- Historic Sites
Reflecting On Sandwich
In a tranquil Cape Cod village, the past is writ in glass
July/August 1998 | Volume 49, Issue 4
I found that out when stopping to admire a garden, and Ann Barber, who owned a neighboring house, invited me in. She explained that her uncle had owned the place in the 1950s. At some point it had been updated, but in its original state this compact dwelling may have housed two families. Cramped and utilitarian as it may have been, it’s not hard to imagine that the workers would have been happy here, especially in contrast to the city tenements they had left behind. Many of Jarvesville’s first tenants had in fact prospered enough to move to more spacious quarters in the center of town.
In her living room Ann Barber had on display several large, uneven chunks of scarred glass, one colored a glowing green. She explained that in this neighborhood such treasures are easy to come by. “Glass just pops up in the garden,” she said.
Such excavations, whether informal or by plan, have long played a role in Sandwich’s history. The area around the factory yields bits of glass that are important clues to the past, allowing scholars to determine whether certain pieces can be attributed to Sandwich or came from manufacturers in other parts of the country. This detective work is necessary since Sandwich glass is rarely signed. A major dig in the 1930s produced enough shards to fill fifty-five wooden trays at the Smithsonian, while thirty-seven boxes landed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In 1996 Thomas Monaghan, the president of Domino’s Pizza and a collector of Sandwich glass, presented the Sandwich Glass Museum with a one-ton collection of fragments.
The glass museum has a glorious display of these highly colorful scraps, several tables’ worth artfully lit from below. Over the years several local craftspeople have worked such shards into fine jewelry.
Of course, the museum’s stock-intrade isn’t broken bits of glass but examples of the glassmaker’s art in all its splendor. Set against picture windows or in beautiful plain glass cases, the pieces seem actually to float in air. Looking back at my notes, I see that I particularly admired “a room full of cup plates, pressed into hundreds of patterns.” (A tea drinker would pour the hot liquid into these small saucers, allowing it to cool more quickly than it would in a cup.) I also raved over “a million salt dishes and a whole wall of pressed candlesticks in an endless array of colors!”
I was fascinated by something called a “touch box,” in itself a work of art, consisting of a dozen different fragments of glass embedded in a rectangular piece of plaster and hung, like a painting, on the wall. The visitor is encouraged to feel the satin glass, spattered glass, cut glass unpolished, cut glass polished, and blown molded hobnail glass and to differentiate among their textures. In a museum dedicated to fragile untouchable beauty, this chance to lay one’s hands on it has something magical about it.
Since I had made the fortunate decision to stay in Sandwich for several days, I found time to return to the museum again and again. (It’s barely a block from the Dan’l Webster Inn.) As during my visit years ago, its allure wasn’t due to any nascent collecting zeal but to the artful way in which the history of a community, an industry, and a half-century of American life is reflected in the glass that flashes and sparkles from every room. The story is carried on through films, furnishings from local families, captions, and several special exhibits.
First thing in the morning, at opening time, I would notice the nearemptiness of the place. In the next hour visitors would start to file in, and finally the tour buses would descend. People seemed enthralled, but by the end of an hour, the traveler’s imperative called them to another town, lunch, a beach, shopping. Very often I am that traveler on a treadmill, but this time I’d had the sense to slow down, to get off and savor one small and very peaceful place.
The town’s quiet was extraordinary, the air bracing with the mingled scents of pine and the not too distant sea. On the Sunday afternoon of my arrival, Main Street was empty but for a child on a bike and a couple glancing in the windows of a shuttered antiques shop. Over on Shawme Pond I watched someone paddling a red canoe followed by a trio of swans. At all times the biggest crowd in town gathered at the pump next to the gristmill. Here a steady supply of customers drives up to fill containers with water from an artesian well that has been supplying locals since the 1600s.
After the factory had shut down and most of the employees had gone elsewhere to find work, one observer wrote, “Sandwich managed and scrimped like a thrifty housewife into the twentieth century.” Soon after, the advent of the automobile brought tourism to the Cape in earnest, and the town’s fortunes rose again. But, bypassed by the busy Route 6A and not famous for its waterfront (although some calm and lovely bay beaches are close by), Sandwich was cut off, by choice and in the best possible way, from what makes the rest of the Cape go round and round.
When I checked out of the hotel, I asked if it was full. “We have some availability,” the woman at the desk admitted. “But wait until September and October. Then we can sell every room three times over. People think everyone is gone by then.” There you have it: an insider’s tip for Cape Cod at the height of the summer season.