Art glass literature makes frequent reference to the gift of four Burmese glass vases presented by the Mt. Washington Glass Company in 1886 to U.S. President Grover Cleveland and his bride, Miss Frances Folsom. Company agent Frederick Shirley undoubtedly hoped to promote his new Burmese glass, patented in 1885, through association with the First Couple. It was an idea that must have occurred to him suddenly. The wedding announcement was made only one week before the event and caught an astonished and slightly scandalized nation by surprise. Cleveland, after all, was a 49-year old bachelor who had been elected to the presidency in 1884 despite admitting that he might have fathered an illegitimate son. His bride, Frances Folsom, was the 21-year old daughter of Cleveland’s late friend and business partner Oscar Folsom. Cleveland served as executor of the Folsom estate, bought little Frances her first baby carriage and oversaw her upbringing. Despite these and more startling details about the Cleveland/Folsom relationship, Frances quickly won the heart of the nation by her attractive personality and appearance. She became an instant media darling and the youngest First Lady in U.S. history. The couple’s sensational wedding took place in the Blue Room of the White House on June 2, 1886, and attracted a frenzy of international attention.
It was, in other words, the perfect event for promoting stylish new merchandise. Shirley achieved his endorsement dream for Burmese glass when he received a letter of acknowledgment from President Cleveland dated June 12, 1886. Written on stationery printed "EXECUTIVE MANSION. / WASHINGTON.," the letter reads "Mt. Washington Glass Company: On behalf of Mrs. Cleveland and myself, I acknowledge with sincere thanks the receipt of four beautiful vases as your wedding gift to my bride. They are highly prized as evidencing the kindly consideration of the Company, while they illustrate the perfection and excellence of its manufactures. / Yours sincerely, Grover Cleveland."
To make the most of this promotional bonanza, Shirley apparently obtained blank sheets of paper identical to the Executive Mansion stationery and used them to create convincing copies of the letter. Undoubtedly his intention was to distribute the copies and thereby further publicize his company’s accomplishment. How many were actually distributed is unknown.
The original letter and six copies were preserved by the Shirley family and donated in 2005 to the New Bedford Museum of Glass. All feature stationery with the same "Royal Irish Linen / Marcus Ward & Co." watermark. While the small "EXECUTIVE MANSION" letterhead is printed in blue on the original, however, it is printed in black on the copies. Also, when the script text of the original and the copies is examined under magnification, a subtle difference becomes apparent. The ink on the original is dense, while on the copies it has a lighter, slightly stippled character (see illustrations below). Apparently some form of printing process was employed. This copy job might have been done for Shirley in New York, since the original letter bears a red "New York & Boston Dispatch Express Co." sticker (see illustration to lower left). We can only imagine Shirley’s displeasure with the casual placement of the sticker, which partially covers the Grover Cleveland signature!
The Grover Cleveland Letter
President & Mrs. Grover Cleveland, 1886
Engraving (newspaper clipping)
H: 3 1/4"
NBMOG Collection Gift: The Shirley Papers
(Right) Detail showing the dense character of the original script
(Far Right) Detail showing the light, stippled character of the duplicated script
Shirley also invested special effort to copy the envelope that accompanies the Cleveland letter (see two illustrations to lower left). The envelope copies are approximately the same size as the original and, like the original, bear a "Royal Irish Linen / Marcus Ward & Co." watermark. Unlike the original, however, the address line ("Mt. Washington Glass Company / New Bedford / Massachusetts"), the return address ("EXECUTIVE MANSION."), and even the cancellation mark ("WASHINGTON D. C. / JUN 13 / 11PM"), show the same stippled character as the text of the copied letters. The most revealing feature of the envelope copies, however, is the fact that the cancellation marks on the postage stamps do not extend onto the envelopes. Apparently Shirley just soaked canceled stamps off other envelopes and affixed them to his "creations."
The late Kenneth M. Wilson was the first author to note that multiple copies of the letter exist. An endnote in his book Mt. Washington & Pairpoint Glass (2005) reads "Not one acknowledgment but at least five were received by Mt. Washington and are preserved among the Shirley Papers in the possession of a descendant. Another copy of the same acknowledgment, believed to have descended in the family of a Mt. Washington glassblower who may have participated in the making of these pieces, was recently acquired at auction by the Old Dartmouth Historical Society - New Bedford Whaling Museum."
Unfortunately, Mr. Wilson never had an opportunity to examine the original Cleveland letter. It did not surface in the Shirley Papers (together with a previously unrecorded sixth copy) until after Wilson’s death in 2005. In its absence he seems to have assumed that all the letters were the same and that all originated from the White House. Furthermore, his reference to the copy of the letter at the Old Dartmouth Historical Society needs clarification. I served as a guest curator of ODHS at the time the letter was purchased in 2001. It turned up at a Blyth Auction sale held outside Albany, NY, sadly without provenance. I described its acquisition to Wilson after the sale, and also mentioned a recent telephone conversation with a descendant of Mt. Washington glassblower Patrick Barrett. The descendant told me that the Barrett family had at one time owned a copy of the letter and also understood that Barrett had blown two of the four Cleveland vases. No connection is known to exist, however, between the Barrett family letter and the letter purchased at the Blyth auction.
