Book chronicles short-lived Meriden Flint Glass Co.
MERIDEN, Conn. (AP) – Off North Colony Road, behind Tomassetti Distributors, Cambridge Street runs into a small street called Artizan Street. The area contains some remnants of a former business that used to call the city home more than 100 years ago.
The Meriden Flint Glass Company: An Abundance of Glass, by resident Diane Tobin, chronicles the history of the short-lived but influential company that called the city home from the 1870s through the 1880s. Later, the factory building became home to the more widely known Napier jewelry company.
“They were the little company that could. They took on the giants of the time,” Tobin said Monday at her Gale Avenue home, where she has a small collection of Meriden Flint Glass products.
Though Meriden is known for its silver industry, local silver companies responding to trends in the market added glassware to their catalogs, Tobin said. Consumers would have had to purchase glass from places such as the New England Co. of Cambridge, Mass., or from Europe, Tobin said, which could be costly.
Horace C. Wilcox, former Meriden mayor and president of the Meriden Britannia Co., was on a trip to Europe in the early 1870s and toured some glass factories. He decided that glass could also be made in Meriden.
In 1876, the Britannia Co. approved $50,000 in stock to create the Meriden Flint Glass Co., Tobin said. As was common with new companies, the glass factory lured workers away from existing ones, such as New England Glass, Tobin said, which is how Cambridge Street got its name.
“They had some of the best artisans in the world working there,” she said.
The company’s artisans lived on Artizan Street.
“George E. Hatch and Joseph Bourne had been connected with the New England Glass Works and were skilled artisans who here directed an enterprise which produced some of the finest ornamental glass … in the country. The company erected large and well appointed glass works in the northern part of the city and many skilled native and foreign workmen were employed,” reads an excerpt from the 1900 book History of New Haven County, Volume 1, edited by John L. Rockey.
Company officials kept a detailed journal of the trials and tribulations of the company, Tobin said. She spent a lot of time reading through the volumes at the Meriden Historical Society.
Along with the skilled workers, she said, children were often employed to run errands and other simple tasks. The superintendent of schools would stop by to make sure the job was also a learning experience for the children.
For years, the company would create a wide variety of items including drinking glasses, vases, food platters, jewelry boxes and bowls. The Britannia Co. would combine glassware with the silver products to make lanterns and other decorative glass products. Tobin compiled a personal collection of these items, largely by scouring eBay, which she takes to give presentations throughout the region.
Because many workers came from other glass factories in the region, collectors often misidentify Meriden Flint Glass products with those of other companies, Tobin said. Few have the company seals on them anymore, she said. Most of her identification comes from searching through catalogs from Britannia and other local companies.
Working conditions at the factory were quite dangerous, Tobin said. Flint glass essentially means using flint, lead and other elements to produce a higher quality glass, Tobin said. Workers would frequently get sick and even die due to some of the conditions they were exposed to, she said.
Employees eventually began to organize into a union, hoping to get better pay and better working conditions, Tobin said. Company officials would annually meet with union representatives to determine the rules for each work year, making the company possibly the first to institute a form of collective bargaining, Tobin said.
Eventually, the unions marked the end of the company, however. Tobin said union members would frequently strike over pay and work condition disagreements. Eventually, the strikes became too much for the company to continue and it ceased operating in the late 1880s, Tobin said.
The building was eventually purchased by E.A. Bliss, who started the company that would go on to become Napier Jewelry. Some of the original brick factory building still stands off Cambridge Street, Tobin said.
Along with detailing the history of the company, Tobin said the most intriguing aspect of her research was the human side of the company.
“I wanted to tell the story before the building is taken down,” Tobin said.
Information from: Record-Journal, http://www.record-journal.com
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