Saturday, November 13, 2010
Dinner Service for Two--No Maid
West Virginia may now be known across the world as a coal producing state, stereotyped as a place of poverty and hillbillies, but one of this region's most important exports to the rest of the country was once--believe it or not--middle class aspirations.
In the nineteen twenties and thirties, this whole area (West Virginia, western Pennsylvania, southeastern Ohio) was the national hub for industries producing glassware, china, and pottery. These industries date back even a century or more earlier here: the region's plentiful supplies of coal and gas, sand and clay, as well as the easy access to rivers (and later railroads) for transporting the finished wares made this part of the country a perfect place for these businesses. Morgantown itself had a number of glass factories in the first half of the twentieth century.
But in the twenties and thirties, glass factories and pottery factories in West Virginia and Ohio actively pursued a new, direct marketing strategy, trying to sell their wares to housewives explicitly as the material supports of an aspirational middle class lifestyle. Not only were magazines barraged by advertisements, but many of these factories produced brochures and booklets as giveaways to potential customers, and I pick them up whenever I can, although they are pretty hard to find. They tell a story very different from what we might normally think abut both this part of the country and how middle class values were sold to the country both before and during the Great Depression.
One of my favorites, for its sheer Art Deco brilliance, is the 1928 New Little Book About Glassware published by the Fostoria Glass Company of Moundsville, WV. A 40-page revision of a similar 1925 booklet (the picture at the top, from which the title of this post derives, comes from the 1925 verison), the 1928 booklet's cover shows a woman few people, I suspect would associate with West Virginia in the 1920s, and the text includes remarkable passages like the following: "No longer is it surprising to have the soup course, the salad, or dessert, the after-dinner coffee appear in Fostoria dishes." Glass is presented as a novelty: the use of glass instead of china for the entire service was a fairly recent development: "At first a complete dinner service of glass sounded like a fairy tale or a glittering dream from Arabian Nights." But a Fostoria service is presented here as analogous to a silver service, a civilized necessity for any house or home. But its essential novelty meant that the idea itself needed to be sold, and these booklets are remarkable for how they mix the snob factor of aspirational class identification with the practical matters of housekeeping: the 1925 booklet shows how to set a table for two if you don't have a maid; the 1928 revision notes "the plates stack perfectly, a point much appreciated by the homemaker whose shelf space is limited."
Amazingly, the beginning of the Great Depression seems to have had remarkably little effect on this marketing strategy. The Roseville Pottery of Zanesville, Ohio, printed the booklet shown at the right in 1931, and the Futura line vases shown below in the picture are especially collectible today for their Art Deco designs. Cambridge Glass (of Cambridge, Ohio) put out a booklet called The Art of Making Fine Glassware in 1939, which begins by recounting the high esteem medieval Venice had for members of the glassworking guild. All of these booklets, in fact, take education as their primary mode: the Fostoria booklets educate the housewife on proper table service, even if she doesn't happen to have a maid to rely on; the Roseville and Cambridge booklets give brief histories of pottery and glass technologies and artistry in order to make recommendations for contemporary decorative uses or gift-giving. The ancient and honorable traditions of glassware and pottery are clearly held up as markers of refinement, tradition, and class. The 1925 Fostoria booklet, for example, comments upon "the conservative aristocracy of hand-blown crystal."
Glass is still being made in West Virginia, but more as a studio enterprise than a matter of factories turning out dinner plates, cups, saucers, and goblets by the thousand. These booklets--secondary products of these glass and pottery factories--seem to be rarely collected by libraries (WorldCat turns up fewer than ten copies for any of these booklets), but they tell a story of a key moment in the marketing of middle class material practices as a matter of aspirational class identity. And it's a continual surprise to me that a lot of that came from here in West Virginia.