Can water flow uphill? To watch a crystal parlor fountain in action the answer would appear to be "yes." Appearances, of course, can be misleading. Parlor fountains were patented by Englishman Joseph Storer, first in England in 1870 and then in the U.S. in 1871. Storer sold the American rights to Boston manufacturer James W. Tufts, who marked his fountains (see illustration to lower left) and advertised them from the mid 1870s until the 1890s. Tufts noted in a c.1877 trade catalog now in the Rare Books Department at Boston Public Library that his "perpetual" fountain operated on "a simple law of hydrostatics, practically applied." "The extreme novelty of its operation," he continued, "with the apparent absence of motive power, adds very materially to its attraction as an ornament, and excites general surprise and wonderment." Tufts suggested that perfume could be added to the water, and that as an air purifier the fountain would be ideal for sick rooms. It also would make an attractive ornament for "the store counter, show-window, parlor, dining room, library, drawing room, conservatory, theatre, ball room, etc."
But how did it work? With no springs, pumps or external "mechanism" of any kind, the fountain was designed to propel a jet of water approximately 8" into the air from a nozzle mounted above the glass basin and to play for approximately 15 minutes. This was the time it took all the water in the raised globe to move through a valve at the intersection of the globes, up one side of the fountain's tube-like frame, out the nozzle as a jet or spray, and then down through the frame from a drain hole in the basin to the the lower globe. Rotating the globes at the completion of play would restart the fountain.
When the Museum purchased its example, one of only about a dozen known, it was told that the fountain was in perfect working condition. This information seemed somewhat irrelevant, since there was no possibility of operating the fountain while it was on display. Nevertheless, the director was curious to test its condition at the earliest possible moment. The lower globe was unscrewed from the frame, filled with water, reattached and swung into the raised position. Nothing happened. Perhaps the tubes were blocked. Perhaps the valve was broken. Perhaps the fountains were a hoax from the start and never actually worked. A little research quickly answered these concerns. In the May 1961 issue of Spinning Wheel magazine author Laurence A. Johnson illustrates a working fountain in his article "Tufts' Automatic Crystal Fountain." He also cites the patent date and the trade catalog at Boston Public Library. The Museum soon obtained copies of both. The patent states explicitly that the fountain must be filled by pouring water into the glass basin. This is because the fountain's motive power comes from air pressure generated by the weight of the water held in the basin. Refilled, this time from the basin, the NBMOG fountain was put to a second test. The globes were rotated and the fountain sprang to life. Magically!
(Above) Cut design of the NBMOG fountain globe featuring eliptical fields. A similar design ornaments a Sandwich cut glass cigar holder in the NBMOG collection (click Sandwich). Glass factories frequently copied each other, and Tufts quite possibly obtained his glass from more than one source. The origin of his fountains' glass components, therefore, remains uncertain. Another uncertainty is why the NBMOG fountain globes feature two different patterns. Author Jane Shadel Spillman suggests that the fountain might have been a special order (see "Victorian Crystal Table Fountains," The Magazine Antiques, April 2008, p. 129).
(Above) Cut design of the NBMOG fountain globe featuring the Diamond Thumbprint pattern. This pattern was cut by several companies, including the Boston & Sandwich Glass Co. (see Barlow-Kaiser, The Glass Industry in Sandwich, vol. 2, Plate 77 for a company trade catalog showing a Diamond Thumbprint banquet lamp), and the Mt. Washington Glass Works (see Wilson, Mt. Washington & Pairpoint Glass, Fig. 3-3, lower left, for a company photograph showing a Diamond Thumbprint lamp font). Also, note that one of the Mt. Washington fountains appearing in the Centennial Exhibition photograph appears to have a cut diamond pattern.
(Above) Cast metal frame of the NBMOG fountain showing the embossed 1871 patent date above the "J. W. Tufts/Boston" mark
(Above) A "Crystal Self-Acting Fountain" advertised by the American Fountain Works, New York, NY in the June 17, 1875 issue of the Crockery Journal (Vol. 1, No. 24, p. 1). This company produced a fountain powered by a drum and piston mounted in its pedestal. Lifting two ornimental "tulip buds" located to each side of the fountain's jet would raise the piston inside the drum. Gravity would then slowly pull the piston down, causing the fountain to play for up to five hours. "Gold-fish will thrive in it," the advertisement claimed, "and small bouquets may be placed in the four bouquet holders we send with each fountain, to hang on the rim of the basin." Flower pot brackets were adjustable and detachable.
