The feverish excitement generated by Pairpoint cup plate collecting in the years leading up to 1980, when the so-called “100th Plate” was issued, seems unbelievable today almost to the point of the surreal. Only six years before, in 1974, the Pairpoint Glass Company of Sagamore, Massachusetts, had begun to press small glass plates as fund-raising mementos for museums, churches, clubs and other organizations. The plates measured about 3 1/2 inches in diameter and featured designs submitted by the groups that commissioned them. By 1976 more than 50 different designs had been introduced. That same year collectors founded a national club (the Pairpoint Cup Plate Collectors of America, or PCPCA), and new chapters sprang up quickly as interest grew. In just two years membership skyrocketed to more than two thousand. By 1983 the Pairpoint factory had issued over 250 designs, and Barbara Wordell's Cup Plate Value Guide, published later that year, indicated that some plates were worth as much as 100 times their original price! Today, by contrast, the club has long-since disbanded and, although the factory still presses an occasional new design, collecting activity has largely stopped. How could this be? What circumstances could possibly explain the total collapse of such an energized and widespread collecting phenomenon?
A portent of the collapse can be found in the curious story of the 100th plate and the clamor that erupted following its introduction in 1980. As indicated above, interest in Pairpoint cup plate collecting was growing dramatically at that time. PCPCA members would eagerly wait at their mailboxes for the arrival of their quarterly bulletins and monthly newsletters. They attended chapter meetings, took field trips to visit sites featured as cup plate designs and flocked by the hundreds to the club’s annual conventions. At these gatherings they crowded around convention tables vying with each other to snap up the latest patterns. Best of all, during all this madcap, crazy-fun activity collectors had the deep satisfaction of knowing that, plate by plate, they were getting rich! Molds for many of the earliest patterns had been destroyed after short production runs and value guides indicated that the scarcest plates, purchased for just a few dollars apiece, already were worth hundreds! Indeed, the most desirable patterns could not be purchased for any amount. The reason was simple: each of the club's 2,000 members dreamed of assembling a complete set of plates, but some of the patterns had been made in editions of only two or three hundred. You do the math!
As the milestone of the 100th design approached, three workmen from the Pairpoint factory recognized it as a promising business opportunity. Glassblower Robbie Mason, his apprentice David McDermott and glass cutter Ed Poore decided to commission the plate themselves and offer it for sale at the 1980 convention. Their design featured the image of a standing glass blower with the inscription “PAIRPOINT GLASS CO. / 100th PLATE.” The prominent background initials “R,” “E” and “D” (standing for Robbie, Ed and David) have led this plate to be known as the “R.E.D.” plate. Celebrated die cutter Alvin A. White carved the steel mold for the plate, and shortly before the convention the glassmakers rolled a press up to the Pairpoint furnace and turned out a “move” of 203 plates in colorless glass and one plate in amethyst. A move is defined as the number of items a production crew can make in a 4-hour or half-day shift.
Barbara Wordell records the precise size of the "R.E.D." move in her 1983 value guide (p. 77). Additional information about the design comes to us from a notice appearing in the PCPCA bulletin, The Thistle (vol. 1, no. 5, Autumn 1980, p. 2), which announced that the three partners intended to press the plate in a variety of colors. In fact they specified that 1,000 colorless plates would be made, followed by five groups of 1,000 plates each in five different colors. And finally, still more details were recounted in a recent interview with one of the three workmen, Ed Poore, an active and generous supporter of the New Bedford Museum of Glass. Ed recalled that he and his partners initially intended to make only colorless plates for the first move, but it happened that a pot of amethyst glass was heating nearby. Ed suggested they take a quick gather from it and press an amethyst plate. The suggestion proved fortunate. Owing to circumstances described below, it turned out to be the only "R.E.D." plate ever made in color.
