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Home | Articles | The Gretchen Keller Glass Collection at Peabody Essex Museum

Fig. 2: Pocket bottle made by Henry William Stiegel, Manheim, PA, 1765–1774. Amethyst nonlead glass. H. 5 1/4 in. Courtesy of Peabody Essex Museum; photography by Mark Sexton.

The first half of the twentieth century will long be remembered as the golden age of collecting, when many of the most important collections of American decorative arts were assembled. A generation of pioneering collectors, among them Henry Francis du Pont, Francis Garvin, Ima Hogg, Maxim Karolik, Henry and Helen Flint, Henry Ford, and J. Insley Blair, played a major role in shaping American tastes and attitudes about material culture. By ultimately placing their collections within the public domain, their legacies continue to influence our understanding of the past.

Less well known among this generation, but one who shared the passion for collecting, was Gretchen Keuffel Keller (1885–1974), who spent nearly forty years building a comprehensive collection of glass in her Summit, New Jersey, home (Fig. 1). In 1964 she donated the entire collection to her alma mater, Bradford College, in Haverhill, Massachusetts, where she had been a member of the class of 1903.1 When financial troubles forced the college to close its doors in 2000, the Peabody Essex Museum, in Salem, Massachusetts, was able to purchase the entire collection and honor the original intent of the donor to share her collection with the public.

Fig. 1: Window in the home of Gretchen Keuffel Keller, Summit, New Jersey, ca. 1964. Courtesy of Robert Keller. Mrs. Keller arranged the glass in her home by color, creating beautiful window displays such as this one, intended to capture the light and enhance the decorative effects of the glass.

What began for Mrs. Keller as a casual pastime during summer visits to the North Shore region of Massachusetts in the late 1920s soon turned into a passionate pursuit. Through perseverance, discriminating taste, and careful study, Mrs. Keller built a remarkable collection of nearly 500 pieces of glass made before 1885. The collection contains outstanding examples of work from most of the significant early glassmaking centers in New England, Pennsylvania, New York, Ohio, West Virginia, and New Jersey.

Typical of the quality of the collection is a rare amethyst mold-blown pocket bottle, in the diamond-daisy pattern (Fig. 2), made by German immigrant glassmaker Henry William Stiegel. Stiegel operated the most successful eighteenth-century glassworks in the country in Manheim, Pennsylvania, from 1765 to 1774. Mrs. Keller purchased the flask in 1954 for $800 from the legendary glass dealer and authority George S. McKearin, who, with his wife, wrote some of the most comprehensive early books on American glass.2 He served as an advisor in developing the collection and supplied many of Mrs. Keller’s rarest pieces.

Fig. 3: Celery vase by an unidentified maker in Pittsburgh, PA, ca. 1830. Lead glass. H. 8 5/8 in. Courtesy of Peabody Essex Museum; photography by Mark Sexton.

Mrs. Keller sought to build a collection that explored several themes, among which was the full range of techniques used to produce and decorate glass. An 1820s celery vase from Pittsburgh (Fig. 3) is not only an excellent example of the mold-blown technique featuring gadrooning on the lower waist, but is also an outstanding example of the engraver’s art, being fully decorated with swags and ribbons. She also understood the important role foreign glass has played within the American experience, often serving as prototypes for American work as well as the commodities used by many people during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. To this end, Mrs. Keller collected approximately 100 examples of table glass typical of the imported wares from England, Ireland, and continental Europe.

Fig. 4: Tulip vases made by the Boston and Sandwich Glass Company of Sandwich, MA, ca. 1850. Lead glass. H. 10 1/8 in. Courtesy of Peabody Essex Museum; photography by Mark Sexton.

The real strength of the collection is pressed glass made in New England between 1825 and 1860, driven in large part by Mrs. Keller’s love of the colors so characteristic of glass from the region. It was in fact the brilliant colors that sparked Mrs. Keller’s initial interest in glass and led to the acquisition of her first pieces in Haverhill in the 1920s. The collection contains a variety of colors, including: canary, amethyst, cobalt, peacock blue, aqua, olive green, emerald, apple green, ruby, lavender, amberina, fiery opalescent, pale gold, white, and amber.

Fig. 6: Oil lamp by an unidentified Massachusetts maker, ca. 1825. Lead glass. H. 9 1/4 in. Courtesy of Peabody Essex Museum; photography by Mark Sexton.

Many of the popular forms produced by one of New England’s most famous glass factories, the Boston and Sandwich Glass Company (1825–1888), are represented in the collection by a selection of colors used in production, evidenced by the tulip vases (1845–1860) shown in Figure 4. Among the notable documented pieces that Mrs. Keller purchased is a green sugar bowl with a domed cover and matching creamer (ca. 1850) made by Alfred Green, a glassmaker who worked for the Boston and Sandwich Glass Company (Fig. 5).

As she matured as a collector, Mrs. Keller also sought out the unusual, and as a result there are many choice pieces in the collection. An oil lamp (ca. 1825), for example, made by an unknown Massachusetts factory, features a pattern-molded-and-twisted standard in cobalt blue with a blown font and foot in colorless glass (Fig. 6). Its combined elements of form, design, and color are quite rare.

Mrs. Keller collected glass for most of her adult life, searching out examples that told the story of glass in America, whether through technical aspects or those of beauty and design. A true collector, she meticulously made note of each purchase, keeping important information in a binder that she tabulated by color—the aspect of glass she most loved.
Fig. 5: Sugar bowl and creamer made by Alfred Green of the Boston and Sandwich Glass Company, Sandwich, MA, ca. 1850. Lead glass. Bowl: H. 7 1/2 in.; Creamer: H. 5 1/2 in. Courtesy of Peabody Essex Museum; photography by Mark Sexton.

Even after she had donated her collection to Bradford College, Mrs. Keller could never fully relinquish it, occasionally returning to borrow pieces for the pure pleasure they brought her.

The Keller Collection joins a sizable, existing collection of glass at the Peabody Essex Museum to form the most comprehensive American glass collection in the Boston area. Review and study of the collection is currently under way and, once complete, will present a remarkable legacy for the glass scholar and an additional chapter in the history of early-twentieth-century collecting.

Dean Lahikainen is the Carolyn and Peter Lynch Curator of American Decorative Arts at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, MA, a position he has held since 1992. He is the author of numerous articles and exhibition catalogues, including In the American Spirit: Folk Art from the Collections (1994).
  1. Gretchen Keuffel Keller, “Collecting American Glass—A Forty-Year Fascination,” Bradford Junior College Bulletin, Alumni Edition (May 1964). Frank A. Oberti III, “The Gretchen Keuffel Keller Collection of American Glass” (typescript, Keller Glass Archives, Peabody Essex Museum, 1983).
  2. See George S. McKearin and Helen McKearin, American Glass (New York: Crown Publishers, 1941), for example. George S. McKearin to Mrs. Karl Keller, personal letter, 9 January 1954, Keller Glass Archives.

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