(Above, left) Storer patent illustration, U.S. Patent No. 111,697, Feb. 7, 1871; (above, center) Illustration from Knight's American Mechanical Dictionary (Boston: Houghton, Osgood & Co., 1880, p. 910), showing the principle of the fountain's operation as first described by the ancient mathematician and engineer Hero of Alexandria (c.10-70 AD); (above, right) illustration from Knight's American Mechanical Dictionary showing a "Portable Fountain" operated with a hand-pump mechanism.
Although the Tufts' company assembled and sold its fountains, the origin of the glass components has been uncertain. Tufts could have ordered the parts from any of several glass factories operating in the region or elsewhere. The nearby New England Glass Company of East Cambridge, MA was a leading candidate. The Boston & Sandwich Glass Company was another. Until recently, the Mt Washington Glass Works seemed a less likely contender, since it had moved from South Boston to New Bedford, MA, some fifty miles distant, the year before the American patent was issued. Much to the surprise and delight of NBMOG, however, a photograph of the Mt. Washington booth at the Centennial Exhibition has come to light showing two parlor fountains on display. One of these has a frame like the Tufts examples but splayed at the bottom so that no marble base is required (see below left). The other features a different frame design, a colorless, cut glass basin and base, and what appear to be colored, cut overlay globes (see below right). The photograph was donated to the Museum in 2005 as part of the Shirley Papers, a group of documents descending in the family of Mt. Washington Glass Company agent Frederick S. Shirley. Based on the new evidence of the photograph, Mt. Washington is now considered the most likely source for the fountain's glass components.
Another relevant document from the Shirley Papers is a brochure by chandelier manufacturer J. Defries & Sons of London advertsing "Storer's Patent Perpetual Table Fountains (For Perfumed Waters) For Home, India and the Colonies." Defries apparently had obtained a license to the English patent rights for the fountain. The brochure illustrates an elaborate example, quite different from the Tufts design, featuring cut decoration and hanging baskets for flowers (see illustration below). The presence of this document in the Shirley Papers is curious. It provides an additional tie between the Mt. Washington company and the Storer fountains, but does not necessarily indicate any direct association between Mt. Washington and Defries.
Parlor Fountain Advertisement J. Defries & Sons London, c. 1875 H: 5 3/8" NBMOG Collection Gift: The Shirley Papers Acc. 2005.253.118
Crystal table fountains were highly ornamental novelties intended for the mansions and emporiums of an ostentatious time. Following the depression of 1893, Tufts, in his "Letter to the Trade," quoted Motley, the historian, who wrote "Give us the luxuries of life, and we will do without the necessities" (Johnson, p. 20). Table fountains certainly qualified as luxuries. The least expensive Tufts version cost $15, which represented more than two weeks pay for a typical laborer of the period. The most expensive surviving version is the NBMOG fountain, currently considered unique for its cut overlay globes. Cutting does not appear as one of the nine decorative glass options listed for the fountains in the c. 1877 Tufts catalog. It is possible, however, that the catalog writer confused cutting with etching, a common mistake for individuals outside the glass industry. "Ruby Glass, Etched" fountains were listed for $20-30, depending on the quality and finish of the frame and marble base. Tufts also offered a second, much more elaborate and expensive parlor fountain, designated "Style No. 2," which sold for a staggering $50 (see illustration lower right). Only one surviving example of this second style is known. The catalog description states that the fountain "has two basins, the upper one is the reservoir for water which supplies the Fountain and the lower is for flowers, but instead this may be used for gold fish with beautiful effect."
(Near Right) Style No. 1, fountain illustration from the c. 1877 Tufts trade catalog (Boston Public Library, Rare Books Dept.). The catalog date is suggested by Johnson (Spinning Wheel, May 1961, p. 20), possibly based on the latest dated testimonial (April 18, 1877) appearing in the catalog (Far Right) Style No. 2, fountain illustration from same source as above
Click Centennial Fountain for an illustration and discussion of the spectacular 17-foot high glass fountain erected by Frederick Shirley and the Mt. Washington Glass Works at the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia.