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Historic decanter hints at link to former Treasury Secretary

October 13, 2015

Filed under Collections, Community and Domestic Life, Exhibits, Pennsylvania Icons, Pennsylvania Treasures

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A glass decanter made by a company partially owned by Albert Gallatin

This pale green glass decanter was probably made by the New Geneva Glass Works, between 1798-1830. The western Pennsylvania company was the first glass making facility west of the Appalachian Mountains.

Abraham Alphonse “Albert” Gallatin was born into a wealthy Swiss family in 1761. Orphaned at a young age and raised by an austere relative, Catherine Pictet, Gallatin attended the best Swiss schools. However, he was unhappy with his traditional upbringing. Seeking adventure and a new life, he immigrated with a childhood friend to North America in 1780.

Upon his arrival, Gallatin tried his hand at many business ventures including tea merchant, a French tutor at Harvard, land speculator and owner of a dry goods store. In 1785, he bought land west of the Monongahela River, calling it Friendship Hill. Construction on a brick house began, and in 1789, Gallatin eloped there with Sophia Allegre, against her family’s wishes. Frontier life disagreed with Gallatin’s young bride, and she died five months into the marriage. By 1793, Gallatin had married again, this time to city belle Hannah Nicholson, with whom he had three children.

Gallatin split his time between his estate at Friendship Hill and his political commitments. Between 1790 and 1793, he served in the Pennsylvania State Legislature, followed by multiple terms in the House of Representatives beginning in 1795. With his business partners, he developed the town of New Geneva in western Pennsylvania. In 1797, five German glassmakers arrived in the area, with whom Gallatin partnered to form a glass factory.

The New Geneva Glass Works operated the first glass-making facility west of the Appalachian Mountains. By the early 1800s, the factory was producing 4,000 boxes of window glass annually, as well as characteristically pale green glass bottles, bowls and glassware.  In 1801, President Thomas Jefferson appointed Gallatin as U.S. Secretary of the Treasury. Two years later, Gallatin sold his interests in the glass works.

This pale green glass decanter was probably made by the New Geneva Glass Works, between 1798-1830. The pontil mark on the underside of the bottle, as well as imperfections in the glass, suggests that it was hand blown. Most likely, the artifact would have held wine or spirits.  This decanter will be featured in the upcoming Pennsylvania Icons exhibit at The State Museum of Pennsylvania.  

By the 1820s, the New Geneva Glass Works promoted a stock of 650 boxes of glass for sale, with 8-by-10 inch panes selling for $10 per box and 12-by-18 inch panes selling for $16. A competitor of the company sold extra-large, 18-by-24 inch panes with a price tag of between $14 and $20, each. By the late 1840s, the price on glass had dropped to a mere $8 per box. Faced with the prospects of increased competition and decreased demand, the New Geneva Glass Works closed in 1847.


About Pennsylvania Icons:
Featuring a diverse array of artifacts from the collections of the State Museum of Pennsylvania and other Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission historic sites and museums, Pennsylvania Icons tells the story of our commonwealth, its people and the role they played in shaping the nation. The exhibit features historic artifacts ranging from a 1654 map of the Philadelphia region to pieces of the Walnut Street bridge in Harrisburg. Pennsylvania Icons opens to the public on Sunday, November 8, 2015.


About Pennsylvania Treasures:
In early 2012, The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission launched the Collections Advancement Project (CAP), a program to inventory and catalog our vast and significant holdings of art and artifacts. These efforts are resulting in better stewardship of our collections which represent Pennsylvania arts, culture, history, sciences, business and agriculture. As a component of the project, CAP curators have researched rarely exhibited artifacts and works of art. We are sharing these Pennsylvania Treasures with the public through weekly updates.