Born in W. Pa., glass gobblers hold tradition




Some folks like their turkeys big-breasted and pre-basted, hopped up on broth and vegetable oil. Others prefer the more natural look and taste of a free-range, organic fowl.

And many in both camps are quite fond of a smaller bird that bridges the great turkey divide, one that glows like a jewel in candlelight and can be stuffed with candy, cranberries and soup.

The turkeys made by the L.E. Smith Glass Co. of Mount Pleasant, Westmoreland County, have been gobbling up space on Thanksgiving dinner tables since the first one rolled out of the annealing oven in 1943.

Smith Glass turkeys have been sold by Williams-Sonoma, Martha Stewart and dozens of other smaller retailers, in catalogs and stores all across America.

"It's one of our most popular items," said manager Rick Rimel, who in September oversaw production of thousands of red turkeys for Williams-Sonoma.

"We call it ruby. Williams-Sonoma calls it cranberry," said Mr. Rimel, a big, friendly bloke with an Appalachian twang. "I've made them in pinks, blues, cobalts. I made them in every color you can think of."

When a retailer places a large order, Mr. Rimel makes a few thousand extra in case they need more, and also to supply Smith's own factory sales room.

"Right now I'm stocked pretty good for Thanksgiving," he said, with turkeys in amber, ruby, clear and a new bicolor version called "amberina," with a ruby body and amber tail feathers produced by cooling the tail faster than the body. Because Mr. Rimel, who also mixes the glass batches, has had a lot of requests for turkeys in green milk glass, he's making those this week, too.

The factory, which celebrates its centennial this year, is one of a handful of American companies still producing handmade pressed glass. Marking the occasion is a new book about Smith Glass, the first to chronicle its history and production.

"Smith is a company that has continually reinvented itself," writes Tom Felt in "L.E. Smith Glass Company: The First One Hundred Years" (Collector Books, $29.95). Depression glass dinnerware, hurricane lamps, lamp shades, perfume bottles, cigarette lighters, even lenses for automobile headlights all rolled out of the Smith factory.

Mr. Felt had access to the company archives, including products, catalogs and, from 1910 to 1959, handwritten annual inventories. But making sense of it all was a challenge, partly because Smith only occasionally gave its products an identifying mark (since the late 1960s, some Smith glass pieces -- but not the turkeys -- have been marked on the bottom with an "S"). At almost 400 glossy, full-color pages, the large-format book still couldn't cover all of Smith's output.

With Fenton Art Glass Co. of Williamstown, W.Va., Smith shares the distinction of being one of only two handmade tableware glass companies in America to have reached the century mark. Fenton announced in August that it soon would close at the age of 102, but an outpouring of customer support has kept it alive.

A fragile business

Smith Glass has had its troubles, too, and for similar reasons. Buoyed by a revival of interest in pressed glass and burgeoning sales through catalog and Internet retailers, the previous owners, like Fenton's, had upgraded and expanded, but during the economic downturn after 9/11, slower sales and rising natural gas and health care costs left Smith unable to meet its debts.

Smith stopped production in June 2004 and was nearing liquidation when Scottish-born Pittsburgh businessman William Kelman came to the rescue. He purchased the company early the next year, confident there's a market for traditional pressed glass.

In the late 19th century, Pittsburgh and environs was the pressed glass capital of Western Pennsylvania, with one-fourth of America's factories producing a third of its glass, Heinz History Center curator Anne Madarasz writes in the catalog to the center's ongoing exhibit, "Glass: Shattering Notions."

The process has remained much the same for almost 200 years. On a recent Monday, gatherer George Eicher, a 38-year Smith employee, and a crew of four were making rose-colored goblets for stores that sell to the Amish and for a California hotel.

Mr. Eicher dips the gathering rod into the furnace and pulls out a gob of molten glass, then turns 180 degrees and lowers it into a mold, where the presser snips it off and lowers the plunger, forcing the glass deep into the mold. The turning-out man removes the goblet and passes it to the glazer, who places it on a turntable that heats and smooths the edges of the rims. The carrying-in man walks the goblets over to the annealing oven, or lehr, three at a time on a long wooden fork, where they bake for two hours.

Some of the goblets since have joined about 100 other glassware items stacked in Smith's signature black boxes on the sprawling warehouse floor: platters, punch bowls, candlesticks, baskets and a menagerie of covered dishes -- rabbits, hens, ducks, swans, fish, squirrels and turkeys.

