In the four centuries or so that glass has been made in the United States, southern New Jersey has featured large in the manufacture of finished glass in the production of the raw materials that go other glass manufacturers across the country. So when Dr. Theodore C. Wheaton of Millville, New Jersey became pharmacist T.C. Wheaton, he recognized that he was in a prime location to make glass bottles for his two pharmacies. He was, after all, just down the road from the first successful American glass factory in Alloway, NJ. So he bought into a small glass company in Millville that soon became the T.C. Wheaton Company. This company eventually went on to have 41 factories throughout the United States and subsidiaries in 20 countries. When T.C. died in 1931, his son Frank Sr. took over (and was active in the company until his death at the age of 102!) As Frank Sr. traveled the country looking at glass making centers like Corning, NY and Pittsburgh, PA, he came to believe that there should be a museum dedicated to American glass, and his feeling was that it should be there in the cradle of American glass, southern New Jersey.
It was not until after his own son, Frank Jr. took over the company that his dream would take shape outside of Millville in a place called Wheaton Village.
Founded in the mid 1970’s, the centerpiece of Wheaton Village is The Museum of American Glass which houses an amazing collection of historic glass, contemporary glass and paperweights that is really surprising and impressive. The very first piece (?) you encounter upon entering is by Susan Taylor Glasgow, entitled “The Communal Nest” which is, as the title suggests, a large (8′ diameter!) sort of bird’s nest that is an assemblage of wood and glass “twigs” painstakingly arranged around a single chair. Somewhat messy at the core, it is true to the artist’s statement: “I have always embraced femininity and domesticity in spirit, but not in action. My life as an artist puts housekeeping last, while instead I cook, arrange, and sew glass.” I can identify with that…
The museum also holds treasures by Dale Chihuly, one of my personal icons of contemporary glass, as well as historic pieces from such companies as Mount Washington and Stuben. I was very impressed by the depth of the collection.
In addition to entrance to the museum, your $10 admission charge gets you into the glass studio and ceramics studio where you are treated to ongoing demonstrations of glass blowing and wheel thrown ceramics. I especially enjoyed the glass blowing demo – I’ve seen several such demonstrations and this one was great from the standpoint of the extra person on hand to narrate and explain every part of the process. This frees up the artisans to do the work without the distraction of questions and blow-by-blow (as it were) explanation. Likewise in the ceramics studio, one person concentrated on the pot on the wheel, and another fielded questions and explained the eventual process for the pots being produced. He explained historic glazing techniques such as “salt glazing” and what happens with a wood fired kiln. In that same building, a lampworker was making glass beads, and was more than willing to answer any questions about what she was making as we watched.
It is my understanding that the center offers a number of classes in glass and ceramics – it’s probably a good thing I don’t live closer.
There was surprisingly little information available about the center itself, and with my internet connection tonight based on stormy weather and a missed satellite connection, I’m really unable to get into the website. So I’m not sure of the size of the place in terms of area covered. I have learned that the place grew from whole cloth in the 70’s, so the disconcertingly 1880’s kind of atmosphere is contrived. It has, however, acquired a certain patina that makes it work, and there are enough authentic details to make it almost work as an illusion of a glass blowing village. It is a lovely setting, for all that, and a great place to spend more time than I actually anticipated when I arrived.
There really is quite a bit to see, even on an early fall midweek day. Come the 1st and 2nd of October, they have a “Festival of Fine Craft” and with over 125 juried artisan vendors selling everything from glass to wearable art, I’ll just bet the place is a great place to Christmas shop. (www.wheatonarts.org)
By the way, the snack shop made a simply wonderful brown bag lunch to enjoy at the picnic tables under the big trees.