July/August 1998 | Volume 49, Issue 4
In a tranquil Cape Cod village, the past is writ in glass
A tourist’s itinerary published by the Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce deals briskly with the Cape’s oldest town: “11:00 A.M. Arrive Sandwich, Visit Sandwich Glass Museum, Dexter Grist Mill, Shawme Pond. 1:00 P.M. Depart Sandwich.” This not-unreasonable agenda is more or less the way I first saw Sandwich, more than twenty years ago. Because it is the first major town you encounter after crossing the Sagamore Bridge, which spans the Cape Cod Canal, you tend to give it an hour or so and then head on up the Cape.
But even then I remember thinking this wasn’t enough time, and over the years, Sandwich stayed fixed in my memory. With its shady lanes, peaceful town green, mirrorlike pond, and old Dexter gristmill (in operation from 1655 until 1881, later a tearoom, and now restored), the town seemed to turn its back on the normal concerns of a resort in summer. Then too, there was the glass museum.
That was really what brought me back to spend three days in Sandwich last July. Oddly, though, I hadn’t given a minute’s thought to treasures of American glass since my first visit; it was the museum itself, not the collecting of glass, that seemed so compelling. After all, it was glass, writes a local historian, “that changed the face of Sandwich and gave it an ... enduring place in the history of the industrial revolution in the United States.”
That happened in 1825. Nearly two hundred years earlier, in 1637, the town’s founders, known as the Ten Men from Saugus (in reference to the Saugus Plantation in the Massachusetts Bay Colony), settled on the marshy northern shores of Cape Cod. They were the Cape’s first white inhabitants, and the oldest of them, Thomas Tupper, had been born in England in 1578, during the time of Elizabeth I and Shakespeare.
The Ten Men named Sandwich after an Enelish town in Kent. They chose their site for its dense pine and oak forests, its marshes that produced plenty of salt hay for feeding and bedding their cattle, and its freshwater stream that they dammed to power a gristmill. Farming and the riches of the sea brought prosperity to Sandwich and the other towns that soon took hold on the Cape. By the late 1700s Sandwich also was gaining its first tourists, among them Daniel Webster, who regularly stayed at William Fessenden’s Tavern on Main Street. The place burned to the ground in 1971 but has been very elegantly rebuilt to its old style. It has been renamed the Dan’l Webster Inn, and it is where I stayed last July.
One wealthy Bostonian drawn there for relaxation was Deming Jarves, an agent for a Boston glass manufacturer, who in 1825 decided to build a glassworks on the creek at the edge of town. He picked the place for many of the same reasons as the founders had: Boston was only about a hundred miles away, the small harbor made it easy to transport goods, the forests yielded wood for the furnaces, and there was “sand unlimited,” as one writer put it, a necessary ingredient in the production of glass. As it turned out, the sand wasn’t of the finest consistency, so Jarves was forced to import it from New Jersey and Connecticut.
Despite this setback the enterprise proved successful from the start, and Sandwich glass soon became synonymous with quality not only throughout the United States but worldwide. At first Jarves employed ancient techniques of free blown glass and of blown molded glass, but before long he developed his own method for pressing glass into metal molds. This faster, less technically demanding process brought prices down and made Jarves’s products widely affordable.
The very first pressed piece from Jarves’s Boston and Sandwich Glass Company, dating from 1827, soon passed into private hands. It was proudly exhibited at the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial, where, writes Harriet B. Barbour, one of the town’s historians, “As the exhibitor was taking it from the case to pass for inspection, it slipped from his fingers and smashed to the floor. Its end was no less final than the break with bygone days.”
With the burgeoning glass industry, the whole town took on a gloss of exotica. After workers speaking a dozen tongues crowded into this small, wholly Anglo-Saxon community, one of the Cape’s first Catholic churches rose in Sandwich to serve them, and a popular new Mozart Union Society sprang from the same cultural roots. With five hundred factory hands receiving weekly paychecks, everyone prospered. But after 1888, when the factory abruptly closed its doors forever, the victim of economic competition and labor strife, the town, too, grew silent.
These days only a marker located near the remains of an old glass furnace at the corner of Jarves and Factory Streets (a three-minute walk from the center of town and across the train tracks) stands as a reminder of what went on there. Between the 1920s and 1940s the empty complex was torn down piece by piece. What remains is the neighborhood—it was called Jarvesville—that grew up around the glassworks. Here, starting in the late 1820s, Jarves built workers’ housing, and many of those modest, trim buildings still stand, now modernized, occupying tree-shaded streets not unlike those on the tourist’s side of town.
“When most people come to Sandwich, they go uptown to the other side of the tracks, where there are pretty houses and historic buildings,” one resident recently told a reporter. “But Jarvesville has a history of its own.”
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.