The mysterious Mr. Smith

Louis E. Smith, the tall, portly man whose name Smith Glass bears, was with the company only for its first four years, and that wouldn't have surprised those who knew him. Mr. Felt, in his book, ferrets out the peripatetic, New Jersey-born glassmaker who seems to have begun his career in Martin's Ferry, Ohio, where he was manager of the decorating works of Buckeye Glass Co. in the late 1880s. He moved on to the Rochester Tumbler Co. in Beaver County before starting the L.E. Smith Manufacturing Co. there; it made cut glassware.

By 1898, Mr. Smith was president of the Pittsburg Glass and Ceramic Co. on the South Side, but in January 1900, he was in Zelienople with his wife and three children, working as manager of the Empire Glass Co.

Two years later, he was head of the decorating department at Westmoreland Specialty Co. in Grapeville, near Jeannette, where he met Charles Wible. By 1906, he was head of the McKee-Jeanette Glass Works' decorating department, which Mr. Smith and Mr. Wible offered to spin off as a separate decorating company. They used Smith's name because, as a Wible descendant told Mr. Felt, "people have trouble remembering the name of Wible."

In 1909 Smith Glass acquired the Anchor Glass Co.'s Mt. Pleasant factory, relocated there and began making its own glass, including patterned tumblers holding German-style mustard, which Smith also made.

It was Mr. Smith's own recipe, according to a 1969 article by the late Pittsburgh Press history writer George Swetnam, who described him as a "gourmet cook" with his own restaurant -- something Mr. Felt wasn't able to verify.

Mr. Smith left the company in 1911, despondent, according to family tradition, over his divorce, and became a salesman for Westmoreland Glass. He died in obscurity in the early 1930s.

Talking turkeys

The first pressed glass turkey was born and bred in Western Pennsylvania, made about 1891 by Challinor, Taylor & Co. of Tarentum; it continued in production in the original molds to about 1900 at Challinor's successor firm, the United States Glass Co. Other companies made similar turkeys, including Cambridge Glass Co. (in business 1902-1958) of Cambridge, Ohio, and the L.G. Wright Glass Co. (1936-1999) of New Martinsville, W.Va.

Smith turkeys, which retail for $29, are the smallest of the lot, 7 inches high compared to 8 to 8 1/2 inches high for the rest.

Today the competition comes from overseas, "but it is extremely poor quality glass," Mr. Felt writes. Williams-Sonoma carries some Chinese imports, Mr. Rimel said, but those amber birds have a less distinct face than Smith's birds'.

Smith turkeys, which are tested for strength by immersion in hot and cold baths, have evolved a little over the years. The older Smith birds, produced up to the late 1970s, had tail feathers "that folded up in more of a V-shape, and its head was a little bit different," Mr. Rimel said.

Production was revived in the mid-1990s after Martha Stewart, on her television program, set a table with decades-old Smith turkeys. The media still help drive the company's production: When a black cake plate appeared on the Halloween cover of a recent Country Living magazine, Smith was besieged with orders.

For pressed-glass lovers, a visit to the Smith factory store is a kid-in-a-candy-shop experience, with benefits: they also can arrange to tour the factory. In the sales room, objects are segregated by color and opacity on display shelves: white milk, green milk ("jadeite"), clear, cobalt, black, pink, sage, blue, amethyst and amber. On the lower level, where bargains can be had, seconds and overstocks are spread out on long tables and shelves.

To celebrate the centennial, everything's on sale in the warehouse, to which customers usually don't have access, from Nov. 16-25. Tours of the factory ($7 per person) are available year-round 9 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday through Friday; walk-ins are accepted but bus tours should call ahead. L.E. Smith Glass Co. is located at 1900 Liberty St., Mount Pleasant; call 724-547-3544.


TURKEY BARLEY SOUP

Smith Glass turkeys can hold cranberries on Thanksgiving and then be used as individual soup tureens the day after. Here's an easy recipe for an old-fashioned turkey barley soup.

  • 6 cups chicken broth or turkey broth
  • 1 to 2 cups diced cooked turkey
  • 1/2 cup pearl barley
  • 1/2 cup chopped onion
  • 2 celery stalks, chopped
  • 3 carrots, sliced
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1 teaspoon dried leaf thyme
  • 1/4 teaspoon dried marjoram
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
  • 2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley (about 2 teaspoons dried)

Combine all ingredients in a slow cooker. Cover and cook on low for 6 hours, or simmer over low heat on the stove for 1 hour or until the carrots are tender and the barley is soft. Serves 4 to 6.

-- www.southernfood.about.com.


Patricia Lowry can be reached at plowry@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1590.




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