Wednesday, January 5, 2011

History in Glass: the USS Olympia commemorative pitcher

Douglas Kendall, Curator of Collections

A few weeks ago, I wrote about my visit to Philadelphia for the Mid-Atlantic Association of Museums annual meeting. Moored near the conference hotel is one of America’s most famous naval vessels, USS Olympia, a National Historic Landmark and Admiral George Dewey’s flagship during the Spanish-American War. At least $10 million is now needed to prevent Olympia from sinking into Philadelphia harbor.

If such a fate seems unfortunate today, it would have been unthinkable in the aftermath of Dewey’s stunning victory at the Battle of Manila Bay. Admiral Dewey, Captain Charles Vernon Gridley and Olympia herself were amongst the best-known heroes of the Spanish American War, which established the United States as a world power.

Americans love to commemorate heroes and manufacturers love to fill the need for commemorative items. We have an Olympia commemorative pitcher in the Fenimore Art Museum collection that was made soon after the Battle of Manila Bay by the Beatty-Brady Glass Company of Dunkirk, Indiana. The pressed glass pitcher is illustrated with a bust of Dewey, the famous words with which he began the battle (“Gridley, you may fire when ready.”), and a list of the ships in Dewey’s fleet.

Pitcher, Bust of Admiral Dewey

Pitcher, front view

Pitcher, list of ships in fleet
Pressed glass, Beatty-Brady Glass Company, Dunkirk, IN, ca. 1898-1900. Gift of Preston Bassett, N0098.1976

Pressed glass technology allowed mass production of elaborately decorated glassware and this pitcher is a fine example of that technique. Around the base of the pitcher, the glassmakers employed a motif of minie balls or artillery shells. An eagle sits atop the United State shield above the Dewey quotation. A marine holds the American flag. Sunbursts and other small decorative elements complete the ornamentation of the pitcher.

You can still buy Olympia commemoratives at the Independence Seaport Museum shop, but none so elaborate as the Beatty-Brady pitcher. One hopes that the commemoratives don’t outlast that which they celebrate.

REMINDER! Here is the list of the candidates for the exhibition voting. The poll appears on the right. Cast your vote!

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