1989 The Wistars and their Glass 1739 – 1777


A dozen or so glasshouses were established in the American Colonies in the 170 years of settlement before the Revolution. Very little is known about these pioneer endeavors and only a few objects can be positively associated with them. Several glassworks failed in the 17th century and the industry was revived in 1739 with a glassworks near Alloway, New Jersey. The factory built by Caspar Wistar (1696-1752) of Philadelphia and continued by his son, Richard (1727-81), endured nearly forty years and apparently produced glass continuously until the Revolutionary War. Other colonial entrepreneurs entered the glassmaking business, but none were able to repeat the Wistars’ success.

The first glasshouses built at Jamestown in 1607 and 1621 were undertaken with the idea of sending glasswares back to England, where glassmakers struggled to compete with Continental products. But, by the end of the century, English glassmakers had risen to prominence for their brilliant and heavy-lead formula table glass. The American Colonies were naturally perceived as an important market for these wares. Still, there were ambitious colonists like the Wistars who were determined to compete with British imports and make their own bottles, windowpanes, and tablewares. This was a decision that could not be made lightly since glasshouses required considerable capital to erect and maintain, and the manufacturing process was based on raw materials of very specific properties. The greatest challenge was finding craftsmen who were trained in what was considered the “art and mystery” of making glass. Restrictions on the emigration of British artisans meant that most of the glassblowers who came to the colonies hailed from continental Europe, especially areas of Germany and Bohemia.

Caspar Wistar himself was a German immigrant who arrived in Philadelphia in September, 1717. When he left his home in the small farming community Hilsbach, near the Neckar River in Baden he had no idea of his future in glassmaking. The eldest son of Hans (Johannes) Caspar and Anna Catharina Wuster, Caspar received no formal education in his childhood. His father served as forester or huntsman to the Elector Palatine and Caspar was expected to follow suit. After a four-year apprenticeship he worked in the forests for two years before being lured to the New World. He later wrote that his family and friends “all tried to sway me” from making the journey. Parting was very difficult, but, as Wistar recalled, “My heart was so taken with the new land that I would not be able to stay.” So he traveled to nearby Heidelberg and from there set off to Rotterdam to embark on the ship for Philadelphia.


Wistar’s training as a prince’s huntsman did him little practical good in the American Colonies. By his own account, he had but nine pence to his name when he landed, and he even owed three pence. After spending five pence on a loaf of bread, he found work on the docks hauling ashes. Soon he learned the trade of brass button making. Exactly how this came about is not known, nor has the button maker he trained with been identified. Caspar in turn instructed his son, Richard, who carried on the business, probably into the 1770s.

Buttons were a necessary part of 18th century clothing and were made in many materials, from silver to glass to mohair. In this period brass ones were designed for utility rather than show and chosen for strength rather than fashion. The Wistars’ brass buttons were guaranteed to last seven years. Their durability and low cost (about thirteen and a half pence per dozen wholesale) meant that Wistar buttons were especially suitable for the clothing of the working classes.

Eighteenth century dictionaries and encyclopedias describe the various methods of making buttons out of brass. Round pieces of brass were cut from large sheets then hammered with convex punches upon concave wooden molds to form the button cap or plate. The button maker decorated the caps by using iron punches with an engraved pattern. Sometimes the cap was filled with cement to strengthen it as well as preserve the decoration. A flat brass disc affixed with a wire eye was then soldered to the cap. Finally, the entire button was turned on a lathe to set and polish the rim. Simpler brass buttons were made of a flat disc onto which an eye was soldered. Sometimes brass was cast into a single disc.

“Philadelphia” buttons as made by the Wistars became famous throughout the colonies. After an apprenticeship with Caspar Wistar, Henry Whiteman opened his own brass button manufactory in New York City in 1750, where he claimed to make “Philadelphia” buttons. In 1760 he warned the public there are a “great many of the counterfeit sold in this City, for Philadelphia Buttons, which, upon Trial, has been found to break very soon.” Unfortunately, it is not known what visual characteristics these “Philadelphia” buttons had in addition to their renowned durability.  The buttons exhibited here descended in the Wistar family and are believed to be examples of the famous Wistar buttons.

The Wistar Family

Both Caspar and Richard Wistar styled themselves as brass button makers throughout their lives, although that trade was not the major source of their income. Of course, it was the initial success of his buttons that launched Caspar Wistar on his career. Only four years after arriving as an impoverished immigrant, he was able to buy a house and lot on Market Street, a “large and spacious” street that would quickly be “composed of the best houses in the city.”

After Wistar mastered a trade and acquired some property, he turned to the matter of family. He converted to the Quaker faith in 1725 and married Catherine Jansen (Johnson) of a prominent Germantown Quaker family. Wistar’s conversion proved to be a sound financial move, because Philadelphia’s rapidly expanding economy was largely due to the efforts of a select group of Quaker merchants. The ties of religion were strong and even though he was German and probably never became fully fluent in English, Wistar was assimilated into this elite group. Caspar Wistar was clearly destined to succeed. During the thirty-five years he lived in America he amassed one of the greatest fortunes of the period: at his death in 1752 his estate was valued at over £ 26,000, a sum that did not include the value of the glassworks or any of his lands in New Jersey. This dramatic success is not fully explained by the few surviving records. The most plausible explanation is that like so many colonists, Wistar was an inveterate land speculator and created the bulk of his fortune by buying and selling land. By 1738 he was successful enough to consider investment in the risky business of glassmaking.

