Tuesday, April 5, 2011

The American Hen

By: Doug Kendall, Curator of Collections

One of the advantages of working in the Museum’s storage facility is that almost every day I may see interesting artifacts for the first time—or I should say, really see them for the first time. I may have walked by a certain shelf dozens of times but for some reason on a particular day I had a reason to notice the items stored there.

Recently, I was helping inventory and photograph our collection of dolls with Erin Richardson, the Curator of The Farmers’ Museum. On one of the shelves below the dolls we saw a group of white glass objects—table or dresser accessories but in rather unusual shapes: a cannon, a hen, a battleship and another ship topped with a man’s figure.

The objects were made of milk glass or lattimo, which is “opaque white glass, usually opacified by tin oxide or arsenic” according to the Glass Dictionary of the Corning Museum of Glass.

A closer look reveals that these household objects all commemorate an event I’ve blogged about previously: the United States’ victories in the Spanish-American War. And it turns out the donor was the same man who gave the USS Olympia pitcher noted in that post as well as the “Bathing Beauties” stoneware jug I discussed way back in 2009—Preston Bassett of Ridgefield, Connecticut.

In these six objects one finds encapsulated much of the popular feeling about the brief and successful war against Spain: one is molded in the shape of a battleship with the name Maine on the prow, representing the ship that exploded in Havana harbor and precipitated the conflict. Another battleship is ridden by the figure of Uncle Sam, while a third dish has a battleship-form base but is surmounted by a bust of Admiral Dewey, the commander of the US squadron at the Battle of Manila Bay. There’s also a round dish with a drum-like base and a cannon-shaped lid and a cup covered by an eagle.


USS Maine
Westmoreland Glass or McKee Glass, Grapeville or Jeannette, PA, 1898-1910. Gift of Preston Bassett, N0103.1976
Photo: Douglas Kendall

Uncle Sam Rides With the Navy
Westmoreland Glass or McKee Glass, Grapeville or Jeannette, PA, 1898-1910. Gift of Preston Bassett, N0102.1976
Photo: Douglas Kendall



Cannon on a Drum
Westmoreland Glass or McKee Glass, Grapeville or Jeannette, PA, 1898-1910. Gift of Preston Bassett, N0101.1976
Photo: Douglas Kendall




Perhaps most interesting, though, is another oval dish with a base textured to look like a nest and marked “The American Hen.” The lid of this piece is in the form of a bird (more like an eagle than a hen, if you ask me) with wings outstretched, sitting on three eggs marked “Porto Rico,” “Cuba,” and “Phillipines.” This piece indicates the result of the war: the acquisition (for varying periods of time) of these far-flung parts of the declining Spanish empire and the rise of the United States as an international power.

The American Hen

Westmoreland Glass or McKee Glass, Grapeville or Jeannette, PA, 1898-1910. Gift of Preston Bassett, N0104.1976. 
Photo: Douglas Kendall



These commemorative items were made in western Pennsylvania by either the Westmoreland Glass Company or the McKee Glass Company. Although some have old breaks that have been repaired with an adhesive that left stains, these remain instructive artifacts of the pride many Americans felt in their country’s arrival on the world scene back in 1898.

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