About 1878 the Boston & Sandwich Glass Company published a trade catalog illustrating almost 2,000 items available for purchase. Among the items was a shell-shaped, pressed glass desk set consisting of a tray and two bottles. One bottle held ink and the other held a fine blotting sand that was sprinkled over the freshly written page to keep the ink from smearing (see illustration, below left, from an original catalog in the NBMOG Rockwell Library, acc. L2004.002). Curiously, the price list description for the set reads "French Ink." It sold for $12.00 per dozen.
"French Ink" Desk Set France, c. 1875 L: 7 5/16" NBMOG Collection Gift: Richard & Lesley Harris Acc. 2008.003 (A-D)
Underside of tray
Desk set, bottles out
Underside of ink bottle rim
Ink bottle mystery: the body of the NBMOG ink bottle is missing! Only a short projection of the body wall remains. It is 1/8" wide and terminates in a rough-ground edge, as though it had been ground or "cut down" using a stone wheel. Perhaps the body was broken, the remainder of the bottle wall was ground off and the rim was glued to some now-lost replacement body. A ring of black adhesive material still adheres to the underside of the rim. Inexplicably, a band of fine ribs was molded into the underside of the rim just below the adhesive (see illustration to right). Might the ribs have been intended from the start to hold adhesive, and might the adhesive have been used to join the rim to a separate ORIGINAL body, now missing?
The price list description suggests two possibilities. Either the set was being imported from France and resold by the company, a practice in which the company occasionally engaged, or the set was copied from a French prototype. Authors Raymond E. Barlow and Joan E. Kaiser opt for the later explanation in the fifth and final volume of their monumental study The Glass Industry in Sandwich (Atglen, PA: Schiffer Publishing Ltd., 1999). For the cover illustration of their book they chose a translucent blue example of the desk set that corresponds exactly to the company catalog illustration and to numerous glass shards excavated from the Sandwich factory site. Its appearance on the cover indicates how highly collectors esteem this item, which is described in the Barlow/Kaiser text as extremely rare.
Last summer a previously unrecorded variant of the "French Ink" desk set was donated to NBMOG by Museum members Richard & Lesley Harris (see illustrations to left). It differs from previously discovered examples in two obvious ways. First, the Barlow-Kaiser set and all other known examples exhibit plain shell ribs on the underside of the tray. The NBMOG example, by contrast, has fine lines embossed into the underside of the shell ribs (see detail above right). Second, the Barlow-Kaiser bottles feature Bull's Eye and Dart pattern shoulders and spun metal tops, while the NBMOG bottle designs differ completely from all previously known examples. The NBMOG sand bottle, for example was molded with as a completely enclosed hollow form! Holes for the sand were later drilled through the top and, there being no removable cover, the sand had to be sifted into the bottle through these same tiny holes (see illustrations to left).
The French glass industry is known for using molds with very precisely embossed patterns. This factor, in combination with the evidence of the B&SGCo catalog and the shards excavated from the Sandwich factory site, suggests the strong possibility that the NBMOG example was made in France. Perhaps the impractical bottle design was supplanted by a later design featuring a metal cap, which, in turn, provided the model for the Sandwich product. Barlow and Kaiser refer to the illustration of desk sets in an 1870 Cristalleries de Baccarat trade catalog, but the similarity of the catalog designs to the Sandwich and NBMOG examples is not clear from their description.
Design influences traveled both ways across the Atlantic during the 19th century. The German porcelain factory Meissen copied pressed Sandwich glass designs in the 1830s, as documented by the insightful article "Meissen Porcelain Designed from Glass Patterns," by Joachim Kunze, reprinted in The Glass Club Bulletin of the National Early American Glass Club (Issue 153, Fall 1987, pp. 3-7). Sandwich, for its part, obligingly indicated the foreign origin of their desk set design when they described it as a "French Ink." The study of surviving examples and excavated shards has deepened our understanding of these trans-Atlantic relationships, and to that study the discovery of the NBMOG desk set brings surprising and welcome new evidence.