thirty-two years. The three men were artisans – of the old school and of a sort that seemingly is not bred these days.

‘When they are gone I do not know where we shall go to replace them,’ said the superintendent.

‘You will have to quit doing this sort of work?’ I ventured.

He answered quickly:

‘Oh no,’ said he, ‘Macy’s never quits. We shall have to find others – even if we train them ourselves. It is only the material for training that worries me. American young men of today are not over fond of painstaking work of this sort.’

I knew instantly what he meant. As a nation we are made up of ‘shortcut’ experts. Perseverance, patience, a tedious attention to uninteresting detail, have seemingly but little appeal to the average young man who is looking forward to a real career for himself. To be an executive – no matter by what name or title – and in as short a time as is humanly possible is apparently the only object that he sees ahead of him. A laudable ambition to be sure. But one shudders at the mere thought of a land which should be composed entirely of executives and wishes that we might develop more definitely a class of artisan workers, such as came to us forty, thirty, even twenty-five years ago.

The oldest of these men – the man with thirty Macy years to his credit – was chasing a hunting scene upon a great glass bowl as I bent over his desk. It was more than artisanship, that task; it was artistry. A real work of real art even though at the moment these elaborate cut-glass designs have lost a little in public favor. In their own time and order they will come back again, however. And the workmanship that made them possible will be restored to its own former high favor.

But even today there are large demands in Macy’s for precisely this sort of thing. And glass grinding and engraving – which runs all the way from the making of prescription lenses for spectacles or for milady’s lorgnons up to the cutting of an entire dinner service of the most exquisitely patterned glass or repairs to the bowl or pitcher that Bridget or Selma has so carelessly broken – is the chief factor of a shop that handles, as other parts of its day’s job, jewelry and watch repairs, electro-plating of gold, copper, silver, nickel, the printing or engraving or stamping of stationary of every sort, to say nothing of leather goods of every kind and description and a thousand lesser and highly individual jobs, such as regilding of a mirror or the transformation of an ancient whale-oil lamp into a modern incandescent one. It is small wonder that as a minimum seventy-five men are constantly employed in this shop; more, as the exigencies of this season or of that may demand them.