WISTARBURGH

A  BRIEF  OVERVIEW

 

      The Wistarburgh Glass Manufactory was in operation from 1738 until the beginning of 1782.     It was located near Alloway in Southern New Jersey.     The name can be found with several spellings.  (Wistarberg) (Wistarburg) (Wistarburgh)   The spelling on a recently found 1760�s map shows the spelling as Wistarsburgh.     Casper Wistar had come to Philadelphia in 1717 and had become a button maker in Philadelphia.   In 1738, he built a glass factory that became the first successful glass factory in America.      Casper was traveling in Salem County on a trip to sell buttons.    The area around Alloway seemed ideal to Casper, as the site of a glass factory, when he noticed the abundance of white sand.   There was sand, clay, wood, and water transportation nearby.    Casper had some experience with a factory requiring heat.    He had previously owned two iron forges in Berks County.    This  had prepared him to know what to look for when looking for a site for a glass factory that needed a good supply of wood for fuel.   As for actually building and working the glass factory, he arranged to have four experienced glass workers come over from Europe.       Casper created a profit sharing system with the four glass workers to insure their full support.      The products of the glass factory were flat glass for windows and various types of utility and beverage bottles.     Some tableware may have been made, but not as the normal production, at least tableware did not show up in the advertisements of the products.      There were also many other workers required to operate a glass factory, so Casper had workers homes built near the glass factory.   A mansion was built to accommodate the factory manager and to serve as a place for him to stay when he visited the factory.    A storehouse was built to provide the needs of the workers and other local residents.   Much of the wages of the workers was probably as credit in the store.    Casper helped his friend Ben Franklin, by having scientific glassware made at the factory.    Casper Wistar died in 1752, leaving the glass factory to his son Richard. When Richard ran the glass business, he made an effort to increase the volume and the items of production.     Richard ran the glass business mostly from Philadelphia as his father had.      Neither Casper nor Richard actually worked with the molten glass.     When they needed additional glass workers, they made contacts in Europe, and experienced workers were obtained to come to America.      As a resident of Philadelphia, Casper had observed a need for certain glass items, but was also mindful that the English Law did not allow for the manufacture, in the colonies, of anything that would be in competition with England.       For this reason, much that was written during the time of operation inferred a less than successful glass factory.      The real success of the Glass factory can better be measured in the wealth accumulated by Casper and his son Richard.       When Richard died, he owned a large amount of land in Philadelphia, and he left his sons in a position that they didn�t need to work.      In 1781, Richard attempted to sell the glass factory with no success.       Historians declare that the glass factory closed due to the Revolutionary War.   Yet at this same time, several of the Wistarburgh glass workers left Wistarburgh to start their own glass factory 25 miles away in Glassboro, NJ.      The more plausible reason for the decline of Wistarburgh was the lack of an easily accessible supply of wood.     The accessible wood at Wistarburgh had been used over the years, while there was plenty of wood in Glassboro.      The required wood to fuel a glass factory is 10 to 20 years old.     The remaining large 50 to 100 year old oak trees in Salem County were not suitable because of the extra labor of splitting the wood to the proper size.      In Glassboro, there was an ample supply of pines that were the perfect size.     In any case, a letter from Richard�s son Thomas, on Dec. 28th 1781, indicates he is working at the glass factory and that his main chore is to have the crews bring in fire wood.      This dates the factory closure to sometime after Dec. 28, 1781.

    The Wistarburgh Glass Manufactory, with its 40 plus years of production, is considered by some historians as the first successful manufacturing site in America, in addition to being the first successful glass factory.  Despite this, there continues to be a reluctance to attribute specific production items to the Wistarburgh Glass Factory.  This is in sharp contrast to the wide range of products attributed to other short-lived 18th century glass manufactories.  Certainly some of the early bottles in today's market, which are attributed to various other sources, are actually from this first glass factory.  While it is true that a majority of the production at Wistarburgh was dedicated to flat glass and that this glass factory was probably the only source of such flat window glass other than England, a wide variety of bottles were also part of the production coming from the factory furnaces during its 40 years of  operations.  Although few items other than flat glass have been attributed to Wistarburgh production, there have been several pieces labeled as being made at Wistarburgh.  These pieces are mostly tableware items and were probably for personal use by employer or employees because they are not mentioned in any of the known advertisements issued by Casper or Richard Wistar.  They were probably made at the end of the day with leftover glass.  It was this end-of-day work on utilitarian and whimsical items which eventually led to the rise of American folk art in glass and the South Jersey glass folk art tradition.  Both of these trends continued into the twentieth century and can be found being practiced even today.

      As for what actually happened to the glass factory at Wistarburgh, it is not really known.     One possible key may be a lease agreement drawn up in March of 1782.     This agreement indicates the buildings and property to be leased.    It indicates that a room must be maintained in the mansion as a place to stay for any of the Wistars who might visit from Philadelphia.    Many other buildings are mentioned, but not a single glass factory type building is mentioned, nor is there any mention of a restricted area which might have contained the glass factory.     With this in mind, it would suggest that the glass factory had been demolished by March of 1782.       The field where the glass factory stood has remained a pasture from then to today, gradually allowing 18th century glass artifacts to be found on the surface.      Gradual archeological investigation may lead to the location of some of the specific buildings and give a better view of the products of the Wistarburgh Glass Factory.

 

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