Glass Menagerie

Portland Glass Company glassware
The pear punch bowl, tall vase, blue dishes, and gold goblet shown here exhibit the Portland Glass Company’s most popular Tree of Life pattern. The firm primarily produced clear pieces; colored ones are relatively rare. Photograph by Irvin Serrano.

Long before today’s glass repair chain, a different Portland Glass Company was churning out elegant, affordable vessels that will elevate modern tables, appraiser John Bottero says. 

For more than 1,800 years, glass was hand-blown into molds or shaped freeform, a labor-intensive process. It wasn’t until the 19th century that glassmakers developed a technique for machine-pressing molten glass into molds, enabling them to create elaborate designs quickly. Production of such pressed or pattern glass skyrocketed, prices fell, and, suddenly, customers of all income levels could assemble matching glassware sets to pair with their china services.

Pressed glass manufacturers popped up in nearly every region of the United States. Here in Maine, we had the Portland Glass Company, established in 1863 in a four-story brick building on Commercial Street. Within two months of opening, the firm was manufacturing 5,000 pieces of glassware a day, and by 1865 it employed 100 workers. When it closed in 1873 — a victim of high materials costs and a national economic downturn — it had produced more than 60 glass patterns. 

Some pieces resemble traditional hand-cut vessels; others took on shapes and patterns, such as dots, rosettes, garlands, and leaves, that could only be created with the new technology. Rare colored and limited-production examples, like the pear punch bowl pictured below, may fetch well over $1,000. But common clear items can be found for $10 to $100, making it possible for just about anyone to own a piece of Portland’s glass-producing history.

Special thanks to the Cumberland Club in Portland for loaning pieces from their Portland Glass collection, donated by former member/appraiser Bruce A. Buxton.

John Bottero is the vice president of Thomaston Place Auction Galleries. Constantly in pursuit of incredible finds, he sees dozens of people each week on Thomaston’s Free Appraisal Day and travels the state helping Mainers bring their collections and valuable heirlooms to market.