Understanding that many collectors would want to assemble a complete set of the first one hundred patterns (even though they couldn’t all succeed at this heroic endeavor), the Pairpoint workers decided that their much-anticipated plate could bring considerably more than the $5 or so typically charged for plates at the time. Accordingly, they priced their first move of colorless plates at $16 apiece, set them out on a cloth-covered convention table and promised to donate a portion of the proceeds to a charity of their choosing. The response, instant and aggrieved, took place even before the convention doors opened. Organizers and club members were incensed! Outraged! Spitt’n mad! And Pairpoint factory owner Robert Bryden caught the brunt of their ire. How could he take advantage of his loyal audience this way, allowing his own workmen to charge three times the going rate for a plate that everyone would covet! His reaction was swift and severe. The offending plates were removed from the convention hall, an announcement was made that the R.E.D. design would be replaced by the Cardinal Bird as the official 100th plate, and Mr. Bryden himself went back to the factory, fired up an acetylene torch and permanently defaced the R.E.D. mold. No more R.E.D. plates would ever be made.
The story of the R.E.D. or “100th Plate” demonstrates how unrealistic pricing could lead to hard feelings and disillusionment in the collecting community. Many similar examples could be cited. These contributed to the eventual downfall of the cup plate collecting frenzy, but they were not the only factor behind the collapse. Another may have been the simple glut of patterns. Commissioning organizations continued to order and sell plates at their fundraisers or in their gift shops and the number of Pairpoint patterns steadily grew. By 1987 it reached 500 and in summer of 2009 it passed 890. Few could consider trying to acquire an example of every pattern. Collectors began to specialize in certain design subjects, like lighthouses or merry-go-rounds or Thornton Burgess animals. This was fun, but as the years passed and cup plates piled up in collectors’ attics or under their beds or behind their sofas, the whole activity began to loose its luster. Scarce early plates sat unsold in booths of “collectibles” or were given away for practically nothing when large collections were liquidated. And still more plates were made. Other glass companies had jumped onto the bandwagon: Millville Art Glass of Millville, NJ issued 150 patterns between 1982 and 1986; R. Wetzel of Zanesville, OH issued 108 patterns between 1982 and 1985; Degenhart, Kaleidoscope, Fenton, Boyd, Summit, St. Clair, Botson, Guernsey, Imperial and Mosser all joined the ruckus, adding another 125-plus patterns to the total. Which ones to collect? Which to pass by? Membership in the PCPCA began to dwindle. By 1990 it had dropped to about 500. By 1995 it was down to 300 and publication of the quarterly Thistle was discontinued. On October 17, 1998, after 19 years of euphoric growth and discouraging decline, members attending the last convention voted to dissolve their organization.
How strange to examine these little plates today and consider the rich culture that so quickly developed around them, the passions they excited, the creative effort behind them and the large body of shared knowledge that existed regarding their origins and desirability. Every serious Paiproint cup plate collector would know, for example, that the sheep depicted in the Nye Family pattern #178 was modified slightly after an initial production run to remove its objectionable “laughing” expression. And they would want an example of the early “laughing” variant to accompany their more common corrected example (see illustrations to left and below). They would know that when mold-engraver Al White originally signed the #11 Brig Argus pattern he stamped his initials too prominently into the foreground area of the scene. After an initial move of 220 plates and following the objections of the commissioning group, the mark had to be painstakingly removed from the center area of the mold and relocated to the rim (see illustrations to lower left and below). They could recognize manufacturers’ often arcane color terminology and easily distinguish, for example, between Millville Art Glass heather bloom and neodymium. Quite possibly they had persuaded their local church or historical society to commission a plate. Maybe they had even designed it themselves, carefully considering what image would best represent the organization’s mission or aspirations. They would have met the manufacturers at club conventions, watched the operation of a glass press and discussed cup plate lore with authors, decorators, designers and fellow collectors. Today, like the ruins of some ancient civilization, these little plates whisper with layer upon layer of hidden meaning. Their very newness heightens our sensitivity to the passing of a once vibrant culture.
Pairpoint Cup Plates
Disfigured "R.E.D." Cup Plate Mold
Pairpoint Glass Co.
Sagamore, MA; 1980
H: 4 1/2"; D: 3 1/4"
NBMOG Collection Gift: Paul & Marie Robinson
P1 Cup Plate
Pairpoint Glass Co.
Sagamore, MA; 1974
D: 3 7/16" The first Pairpoint cup plate was pressed with a poorly carved mold featuring the indistinct text "NATIONAL COUNCIL OF STATE GARDEN CLUBS;" according to Barbara R. Wordell in The Cup Plate Value Guide (1983), a total of 1,000 were made in colorless glass and "few" were made in amber.
NBMOG Collection Gift: Louise & Walter Ellis
P178V "Nye 82" Cup Plate (Laughing Sheep variant)
Pairpoint Glass Co.
Sagamore, MA; 1982
D: 3 1/2"
NBMOG Collection Gift: PCPCA
The New Bedford Museum of Glass has worked diligently in recent years to preserve a record of this passing culture. In 1998 the archives of the PCPCA was transferred to the museum’s library together with a complete set of the club’s quarterly bulletin and monthly newsletter. The club’s collection of approximately 1,000 cup plates also came to the museum about that time. Additional gifts from the Pairpoint factory, John McGarigal, Mary & Michael Knapp, Louise and Walter Ellis, the Bancroft family, Sally and Bob Dietrich and numerous other collectors have brought that number up to more than 4,000 cataloged examples. Of the early Pairpoint plates we are missing only pattern 2V, the octagonal Washington with the accidentally reversed “MFA” initials. In 2003 the Pairpoint factory sold approximately 350 steel cup plate molds at auction. Through the generosity of NBMOG member Carl F. Barron the museum was able to purchase more than 300 of these molds, each one a unique, hand-carved work of art. The museum collection also includes mold-making tools donated by master die cutter Al White, a six-foot high cast iron cup plate press and a selection of cup plates and molds given by Inga Johnson, wife of the late Edward Johnson, founder of the Millville Art Glass company of Millville, NJ.
But, you ask, whatever became of the 204 infamous “R.E.D.” plates? Several years after the 1980 convention they were assigned the pattern designation 100A. The three Pairpoint glassworkers divided their stock and sold the plates off to collectors over a number of years. Meanwhile the single amethyst example and the disfigured mold were kept by glassworker Ed Poore and eventually sold to collectors Paul & Marie Robinson. In 2003 NBMOG was fortunate to acquire both items as a combination gift/purchase.
Today the amethyst R.E.D. stands out, more than any other Pairpoint cup plate, as the undisputed icon of a volatile and uniquely boisterous chapter in the history of American glass collecting.
(above) Details of P178 "Nye 82" cup plates (laughing variant to left, corrected design to right); NBMOG Coll., Gifts: PCPCA and John T. McGarigal, Acc. CP.0038 and CP.0713
(above) Details of P11 "BRIG ARGUS" cup plates ("AW"-in-water variant to left, corrected design to right); NBMOG Coll., Gifts: John T. McGarigal, Acc. CP.0549 and CP.0550
P11V "BRIG ARGUS" Cup Plate ("AW"-in-water variant)
Pairpoint Glass Co.
Sagamore, MA; 1976
D: 3 1/2"
NBMOG Collection Gift: John T. McGarigal
P8V1 "Peter Rabbit" Cup Plate (shallow-whisker variant)
Pairpoint Glass Co.
Sagamore, MA; 1975
D: 3 1/2" The first Thornton Burgess cup plate design was "Peter Rabbit." Mold engraver Al White initially cut the whiskers too shallow. After a single test pressing he corrected the mold.
NBMOG Collection Gift: Alvin A. White
(above) Peter Rabbit cup plate details showing the unique shallow-whisker variant (top) and the corrected design (bottom)