Museum of American Glass
Millville, New Jersey
Southern New Jersey has been called "The Cradle of American Glass" for the same reason that it could be called "The Cradle of American Asparagus Farming." There's a lot of sand in the soil, and sand (silica) is what is melted to make glass.
Glass factories have been here for over 200 years, but it wasn't until the late 1960s that someone decided to call attention to it. That someone was Frank Wheaton Jr., grandson of the founder of Wheaton Industries, one of the biggest companies in glassmaking. Frank had visited the Corning Museum of Glass in Corning, New York, and was upset to see that many of its exhibits had come from southern New Jersey. So he did what only a rich person can do; he went out and bought a third glass museum, and shipped its collection here. That stuff has become the nucleus of what is now the largest museum of American glass anywhere.
Wheaton's Museum of American Glass takes itself seriously, which means that it stresses the history and artistry of glassmaking. You won't see any Mayor McCheese or Star Wars drinking glasses here (maybe they weren't made in America). There are, however, more than 6,500 items on display, which means that at least some quirky exhibits will reward the diligent visitor. Plus, it's a good place to take your Mom.
The World's Largest Glass Bottle is the star attraction. Seven feet, eight inches tall, with a capacity of 188 gallons, it was blown during "Glass Blast Weekend" in Millville in September 1992. The former champ, at 108 gallons, was also blown in Millville. Photos of the earlier (1903) bottle shows "108 GAL" painted on it in bold letters, but no similar self-promotion graces the current record-holder. In fact, one really needs to see a giant glass bottle to appreciate how unimpressive plain glass is, even eight feet of it. It is, after all, meant to be invisible. We urge the Museum to commission The World's Largest Glass Bottle Label, and give visitors something that will show up in a snapshot.
The other stick-in-your brain display here is a child's coffin made of glass, exhibited next to The Victorian Dining Room. "Many famous individuals have been interred in glass caskets," insists an accompanying placard. We've seen a couple of saints in them -- Mother Cabrini in Manhattan and John Neumann in Philadelphia -- and one sinner, Samuel Dinsmoor, in Lucas, Kansas. Sadly, the vogue for peek-a-boo coffins was brief. They weighed over 300 pounds, "and, of course," the sign adds matter-of-factly, "broke when dropped." The companies that made them wound up as dead as their customers. Today, only two glass coffins besides this one are on display -- unoccupied.
The power of the paperweight collectibles lobby is evident at The Museum of American Glass, which has hundreds and hundreds of the round doodads on display, and has expanded its annual "Paperweight Weekend" into a full-bore "Paperweight Fest." Other reoccurring exhibits include bottles, marbles, light bulbs, electrical insulators, and Tiffany lamps (but not a single snow globe, which was a disappointment). And, of course, many lovely goblets and punch bowls and chinaware to get the homemakers ooohing and aaaahing.
One would think that certain items just shouldn't be made of glass, but this turns out to be untrue. The museum proudly displays glass walking sticks, rolling pins, a washboard, even a glass steam iron, made during the steel shortage of World War II.
The glass art on exhibit here is often impressive, such as the "Damaged Bone Series" of splinted glass femurs, and a grinning skull labeled "Day of the Dead Down Jersey." It is the commercial decorative glass, however, that seems to be the most fun. Who wouldn't want a butter dish of the battleship Maine, or a "Don't Drown the Hog" shot glass? Anyone with a woman's leg lamp would covet the alluring "Boot Decanter." And the unnerving "Ladyface" bookends bring to mind liquid metal CGI special effects from a couple of the Terminator films.