A special act of the Pennsylvania Assembly was passed in 1724 to enable Wistar “to Trade and to buy and hold Lands” in the province of Pennsylvania. Records indicate he was quick to become involved in the real estate market. In 1730 Wistar bought 2,000 acres for seven pounds per hundred acres. Seven years later he sold the tract for fifty-three pounds (Pennsylvania currency) per hundred acres.  Allowing for the exchange differential between sterling and the provincial currency, Wistar’s profit was about five hundred percent. He also sold land to the Penns, as verified by a deed documenting the sale of 10,000 acres in Lancaster County to Thomas Penn for the sum of £ 1,818. When he wrote his will, Wistar made specific bequests of Pennsylvania lands that totalled nearly 6,200 acres in addition to seven lots of land with buildings in and around Philadelphia. Richard Wistar in turn added significantly to the Wistar holdings in Cumberland County and Salem County, New Jersey.

On official documents, Caspar Wistar is often identified as a “merchant,” a term which reflects another aspect of his business life. He had a retail store on Market Street in Philadelphia in addition to his button manufactory. Correspondence between Wistar and several merchants abroad shows that he imported a diversity of German goods to resell, from spectacles to textiles. After the glassworks opened at Wistarburgh, he stocked a “country store” there. This became an important source of supplies, not only for the factory workers and their families but also for the neighboring population. When the glassworks was put up for sale after the Revolution, the description of the property included “a convenient Store-house, where a well assorted retail Shop has been kept above 30 years; is as good a stand for the sale of goods as any in the county”.

The Glassworks

Exactly what led Caspar Wistar to build a glassworks may never be known. There were numerous glasshouses in Baden but none in the immediate vicinity of his hometown, Hilsbach. In his autobiographical notes he makes no mention of glassmaking in Germany. There were earlier unsuccessful glassmaking attempts in the colonies, however. Caspar must have been aware of another glassworks erected in the Northern Liberties outside Philadelphia by the Free Society of Traders in 1683, because it was still standing in 1736 and he owned property himself in the Northern Liberties. Richard Wistar, however, seems to have believed that their New Jersey glassworks was the first to be erected in North America.

Certainly any businessman would have been encouraged by the tremendous economic growth the mid-Atlantic region experienced in the early 18th century. In 1739, the same year Wistar began to make glass, Philadelphia had a population of 10,000 people and was the “admiration of all people, who saw or heard of its flourishing Condition, in Lands, Improvement in building, houses, and shipping. Manufacture of many kinds, Encrease in plenty, Commerce and Trade and great numbers of Inhabitants.”

In considering a glassworks, Wistar would have looked beyond the markets of Philadelphia to the rural communities of Pennsylvania and New Jersey where the numbers of inhabitants were also rapidly increasing.

The initiative for the glassworks may have come not from Wistar’s vision but from an overseas correspondent. From the beginning the venture was conceived as a partnership between Wistar and four glassblowers known as the United Glass Company. Perhaps the four glassblowers decided, like many of their countrymen, that America could provide more opportunity than Europe, with the glass industry in decline in Germany in the early 18th century. With their specialized skills and limited personal resources, however, such craftsmen would have wanted to be sure there were willing investors to underwrite their endeavor. They may have approached German businessmen Wistar knew, who in turn proposed the idea to Wistar on their behalf.

It is difficult to assess the market for glass in the region prior to 1738 to see if Wistar was encouraged by the demand. Philadelphia’s two newspapers published in the 1720s carried only three advertisements for glass, but by 1740 there were over twenty merchants who carried glasswares as part of a general stock. While much of the glass used in 17th century America came from Venice and other Continental glassmaking centers, the occurrence of Continental glass in the Colonies diminished significantly in the 18th century with the rise of the British glass industry. Among the few examples of central European glass known to have been used in colonial America are the presentation goblets made for Caspar and Richard Wistar, probably in one of the Thuringian glasshouses.

Just as the British government sought to prevent the importation of goods from the Continent, it was also determined to discourage rival manufactures in the Colonies themselves. Central to English colonial policy was the understanding that colonies would provide markets, not competition, for British products. Not surprisingly, the erection of the Wistar glassworks and the fact that it was “brought to perfection so as to make Glass” was quickly reported to the Lords Commissioners for Trade and Plantations through the customs collector at the port of Salem. As Richard Wistar said, “It was not for Honour of England to Suffer Manufactories in the Colonies.”

While some colonial authorities seemed to ignore the Crown policy towards manufactures, the New Jersey House of Representatives seemed, in the opinion of the Wistars, to be acting against the interests of the Colonies. When the House determined to increase the taxes levied on the glassworks, the partners petitioned for relief, pointing out that “the Making of Glass is…a Considerable Advantage to the Country, not only as it saves the Money that must otherwise be sent abroad for that Commodity, but as it brings Cash in, for Quantities exported to other Colonies.” British policy notwithstanding, they stated that “it is no unusual Thing in Wise Governments to encourage new Manufactures, by Granting Bounties and Immunities to those who Introduce them.”

