The Collector’s Minute: Telling Victorian Cranberry Glass vs. 20th-Century Versions

Cranberry glass made by Pilgrim Glass in the 1980s can be challenging to differentiate from original 19-century Victorian pieces.

The origin of “cranberry glass” is thought to go all the way back to the late Roman Empire and was rediscovered by Italian glassmakers during the 17th century. The secret of the ruby coloration involved the addition of gold oxide to the molten mix.

Cranberry glass went through another revival during the 19th century, when it was made in large amounts along with “crackle glass” and “cameo glass,” which has caused examples of all three to be generically referred to as ?”Victorian.”

As with any antique or collectible item that suddenly becomes popular, the supply eventually begins to drive up values to the point that reproductions become profitable and manufacturers flood the market with cheaper alternatives to the originals. The problem here is that, in some cases, reproductions made using similar production methods can be every bit as good as the originals and, if unmarked, are often identified as the real thing.

The examples of cranberry glass that are most often identified as ?19th-century Victorian were made by the 1960s or later by Pilgrim Glass company of Ceredo, West Virginia—the main reason being that these pieces were all hand-blown and were very close in design to ?the Victorian originals. Also, other than a foil label, Pilgrim pieces were unsigned.

Pilgrim Glass was established in 1949 by Alfred Knobler, who purchased the failing Tri State Glass Manufacturing Company in Huntington, West Virginia, and began production. In 1956, a new production facility was built several miles away in Ceredo. Pilgrim added Victorian-style cranberry glass ?in 1968 and produced it in large numbers for the giftware market, particularly during the surge of interest in Victorian glassware during the 1980s. Pilgrim Glass became the largest producer of cranberry glass in the world.

By 2002, Alfred Knobler, then 86, wanted to retire, but when no new buyers could be found for the firm, it ceased production.

A “rough” pontil. This can help identify a true Victorian piece from an Empire piece, which has a smooth “finished” pontil.

Identifying Pilgrim pieces can be a problem for new collectors. There are variations in the color of cranberry glass, and some claim color is key to identifying Pilgrim from the originals, with the Pilgrim examples being lighter hued. While this may be true when comparing it with genuine American-made cranberry glass, it’s not as accurate when comparing some English Victorian cranberry to the Pilgrim pieces.

One clue that does hold true is that all Pilgrim cranberry pieces have “finished pontils,” or scars, on their base. A pontil is a mark on the bottom of a piece of hand-blown glass caused when the iron rod used to handle handmade glass is removed. Finished pontils are smooth. By contrast, many original examples of Victorian cranberry glass have rough pontil scars.

Pilgrim did produce catalogs of their products, which does help with identification and differentiating types of pieces made, but as some are very close in design to 19th-century originals, only by actually handling both the Victorian originals and the copies over time can one develop an eye to determine the difference.

Mike Wilcox, of Wilcox & Hall Appraisers, is a Worthologist who specializes in Art Nouveau and the Arts and Craft movement.

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