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A Stiegel Flask

June 2024
2min read

Most of us associate the pocket flask with the Roaring Twenties era of the bootlegger and the speakeasy, but in fact, the tradition of the portable spirits holder in America is far more venerable. The deep amethyst bottle on the opposite page, for instance, a brilliant example of the blown glass produced at the Pennsylvania glassworks of Henry W. Stiegel in the eighteenth century, was almost certainly filled with an alcoholic beverage and carried in the pocket of some colonial burgher, although it is so decorative that it was undoubtedly considered an ornamental object as well.

The making of glass was actually the first manufacturing industry established in the New World, beginning in Jamestown in 1608. But early efforts there and in New Amsterdam, Salem, and Philadelphia were short-lived. The first generations of settlers, in their gritty struggle for survival, had little use for such refinements as glass drinking vessels.

But by the time Henry Stiegel burst upon the scene in the mid-eighteenth century, colonial life had become far more gentrified. One need look no further than the advertisements and account books of Stiegel’s own American Flint Glass Manufactory to find an inventory of the highly evolved eating and serving practices of the time. In addition to a wide variety of decanters, tumblers, and mugs for wine, spirits, and fermented brews, for example, there were sugar bowls, creamers, footed saltcellars, jelly glasses, vinegar cruets, and mustard pots. These vessels were made in clear glass as well as in hues of blue, purple, brown, and green richer than anything seen before in this country. Color became an important element at this time because it was believed to protect alcoholic beverages against the damaging properties of light.

Henry William Stiegel was born in the German glass center of Cologne in 1729, emigrated to Philadelphia at the age of twenty-one, and married the daughter of the owner of an iron foundry. Soon a partner in his father-in-law’s enterprises, Stiegel added a small glassmaking operation in 1764. Not a craftsman himself, he nevertheless made it his mission to create a body of American glass equal to the finest produced abroad.

A man of prodigious energy and prodigious excess, Stiegel did not just build another glasshouse or two; he established a whole town, which he called Manheim, near Lancaster, Pennsylvania, a feudal fiefdom of which he was overlord. (At about this time he either was given or took on the sobriquet of “Baron”.) He imported the finest English brick for his buildings, plus hunting tapestries and a grand piano.

Henry Stiegel made it his mission to create a body of American glass equal to the finest produced abroad.

The focus of the compound was the glasshouses, the second of which was a huge dome-shaped structure. Christened the American Flint Glass Manufactory in 1772, it employed a staff of 130 English and Continental workers who drew on their various native traditions to produce glass marked by a delicacy and strength equal to its models and surpassing anything yet made of glass in the New World. Stiegel was the first glassmaker in this country to specialize in flint glass, wherein lead is added to the batch, increasing fusibility and producing a uniquely resonant jewellike luster and tone.

While most of the forms and decorations used at Manheim were imitations of their German and English models, there were a few for which no European precedent has been found. One of these is the diamond-daisy motif illustrated by the piece shown here. Just four and three-quarters inches tall and of a typical short-necked, slightly flattened globular shape, this flask, with its rippling surface permutations, is a splendid example of the expanded mold technique. The glass is first blown into an open or hinged mold about one-third the size of the finished piece. In the mold the glass is impressed with a pattern, then removed and blown by hand to its full size. The pattern, like an imprint on a balloon, expands as it is inflated.

For a time the American Flint Glass Manufactory throve. When Parliament passed the Townshend Acts establishing import duties on British manufactures, including glass, colonists rebelled by buying American goods, and Manheim glass became a status symbol for patriotic colonial householders. But then a confluence of factors—the Baron’s increasingly extravagant life-style and his overestimation of the American glass market—gradually led to his complete financial collapse.

In 1774 Stiegel’s factories were sold by the sheriff, and the owner himself was taken off to debtor’s prison. America’s glass industry did not begin to recover until the 1820s. The Baron’s legacy, however, survives on the shelves of American museums and of those collectors still fortunate enough to find a rare piece at auction.

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