In this same period the company faced county taxes that had risen dramatically; in 1746 the glassworks paid twenty shillings, besides an additional charge levied on Wistar for his role as a merchant. The following year the glasshouse tax was forty shillings and by 1749 the amount was increased to three pounds. Indeed, the general feeling in the province was that the glassworks was quite profitable, though the Wistars themselves claimed only that the works had “yielded but small profits,” and had been of greater benefit to the public than to their own pockets.

In 1752, when Jonathan Belcher was governor of New Jersey, his opinion was sought by some would-be glass entrepreneurs in Massachusetts. He wrote, “there is no Wiser or better Measure to go into for retrieving the Miserable Circumstances of your Province than to promote Manufactures among Your selves.” Indeed, Belcher “often wondered that Gentlemen of Substance have not long before this Set up a Glass House for which you are much better Accommodated than any one can be in this Province where such a work has already turn’d out to Great Profit.”

Thus, in some quarters, domestic manufactures began to be encouraged and supported, while to the Crown their importance and success were minimized. Sixteen years after Belcher’s advice, each governor was asked to submit a report on the manufactures in his province. New Jersey’s Governor at the time was William Franklin. His father, Benjamin Franklin, referred to the reports from the other provinces in outlining what his son’s response should be:

“They are all very much in the same strain, that there are no manufactures of any consequence;… All speak of the dearness of labour that makes manufactures impracticable…These accounts are very satisfactory here, and induce the parliament to despise & take no notice of the Boston resolutions…You have only to report a glass-house for coarse window glass and bottles…”

Governor Franklin understood the implication. His report to Whitehall includes the following disdainful description of Wistarburgh:

“Glass House was erected about Twenty years ago in Salem County, which makes Bottles and a very coarse Green Glass for Windows, used only in some houses of the poorest Sort of People. The Profits by this Work have not hitherto been sufficient it seems to induce any Persons to set up more of the like kind in this Colony…”

Without complete factory records it is difficult to determine the financial status of Wistarburgh The one extant account book covers the period between the 1741/42 and 1766/67 seasons and indicates that over the twenty-six year period the four original glassblowers produced a total of £ 38,964 worth of glass. The company’s expenses for those years amounted to £ 9,072. These sums may not represent the complete output of the factory but only the arrangements among the factory’s four founders.

In the late 1760s British glasswares disappeared from the colonial marketplace as a result of the Townshend Acts and nonimportation agreements. This had a significant impact upon America’s infant glass industry. A few colonists decided to start up new glasshouses. Henry William Stiegel, who had been making glass in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania since 1764, hired English glassblowers to create English-style glass to fill the void in the marketplace. Richard Wistar could have followed suit but chose instead to stay with German craftsmen.

Some colorless and colored tableglass may have been tried at Wistarburgh at this time, but the focus of production remained utilitarian. Wistar did remind the public that because his glass “is of American manufacture, it is consequently clear of the duties of American manufacture, duties the Americans so justly complain of; and at present it seems peculiarly the interest of America to encourage her own manufactures, more especially those upon which duties have been imposed for the sole purpose of raising a revenue”. Wistar’s position was ironic because he had been, and continued to be, an importer of English window and table glass.

Little is known about Wistarburgh during the turbulent years leading up to the Revolution and the exact circumstances surrounding the closing of the works are not clear. In letters to her husband, Sarah Wistar, lamented “the Cares & troubles attending Carrying that business on,” and alluded to worker unrest. Glass continued to be made in the early years of the Revolution, but the factory seems to have closed down its operations sometime in late 1776 or 1777. A letter written from the glasshouse in January, 1778 indicates that almost everyone had left the premises by that date. Two months later the New Jersey militia moved its headquarters to the glassworks. Richard Wistar advertised the property for sale in 1780 but it remained for his children to divide up the land after he died the following year.

Factory Operations

Caspar Wistar’s plans for the glassworks must have been well underway in 1738 because in that year he acquired over 2,000 acres of land along Alloways Creek, eight miles from Salem, New Jersey. The site is designated as the “Glass  H.[house]” on colonial maps from at least 1758 through 1776. Wistar’s choice of a well-wooded tract indicates his attention to the tremendous fuel needs of the glass furnaces. Locating a glassworks on navigable water was important for transportation of raw materials and finished products. Benjamin Franklin must have echoed Wistar’s reasoning when he advised another potential glass manufacturer that “By Means of the navigable Water [you can] carry your Glass to market cheaper and with less Risque of Breakage.”

