Reviews / Comptes rendus - Thomas B. King, Glass in Canada

Reviews / Comptes rendus

Thomas B. King, Glass in Canada

Peter Kaellgren
Royal Ontario Museum
Thomas B. King. Glass in Canada. Erin, Ont.: The Boston Mills Press, 1987. 318 pp., ill., diagrams, charts, maps, appendices, glossary, selected bibliography. Cloth $45, ISBN 0-919783-01-5.

1 Since the late Gerald Steven's Early Canadian Glass (1961), publications on Canadian glass have traditionally focussed on trying to prove what was made in Canada. It follows that a number of readers will be disappointed to find that Thomas King has devoted little space to this collecting game other than reprinting already attributed pieces from the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Ottawa. Instead, the author, who has unrivalled work and research experience in the Canadian glass industry, has more appropriately chosen to compile useful histories of the early glassworks, based largely on widely scattered secondary sources, and to recount the twentieth-century developments in the Canadian industry. King's work is largely a corporate history of the industry. His focus is on the factories, the economic conditions, the workers and the utilitarian products like containers, window glass and lamp chimneys, with tablewares occupying a distinctly secondary place. Though at times the text is unfocussed, the author reveals himself as a loyal "company man" and a person with a deep love for his subject. While some of the later sections of the book consequently sound very much like company annual reports, economic and industrial historians will probably find aspects of this study enlightening. They will also be delighted to learn that King has directed the historical records of Domglas as well as his own papers into the National Archives of Canada.

2 The author's encyclopaedic approach provides new information on aspects of the Canadian industry, such as flat (i.e. plate) glass and specialized lampwork for the scientific and pharmaceutical industry, but it has its drawbacks. For example, an abbreviated and ambiguous introductory chapter on the history of glassmaking is only peripherally connected to the project. The technical aspects of this chapter could have been more appropriately covered in the Glossary. The chapter then could have been replaced, if necessary, with one describing the state of the English and American glass industry at the time they spawned their Canadian counterpart. Another example refers to the important issue of patterns attributed to Canada on the basis of cullet. On page 170, the author suggests that each individual should set his/her own guidelines for such determinations. Unfortunately limited data and the absence of logical criteria for description would make this a difficult process. Recently the Sandwich Glass expert, Ray Barlow, sensibly suggested that sherds that are simply broken and appear in limited quantities are cullet and that actual factory products turn up in quantity and show evidence of hot working. Finally, the manner of presenting the factories in chronological order as brief capsule histories helps to highlight them, though it also makes for a fragmented presentation. Perhaps an effective editor could have resolved questions of presentation, style, footnoting and clarity.

3 In contrast to recent Canadian glass books, Glass in Canada is sparsely illustrated. Some plates show the various factories or even tantalize readers with unexpected twentieth-century Canadian patterns like "Saguenay" and "Hiawatha." Unfortunately, the carefully prepared maps indicating locations of glass-works and periods of activity were not reproduced with the text where they could have been uniquely beneficial. Instead, they were demoted to serving as end papers.

4 Overall Glass in Canada will provoke very mixed feelings. The author has done his readers a genuine service by recording the history of our glass industry. Fellow glass enthusiasts, expecting a Canadian study comparable to Ruth Webb Lee's Early American Pressed Glass (1931) will be disappointed. A study like Lee's, however, is unlikely ever to happen because Canada's small consumer population during the nineteenth century and the economic realities of industrial production would not have generated such a wide range of indigenous tablewares as was the case in the United States. Perhaps, without realizing it, Thomas King has implied that this is the case.