One of Mr. Wilson’s impressive achievements was to identify, using documents from the Shirley Papers, the shapes and patterns of the Cleveland wedding vases. His examination of a c. 1887 price list entitled "Burmese Ware" led to the breakthrough. The price list reprints the entire text of the Cleveland letter on page 10 (see illustration to lower left). On the same page, under the heading "Mrs. President Cleveland’s Patterns," it itemizes two different shape numbers, 109 and 146, decorated with two different patterns, designated numbers 5 and 30.
But what did these shapes and patterns actually look like? Although the vases are not illustrated by the price list, Wilson was able to associate the numbers with visual images through further study. Two group photographs of Burmese glass from the Shirley Papers, for example, supplied him with the necessary visual keys to identify the shape numbers (see illustrations below).
Original Envelope (detail showing authentic postage and cancellation mark) NBMOG Collection Acc. 2005.253.058.2
Duplicate Envelope (detail showing contrived postage and copied cancellation mark)
NBMOG Collection Acc. 2005.253.059.2
Original Letter (detail showing shipping label) NBMOG Collection Acc. 2005.253.058.1
Evidence for the identity of the pattern numbers, meanwhile, came from descriptive entries found elsewhere in the c. 1887 price list. On page 8 under the heading "Hand Painted Decorations - Plush Burmese," Wilson found the listing "Regular No. 5. Hawthorn Blossom. Mrs. President Cleveland’s pattern." In his book he illustrates the pattern with a Burmese plate from the Shirley family now in the NBMOG collection (see below, left, for a detail showing the plate’s Hawthorn Blossom decoration). Then, on page 9 of the price list, Wilson came across the listing "No. 30. Lace Embroidery. Queen’s patt." Number 30, therefore, was the factory designation for the pattern associated with Shirley’s famous gift of Burmese glass to Queen Victoria, another promotional triumph of 1886 (see below, right, for an illustration of the design). Thanks to Wilson’s discovery and careful study of the c. 1887 price list, we now know that the pattern also was featured as part of the Cleveland gift.
(Above) Details from Mt. Washington Glass Company photographs illustrating shape numbers 109 and 146. The c. 1887 price list specifies that Mrs. President Cleveland's number 146 vases were 12" high. The same shape can be found in an 8" size. NBMOG Collection, acc. 2005.253.040 and 2005.253.048. Click images to see full photographs
Burmese "Hawthorn Blossom" Plate
Mt. Washington Glass Co.
New Bedford, MA; c. 1886
D: 9 1/16"
NBMOG Collection Gift: The Shirley Family Acc. 2005.205
Surprisingly, the c. 1887 price list does not present "Mrs. President Cleveland’s Patterns" as two matched pairs. We might expect that a pair in the number 109 shape would be decorated with one pattern and a pair in the number 146 shape would be decorated with the other. Instead, each shape is listed in both patterns. From this Wilson concludes that there were no matched pairs in the Cleveland group. It also seems possible, however, that the price list was intended to offer customers design options associated with the wedding gift rather than to rigorously document the exact nature of the Cleveland vases. If so, and if the vases were decorated as pairs, either shape could have featured either pattern.
Not long after receiving Shirley’s beautiful Burmese glass vases, the President and Mrs. Cleveland strengthened their ties to the New Bedford area. In the summer of 1887 they spent vacation time with friends in nearby Marion, MA. During the following several years the First Family rented summer homes in Marion, and in 1890 they purchased their summer estate, Gray Gables, in the adjacent town of Buzzards Bay. The third of their five children, Marion, was born there in 1895. Historian H. Edmund Tripp notes that "Frances Cleveland took part in many Marion activities. Wherever she went - to the First Congregational Church with the Greelys or with St. Gaudens to artist William Bradford’s Marion lecture on his Arctic travels - her activities and gowns were described [by the local press] in great detail, much like the following of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis during her White House years" (Reflections of a Town, Marion, MA: Sippican Historical and Preservation Society, 1991).
With this background history in mind, a letter written on Signal Officer stationary and preserved among the Shirley Papers takes on special significance and shows that not all of Shirley’s bold initiatives were successful. Sent on August 20, 1887, from the town of Marion to F. S. Shirley, Esq., in New Bedford, the letter reads "Dear Sir: While thanking you for your courteous invitation Mrs. Cleveland desires me to say that she has been obliged to decline all invitations owing to the necessity for rest. / I am yours truly, A. W. Greely" (NBMOG Collection, Acc. 2005.253.056.1).
(Above) Details from representative examples of Mt. Washington Burmese glass showing the Hawthorn Blossom pattern (left) and the "Lace Embroidery" pattern (right), which also was used to decorate some of the glass presented by the company in 1886 to Queen Victoria.
c. 1887 Burmese Price List (page 10 detail) Mt. Washington Glass Co. New Bedford, MA; c. 1887
6 3/4" H. x 4 9/16" W.
NBMOG Collection Gift: The Shirley Papers
(above) Post Card "Summer Home of Ex Pres. Grover Cleveland, 'Gray Gables' Buzzards Bay, Mass;" The Clevelands purchased a fishing lodge in Buzzards Bay, MA in 1890 and expanded it into a 20-room summer home. Grover Cleveland no longer returned to the house after his daughter Ruth died of diphtheria in 1904 at age thirteen. The family sold the house in 1921 and it was operated as an inn until its destruction by fire in 1974. A. C. Bosselman & Co. NY, c. 1910 NBMOG Collection Museum Purchase Acc. 2009.001