No contemporary illustrations of the glassworks are known, but a period advertisement and a letter provide many details about the glassmaking facilities and operations. When Richard Wistar put the property on the market his advertisement was fairly detailed:

“The GLASS MANUFACTORY in Salem County, West Jersey, is for sale, with 1500 Acres of Land adjoining. It contains two Furnaces, with all the necessary Ovens for cooling the Glass, drying Wood, &c. Contiguous to the Manufactory are two flatting Ovens in separate Houses, a Store-house, Pot-house, a House fitted with Tables for the cutting of Glass, a stamping Mill, a rolling Mill for the preparing of Clay for making of Pots; and at a suitable distance are ten Dwelling-houses for the Workmen; as likewise a large Mansion-house, containing six Rooms on a Floor, with Bakehouse and Washhouse: Also a convenient Store-house…There are about 250 Acres of cleared Land within fence, 100 whereof is mowable meadow, which produces hay and pasturage sufficient for the large stock of cattle and horses employed by the Manufactory. There is Stabling sufficient for 60 head of cattle, with a large Barn Granary, and Waggon-house. The unimproved Land is well wooded, and 200 Acres more of meadow may be made. The situation and conveniency for procuring materials, is equal if not superior to any place in Jersey.”

According to this description, the main building included two furnaces where the glass was melted and worked. The “necessary Ovens” probably included a fritting oven where preliminary melting took place as well as a lehr where the glass was gradually cooled (annealed). The wood for these furnaces had to be thoroughly dried, hence the reference to an oven for that purpose. Auxiliary buildings contained the flattening ovens for making window glass and the equipment needed to cut the large sheets into panes of the desired sizes.

More specific information about the operation of the glasshouse can be learned from Benjamin Franklin. In 1746 he received a letter from Thomas Darling of New Haven who wanted to build a glasshouse in Connecticut. Darling had heard of Wistar’s undertaking and sent Franklin a list of detailed questions. Franklin was in a good position to answer this query. He was a neighbor of Wistar’s on Market Street and the request came just at the time when Franklin was working closely with Wistar on the production of glass needed for his scientific experiments.

Franklin describes the furnace as a rectangular one typical of German technology: “about 12 foot long, 8 wide, 6 high, has no Grate, the Fire being made on its Floor…On each Side in the Furnace is a Bench or Bank of the same Materials with Furnace, on which the Pots of Metal stand, 3 or 4 of a Side.” He noted that the furnace was built of bricks of white clay which needed to be “renew’d every Blast.” As Wistar told Governor Belcher, “The Clay for the Furnace bottoms was but poor and often gave way.” Franklin reported that the glasshouse consumed 2,400 cords of wood annually. The heat of the furnaces was so intense that in the New Jersey climate the glassblowers could only work from October to May.

Finding suitable clay for the pots was a continuous problem. Franklin claimed they had initially imported clay from England but that a source had been found locally. Caspar Wistar told Governor Belcher he had not “yet been able to find any Clay that will stand the fire,” and as a result the pots broke frequently. So important was good clay, that when they did find a local source the Wistars refused to reveal its whereabouts.

South Jersey sand was the primary ingredient of Wistarburgh glass with additions of potashes and lime. Other ingredients, such as manganese, were needed for the refined table glass. As glassmakers have done throughout history, the Wistarburgh glassblowers recycled broken bits of glass (cullet) to facilitate the melting and coloring of their batches.

The Workers

However Caspar Wistar came to the idea of building a glassworks, the men responsible for the realization of his dream were four German immigrants who apparently traveled to America specifically to build and operate the Wistarburgh glassworks. Hans Martin Halter (1712-67), Johan Wilhelm Wentzel (1703-61), Caspar Halter (1712-61), and Simeon Griesmayer (1718-48) sailed from Rotterdam on the ship Two Sisters and landed in Philadelphia in September, 1738.

William Wentzel was the eldest of the four. While his exact lineage has not been traced, Wentzels were among the twenty-four most important glassmaking families in Germany since the 15th century. They blew glass in Bohemia, Hesse, Mecklenburg, Schleswig-Holstein, and Thuringia. Wentzel and his wife Anna Maria had six sons, some of whom may have followed their father in the glassblowing trade.

Simeon Griesmayer was only twenty years old when he arrived in Philadelphia and he also came from a family long associated with glass. At the time of his birth, his father, John Martin Griesmayer, was blowing glass at the Rodalben glasshouse in Pfalz. Simeon probably began work as a young boy in the Hassell glassworks where his father was employed as superintendent between 1723 and 1730. The family then moved to the Forbach glassworks in Lorraine and it was from there that Simeon headed for Rotterdam and a new life in New Jersey. Griesmayer lived only another ten years, until 1748.

Little is known about Hans Martin Halter and Caspar Halter, including whether or how they were related. When Caspar Halter died in 1761 his estate was valued at £ 33.19.6 and included “Sundry Glass Ware & Hogs Lard” valued at £ 1.15.6. Hans Martin Halter had amassed a somewhat greater fortune by the time of his death. His son, Peter, was trained as a glassmaker and also worked at Wistarburgh.

Although Franklin believed there were six blowers in 1747, the identity of any other glassblowers at that time is not clear. Christian Nassel was in Alloway by 1750, but in the 1760s he left to work for rival glassmaker Henry William Stiegel in Manheim, Pennsylvania. Christian Gratinger who is mentioned in the Wistar records, may also have defected to Stiegel.

The operations of a glassworks required the work of many hands besides the skilled glassblowers. According to Richard Wistar, the company employed twenty-eight people in addition to woodcutters in the mid-1750s. These would have included stone masons to repair or rebuild the various furnaces, men to stoke the oven fires, and others to pack and haul the finished glasswares. For some of these tasks the Wistars engaged local laborers on a daily or weekly basis, but like many others in the Middle colonies, they also relied heavily upon the labor of indentured servants.

For Europeans who wished to immigrate to the New World, but lacked the means to pay for the trans-Atlantic crossing, there was the option of traveling as indentured servants. In exchange for the cost of passage a person sold his labor for a period of time, often four years. During that time his master would provide lodging, food, and clothes. The number of newspaper notices for runaways from the Wistars as well as other employers indicates that retaining servant labor was a chronic problem.

The situation was exacerbated during the French and Indian War when indentured servants became the special prey of army recruiting sergeants. With the threat of French invasion on the northern and western boundaries of the Colonies in 1754, the British government decided to fill out the skeleton ranks of British regiments with colonial recruits. Pressured to meet their quotas, recruiters scoured the countryside in search of able men, and resorted to a range of tricks to secure them. Indentured servants were natural candidates as such men were “glad to goe into the Army to get rid of their slavery.” Indeed, it was felt they made “the best soldiers… in America, not being as yet debauched and much hardier than the natives.”

German-speaking servants in the mid-Atlantic Colonies were targeted for recruitment in the Royal American Regiment, headed by officers of German and Swiss nationality. As shown by Richard Wistar’s memorials to the Earl of Loudoun, head of His Majesty’s forces in North America, this scheme was successful. In one petition Wistar states that twelve servants had been recruited. His other, presumably second, letter mentions sixteen and he pleaded for intercession with the officers of the Royal American Regiment. A prime concern of those who lost servants to the army was, naturally, the loss of their financial investment. Governor Belcher had announced his intention to “recommend to the Assembly the repaying the Masters of such indented Servants, as shall engage in His Majesty’s Service, the Money paid by them for such Servants,” but added that in this endeavor, “I have very little Hope of Success.” Only after Lord Loudoun arrived in late July, 1756 did it become generally known that compensation was, in fact, the law. In the meantime, many civil suits had been filed against the government.

Wistar’s claims for “relief and protection” do not center on the lost investment of his servants-turned-soldiers, but rather on the threat to the very survival of the glassworks. He said he could not operate the business with hired hands, and if more of his servants were enlisted he would be “Disabled from Carrying on.” Wistar waived aside the consequences a shutdown would have on his own finances, but hoped to appeal to his Lordship’s compassion by noting that several of the company were “really Poor People” whose long labors to bring the glassworks to perfection and profit would be for naught.

In the second appeal, Wistar added yet another reason for exemption in stating he was planning to erect a potash works at Wistarburgh. Potashes were such an important commodity for British manufacturers of glass and soap that the government had encouraged another colonist in this endeavor with a £ 3000 grant. If Wistar was forced to close the glassworks for want of hands, he would not be able to supply potash and Loudoun would, in effect, be undermining government policy. It is not known whether or not Wistar ever realized his goal of a commercial trade in potashes.

Wistar must have received some satisfaction from his petitions because the company record book proves that the production of glass continued unabated throughout the 1750s. The value of glass produced in the 1761-62 season did drop by over forty percent, but this was probably due to the death of both William Wentzel and Caspar Halter in the summer of 1761 and not to any wartime stress.

Although the four original blowers must have trained others in the glassblowing trade over the years, additional master gaffers were required. In time a family of glass craftsmen by the name of Stanger or Stenger was secured. They are best known for the numerous New Jersey glasshouses they founded after Wistarburgh closed. Johan Adam Stanger and his six sons landed in Philadelphia in 1768 and apparently assumed a leading role at Wistarburgh, although no factory records are available to document this. Besides Peter Halter, the only other glassblower who has been identified for the later period is Andrew Road, who died in 1780.


Windowpanes and Bottles

The primary purpose of the Wistarburgh glassworks throughout its history was to create utilitarian objects needed in the daily lives of the colonists. These fall into two major categories: windowpanes and bottles and other containers.

By the time the glassworks was erected, window glass was in general use in the Middle Colonies. As late as 1756, however, a southern importer wrote that “None but the better Sort of People Glaze their Houses.” That same merchant also reported that panes of seven by nine size “will Never Sell in this Country, [and that] The Sashes in General are of 8 by 10.”

In 1752 most of the 22,849 feet of window glass in stock in Caspar Wistar’s Philadelphia store was in panes of eight by ten size. Demand apparently increased during the 1760s for window glass of other sizes because in 1765 Richard Wistar advertised “most sizes of Window Glass, as 9 by 11, 8 by 10, 7 by 9, 6 by 8, 7 by 5 &c.” According to a 1769 advertisement, “uncommon sizes under 16 by 18 are cut on a short notice.” The cost of window glass varied with its size. In 1752, the Jersey panes ranged between six and seven pence per foot. Richard’s brother sold the family’s “American Window Glass” in New York City, where he claimed it would be “sold at a lower Rate than can be imported from Europe.”

