For almost a century Seneca Glass in Morgantown, West Virginia was a premier producer of fine lead glass in colors, crystal, and with elegant cuttings and numerous decorative treatments.
Opening in Seneca County, Ohio in 1891, the company was composed primarily of immigrant glassworkers who had been neighbors in the Black Forest region of Germany. They relocated to Fostoria, Ohio where they opened shop in the then vacated plant of the Fostoria Glass Company. Although located in an Ohio plant, the newly formed company preferred a West Virginia charter and was granted the charter on December 4, 1891. In 1896 Seneca relocated to Morgantown, West Virginia to take advantage of newly discovered natural gas, of available river and railroad transportation, and local offers of land. The same German families retained significant control of the factory and it's management until the very last few years of the company's long history. Early growth was impressive: by 1897 250 glass workers were engaged at Seneca.
Early production included hand-blown fine lead crystal in a variety of forms: tumblers, bar bottles, covered candy jars, decanters, finger bowls, sugars and creamers, nappies, water sets, vases, and endless stemware. One of Seneca's significant lines at the turn-of-the century was thin, blown, etched tumblers for bars and advertisements, from whiskey to banks. The thin glass tumblers were the disposable paper cup of their day and thousands and thousands were required. A fire destroyed the factory in June of 1902; however, the furnace with 14 pots remained and shortly thereafter a rebuilding program had the company back in production.
Designs can be found on Seneca glass using nearly every known technique to the glass artist. Sand blasted, acid etched, plate etched, needle etched, hand cut, and others came from the decorating rooms of Seneca. Rich cut glass from Seneca can be so complex as to have required twelve hours to cut a single object. The factory inventories in the 1920's list extensive crackle ware production. A 1931 list shows opal (milk) glass available, and 1971 included thousands of dollars of Krinkle pattern for Carbone, a special order customer. Diversity was indeed a key to survival for Seneca. Colored glass appeared in the 1920's and would remain, although with irregularity due to consumers demands, until the factory's close.
While Morgantown has been home to several dozen glass houses since Seneca opened as the first, none has had the national and international reputation of Seneca. From providing endless elegant sets for American Embassies the world over to special commissions for then Vice-President Lyndon Johnson (the Johnson's chose the Epicure pattern for their private use) or for the President of Liberia, Seneca has been held in the highest regard. The market place for Seneca was usually high-end because of the time and workmanship involved in finishing some of its wares. Unlike others in the cut crystal industry, Seneca could fill orders for patterns purchased decades ago. The fact that they were the producers of the glass blank and the cutters gave them access to molds unused for years, and their archives allowed pattern comparison for matching a goblet from years before.
In 1924, when colored and elegant glass was stylish and vogue, Seneca employed 159 men and 57 women. Women at that time were largely engaged in the decoration departments. Through the years, the numbers of employees varied as the production varied. By 1911 Seneca production required a second plant to be opened. This was built in Star City, West Virginia, about two miles from its Seneca's first plant, and employed an additional 63 men and 7 women. Production at the second factory was largely tumblers and plainer ware. The second factory operated into the 1930's. Depression era production included colorless glass but also cobalt, and the "up-to-date transparent colors" as a 1932 advertisement termed their light green, topaz, and other "depression era" colors.
Specialty cutting and decorating was an important part of the Seneca business. The Seneca glass sold through the famous store of John Wanamaker in Philadelphia for the Liberia executive mansion consisted of 218 dozen in a special design with crests cut in each stem. Other well known Seneca customers included the Ritz Carlton Hotel, Boston; Pinnacle Club, New York; Tudor Room of the Sheraton Palace Hotel, San Francisco; Marshall Field and Company, Chicago; B. Altman Company, New York; Tiffany's, New York; Richs, Atlanta and Neiman-Marcus, Dallas. Seneca glass was well represented in many elegant settings.
The colors produced over the years were many and in the 1970's would include Accent Red (ruby and crystal combinations), Amber, Buttercup (yellow), Cinnamon (brown), Delphine Blue (a light blue), Ritz Blue (cobalt), Sahara (a light amber), Gray (a smoky color), Moss Green (a dark earthy green), Lime Green, Peacock Blue, Black and Plum (amethyst). In these later years most of these colors were used in accent pieces such as covered candy bowls, vases, stacking Christmas tree containers, and pattern molded stemware (not including the cut glass lines.)
With elegant tables popular for brides in the 1940's Seneca had experienced a return to prosperity and colorless cut wares became the predominate line. As early as 1953 Seneca foresaw the fading interest in elegant table settings producing their Driftwood pattern. This mouth blown, hand crafted line, remained in production almost 30 years, making it Seneca's most recognizable production item. Driftwood was originally introduced for "informal dining" in four shapes: iced tea, highball, water tumbler, and juice, and in four colors: Honey, Bottle Green, Amethyst Smoke and Clearwater Crystal. Driftwood would grow over the years to include offerings in plates, pitchers, covered candy dishes, vases and nearly a dozen beverage glasses in a multitude of colors.
The 1970's saw other "informal" patterns offered trying to capture the shift from formal elegant glassware. Many patterns were very short lived, perhaps one or two years. Then 1982, Seneca Glass Company was sold. The new owners organized the company under the name of Seneca Crystal Incorporated. By August of 1983 the firm had filed for bankruptcy and the inventory and equipment sold at public auction. Company archives included hundreds of factory samples of glass cut over the preceding decades, many with detailed notations of cut, shape and for whomthey were made. A very small portion of Seneca archival material is preserved at West Virginia University, in the regional history collection. The Seneca machinery and molds went to diverse new owners. Some of the one-of-a kind 80 year old goblets had their feet broken off and the stems polished to be converted to bells. Few of the stemware molds have been re-issued since the closing of Seneca and those in extremely limited production. Some items such as the two sizes of ginger jars were re-issued in cobalt and nicely hand cut, but in a manner unlike that of Seneca. Of course, all re-issues have been in soda lime and not lead glass. Due to practical limitations there is little likelihood that Seneca molds will see additional use.
Today the Seneca Glass Company building remains, portions of it carefully adapted to house a complex of retail stores with a glass house theme and decor in the commons areas.
Source: Page, B.; Frederiksen, D.;
Seneca Glass Company 1891-1983 A Stemware Identification Guide; Greensboro, NC: Page/Frederiksen Publishing Company; 1995