Richard Wistar’s mention of “flatting” houses in his 1780 description of the glassworks facilities indicates that window glass was manufactured there by the cylinder technique. In this process the gaffer blew and shaped a long, hollow cylinder, about one foot in diameter and up to four feet in length. This was then slit lengthwise and placed on an iron shovel in a special “flatting” oven where the heat would cause the cylinder to unfurl into a flat sheet. Once annealed, the sheet was cut into panes of the desired sizes. These could be quite even in thickness but often had wavy marks as a result of the hot glass coming into contact with the metal shovel. A piece of greenish window glass that was originally in the 1772 Salem Friends Meeting House was made by this method and may well represent the typical Wistar product.

There is no evidence that “bull’s eye” panes were ever made at Wistarburgh. These were produced using the crown method of making window glass. A gather was shaped into a flattened globe, then the solid iron rod known as a pontil was attached to the flat side and the blowpipe was cracked off. By spinning the reheated glass “crown” on the pontil, the hole left by the blowpipe was enlarged and the disk flattened out into a large circular sheet. When the pontil was removed a scar or “bull’s eye” remained.

The Wistars imported English crown glass, implying that this type of window glass was not made at their South Jersey factory. Richard Wistar remarked to a Bristol glassmaker that half his customers would only be satisfied with imported crown glass.  For regular windows, London crown glass was most desirable, but quantities of less expensive green-tinted Bristol and Newcastle crown glass were exported to the colonies. “Common” cylinder window glass from Newcastle was on occasion considered “so Miserable a Couler (color)” but was no cheaper than the crown.

According to the clerk of a rival glassworks in Germantown, Massachusetts, which operated in the 1750s and 60s, there was much more profit in the production of window glass than in bottles. Bottles, however, were great necessities in colonial life. They were used to store wines, distilled spirits and many other foods and liquids, as well as more unusual items.  Richard Wistar shipped a “Bottle with Spirits” to a scientifically-minded English friend. The bottle contained a large bullfrog and was certainly of his own manufacture.

Nearly 8,000 bottles were in Caspar Wistar’s Market Street shop when he died in 1752. They ranged from gallon bottles at seventeen shillings a dozen to small, probably half-pint, pocket bottles valued at three and a half shillings a dozen. The glassworks produced “most sorts of bottles,” including the standard wine-type bottles with squat or cylindrical bodies and long necks, from quart to gallon capacities. Half-pint and pint-sized bottles, probably of flask or “pocket” form, were also manufactured at Wistarburgh. The blowers made many “case” bottles, so named because their elongated flat-sided shapes, achieved by blowing into a special mold, were designed to fit into compartmentalized wooden boxes or cases. These were available from the Wistars in two- and three-quart capacities. Small bottles for snuff and mustard were also significant Wistar products and customers could place orders for special sizes and shapes.

Wistarburgh bottles had to compete with thousands of English bottles exported annually to colonial America. The English ones were renowned for their sturdiness and were usually blown of a very dark thick green glass. These characteristics were a direct result of the high temperature, coal-fired furnaces used in English glasshouses. The typical English bottle was made with a high “kick” or pushup in the bottom and had an applied string rim at the lip. Many were personalized by means of an applied blob or seal of glass onto which was impressed the name or initials of the owner. Often these seals were dated.

The bottle made for Richard Wistar at his New Jersey glasshouse follows the English fashion and carries a seal with the initials “RW.” Its straight-bodied shape parallels that of English bottles of the mid-18th century. The Wistarburgh bottle varies markedly from the English examples in other respects. It has thin walls of clear, light green glass. There is only a slight concavity in the bottom, and the pontil mark is much smaller than the so-called sand pontil marks seen on many English bottles. The RW bottle has a turned over lip giving it a rounded profile. A plain bottle excavated from a mid-18th century Philadelphia archaeological site and another in the collection of the Salem County Historical Society share these traits and can also be positively attributed to the Wistarburgh enterprise. Fragments which match these bottles have been found at the site of the Wistar factory.

Another bottle form that can be attributed to the Alloway manufactory has a globular body and a wide mouth with folded-over rim. This would have been suitable for foodstuffs or preserved fruit. A cover of parchment or some other material could have been placed over the top and securely tied on below the rim. This object is said to have been originally owned by Jacob Housman who was associated with the glassworks.

Among the other utilitarian forms that the German blowers fashioned of the green bottle glass batch were the retorts and receivers mentioned in a 1769 Wistarburgh advertisement. As defined in a chemical dictionary of 1807, the retort “is the common and most useful instrument for Distillation…Retorts with very long narrow necks… are made for heating those substances which are intended to yield any of the gasses, for here no width of vessel is wanted for the condensation of vapours, and the narrowness of the neck allows but little admixture of the external air. Retorts are made of glass, earthen-ware, and sometimes of iron or silver.”

Also needed in the distillation process was the receiver, “a globe-shaped vessel, either plain or tabulated….It receives the beak of the retort.” Retorts were particularly difficult to make. An English glass manufacturer wrote that “The Retort required much skill in making the weight small in proportion to its size, and needs sharp swinging and extreme care that the bent part between the quill and the body of the neck should not get too contracted, it having at that point always a tendency to collapse while blowing.” This explains why retorts, at thirty shillings per dozen, were the most expensive glass items in Caspar Wistar’s inventory. These special items were made for the use of physicians and apothecaries.

Electrical Apparatus

An extensive study of electricity began in the 17th and 18th centuries. Equipment and tools of various kinds were employed in many kinds of experiments and by the 18th century glass had emerged as a critical material. In 1706 Francis Hauksbee conducted experiments utilizing a thirty-inch hollow tube of flint glass, which created an electrical charge when rubbed. The glass tube quickly “became the standard electrical generator, more efficient, regular, sturdy and powerful than the amber bits, precious stones and wax sticks earlier in use.” Stephen Gray devised numerous experiments using the glass tube. To demonstrate the transmission of electrical charges, he suspended a small boy horizontally from silken cords and when a rubbed glass tube was placed at the child’s feet, bits of brass foil placed below him became attracted to the child’s face.

American colonists were first exposed to the wonders and excitement of electrical experimentation by Archibald Spencer in 1743. Spencer’s repertory included Gray’s dramatic experiment, whereby he made “Sparks of fire fly from [the boy’s] face & hands.” The following year Benjamin Franklin sponsored his appearance in Philadelphia.

Although Spencer introduced Franklin to electricity, it was Peter Collinson, a London Quaker, who stimulated Franklin’s serious considerations of electrical phenomena. These considerations would lead to the publication of Experiments and Observations on Electricity in 1774 and his invention of the lightning rod. As Franklin recalled:

“[Collinson] transmitted to the Directors, [of the Library Co.] the earliest accounts of every new European Improvement in Agriculture and the Arts, and every philosophical Discovery; among which, in 1745, he sent over an account of the new German Experiments in Electricity, together with a Glass Tube, and some Directions for using it, so as to repeat those Experiments.  This was the first Notice I had of that curious Subject, which I afterwards prosecuted with some Diligence.”

“Diligence” hardly conveys the excitement Franklin apparently felt in his pursuit of this new science. In his letter to Peter Collinson, dated March 28, 1747, Franklin confessed

“I never was before engaged in any study that so totally engrossed my attention and my time as this has lately done; for what with making experiments when I can be alone, and repeating them to my Friends and Acquaintance, who, from the novelty of the thing, come continually in crouds to see them, I have, during some months past, had little leisure for any thing else.”

The experiments engendered such interest that Franklin “caused a Number of similar Tubes to be blown at our Glass-house.” so that his friends, Ebenezer Kinnersley, Thomas Hopkinson, and Philip Syng, could conduct experiments as well and ease him of the burden of constant performance. “Our Glass-house,” of course, was Wistarburgh. By May, 1747, the Wistars had produced over one hundred such tubes.

Franklin corresponded with a number of prominent colonists about electrical science and undertook to provide individuals as well as institutions with apparatus, including tubes. In one of these letters Franklin mentions that the Wistar-made tubes have “a greenish cast, but [the glass] is clear and hard, and, I think, better for electrical experiments than the white [colorless] glass of London, which is not so hard.” Indeed, the lead-formula composition of English flint glass would have been softer than the green, nonlead glass produced in New Jersey. Based on Franklin’s descriptions, a tube at the American Philosophical Society and another at the Library Company are attributed to Wistarburgh. According to the inventory of the Wistar store taken at the time of Caspar’s death, electrical tubes were valued at two shillings apiece.

Besides “electerising” tubes, the Wistars also provided other glasswares to colonial scientists. Hauksbee had developed the prototype for the large electrical machines that would figure prominently in the experiments at mid-century. Here the charge was achieved by mechanically rotating a glass globe or cylinder against a fixed pad. While many of these machines and their glass parts were made by English instrument makers, Franklin arranged for colonial craftsmen to replicate them, or to supply parts when they were broken. Electrical tubes and globes were still advertised by Wistar in the 1760s and continued to be made at American glasshouses of the 19th century.

Table Glass

Benjamin Franklin was pleased with the Wistar’s scientific glass, but like most well-to-do Philadelphians he preferred English glasswares on his dining table. Because they understood the prevailing taste for refined English lead glass, the Wistars imported some glass from Britain to sell along with their own utilitarian wares in the Philadelphia shop. Some of the tumblers, decanters, inkstands, salts, and drinking glasses inventoried when Caspar Wistar died could have been of British manufacture. In his letters abroad Richard Wistar specifies his need for this type of item.

Tablewares were never considered a significant aspect of production at Wistarburgh and none were ever advertised. Material in the Wistar Papers and objects that have descended in the Wistar family indicate that some tablewares were made, however. Archaeological excavations in Philadelphia have also yielded significant material.

Over the years the Wistar enterprise has been credited as the root of the “South Jersey” style of table glass. These objects were fashioned from unrefined bottle or window glass and decorated with molding or applied pattern and tooled ornament. Such characteristics are best interpreted within the German/Bohemian style transplanted to New Jersey and other parts of the country. Most of the glassblowers in America’s 18th century glasshouses were emigrants from that area of Europe. Some of these craftsmen worked at more than one glasshouse, so there could be strong technical and stylistic similarities among the glasswares manufactured in New York, Braintree (Massachusetts), Hilltown (Pennsylvania), Manheim, and Wistarburgh. Until more objects are identified with these other glasshouses, the role of Wistarburgh in disseminating the Germanic style cannot be fully understood.

The glasswares created by immigrant glassblowers in America ranged from direct copies of Continental forms to German-flavored renditions of English imports which dominated the market. Although the RW bottle illustrates the Wistars’ interest in imitating contemporary English glass, many of the other glasswares made at Wistarburgh clearly reflect the Germanic origins of the craftsmen. Dog-shaped vessels, “schnaoshunde” were favorite novelties of German glassblowers in the 17th and 18th centuries. A green glass example that had belonged to Richard Wistar’s granddaughter, now in the collection at Wyck, was made at Wistarburgh and provides documentation that allows other examples to be attributed to the glasshouse.

Pincered decoration of a waffle-like pattern seen on the feet of the dog bottles is repeated on the finials of several sugar bowls believed to have been made at Wistarburgh. These distinctive embellishments feature fin-like protrusions around a triple knopped shaft; a configuration recorded in German glass. Pincering can also be seen on the topknot of the swan on another sugar bowl.  Fanciful birds and animals were popular finial devices for German sugar bowls, but this example is the first to be attributed to Wistarburgh.

The Wistar bowls are plain or pattern-molded with either sixteen or twenty vertical ribs. An example at the Newark Museum was patterned with vertical ribbing over swirled ribbing for a basket-weave effect. The molding on the bowl from the Salem County Historical Society is quite faint, but a horizontal emphasis was achieved by means of threading trailed around the rim of the bowl. The handles of two of the examples exhibited are quite similar in their small, ear-shaped style. The bowl in the Newark Museum, the most elaborate of the group, has handles that are pulled and pincered out into finger grips. The swan-topped bowl lacks handles, more in the tradition of English sugar bowls which were rarely made with handles.

The handle of a fragmentary mug is very Germanic in style with its pronounced thumbpiece. The mug was excavated from a mid-18th century well on Market Street, Philadelphia, near the Wistars’ store. Another mug similarly threaded and with the same thumbpiece was recently found in archaeological excavations at Tindal’s Island, Cumberland County, New Jersey. The cream jug, most likely produced in the early 19th century, features this same distinctive handle treatment and demonstrates the ongoing Germanic influence of the Wistar glassworkers in the mid-Atlantic region.

Another object that may represent the kind of tablewares made at  Wistarburgh over its long period of operation is the green glass salt dish in the Winterthur Museum. Its domed and folded foot point to an 18th century date and Continental European inspiration. Like the sugar bowls, the salt dish is faintly patterned with twenty vertical ribs. Salts were among the products listed in the 1752 inventory of Caspar Wistar’s store.

While many objects were blown of green glass, according to the factory account book tablewares of refined colorless glass were made by William Wentzel in the 1740s. The very pale green sugar bowl may have descended in his family. Blue glass was made on a limited scale at the Alloway factory as shown by the survival of three blue glass objects in the Wistar family. These in turn have led to the attribution of several related colorless objects, including a cream bucket.

In the 1760s, when English glass disappeared from the market in the wake of Colonial nonimportation agreements, Wistar workmen may well have increased their experimentation with colorless glass. In his advertisements at that time Richard Wistar appealed to the patriotic spirit of consumers, but he never claimed to make table glass. Stiegel, on the other hand, made tableware in the English mode the focus of his production after 1769. With English workmen Stiegel met the challenge of English technology and introduced glass made with lead oxide. There is some lead in the Wistar tapersticks and buckets, but this is probably the result of lead cullet used in the batch. There is no evidence, however, that Wistar ever made lead glass from raw materials.

Two tapersticks, one of which is exhibited here, are unusual in their shapes and proportion, and are not derived from English prototypes. Their attribution stems from their firm history of ownership through Caspar Wistar’s daughter, Rebecca Morris. A striking blue glass bucket with a firm history led to the Wistarburgh attribution of another bucket blown of colorless glass. Intended for cream or perhaps sweetmeats, such buckets do have parallels in English glass and ceramics. What is special about the colorless example, is its applied wave-like decoration around the base. Composed of three pairs of large and small fingers, the decoration suggests the “lily pad” decoration that became popular in the middle of the next century. The distinctive decoration of the bucket can also be found on Norwegian glass of the 18th century.


There is still much to be learned about Caspar and Richard Wistar as people and glasshouse proprietors. Their story spans most of the 18th century and is closely interwoven with the aesthetic, social, political, and economic events of the era. Wistarburgh was the first commercially successful glassworks in America and laid the groundwork for the industry that would eventually flourish in the 19th century. Yet, these German Quakers made little fanfare about their manufacturing effort. It is hoped that this exhibition commemorating the 250th anniversary of the founding of Wistarburgh will bring deserved attention to an important adventure in Colonial enterprise.