Fragments of History That Fit in a Pocket

New York Times, 2017



I have been digging in the kinds of desolate spots where corpses turn up on crime shows. What I have turned up instead, fortunately, are fragments of the plentiful colored glass and molded ceramics that decorated the American skyline a century ago.

As a lifelong amateur shard hunter, I’ve poked around 19th-century trash heaps near my parents’ 1830s farmhouse in Connecticut and methodically trolled beaches while on vacation, gathering bits of glass and porcelain without paying serious attention to what they were, where they came from or why they were there.

But this summer, true shard collectors have led me into the weedier parts of the Northeast, where slag heaps and demolition debris survive from the long vanished factories that once thrived. These particular experts are interested in manufacturers of windowpanes and architectural ornament. They write books and lead tours, but they also pack their homes and workplaces with excavated artifacts from what seems to be a limitless supply. Anyone can follow in their trail and gain an understanding of American ingenuity as well as accumulate booty for gardens and windowsills or even more ambitious art projects. You must stay off private property, of course, but I also recommend that you avoid the comical errors that I made on my early expeditions.

In my first search for this esoteric kind of gold, in western Massachusetts, my guides were William J. Patriquin, a glass scholar and restorer in the hamlet of Berkshire, and Charles L. Flint, an antiques dealer and historian in Lenox. They scour the woods for traces of glassworks — there were many in the Berkshires — that harvested quartz sand and employed hundreds of workers.

The last companies died around 1900, for assorted reasons, including competition from Ohio and West Virginia suppliers, but evocative place names like Sandwash Reservoir and Glass Lake Road survive.

Mr. Patriquin wrote “The Berkshire Glass Works” (The History Press, 2011) with the stained-glass consultant Julie L. Sloan. Windowpanes in jewel tones made at Berkshire are installed at landmarks like Trinity Church in Boston and Memorial Hall at Harvard. The hamlet’s 400 residents were largely dependent on the company; workers were paid in scrip. Now, the factory at the old glassworks site on Railroad Street makes plastic molds.

Nearby, shards, slag and singed bricks are scattered along the sides of sleepy Glassworks Road, and a ruined brick furnace forms a lump in a backyard.

“The whole town is built on its own refuse, like a lot of the ancient cities,” Mr. Patriquin said.

I stuffed my front pockets and purse with pale green lumps and blue-black iridescent chips. I had brought along Thea Goldring, a recent Amherst College graduate who is studying stained glass, and she asked about the manufacturing processes. Mr. Patriquin explained the costly coal and gas needed for the furnaces, and the physical demands for workers smoothing out molten glass. The work force was racially integrated, and some factory owners were abolitionists.

“There are stories that the glassworks hid runaway slaves in sand barrels,” he said.

At Mr. Patriquin’s home, slag glitters on the lawn, and he makes textured stained-glass windows out of chips and chunks. He showed us a jar full of the snowy local sand and tilted it, as if it were an hourglass. “That’s why the glassworks were here,” he said.

When we headed back to the car for our trip to Mr. Flint’s hunting grounds around the village of Lenox Dale, I was so bedazzled by glass that I was about to sit down with shards in my front pockets. I quickly plunked them into my purse, and hoped I would be careful the next time I rummaged for my cellphone.

In Lenox Dale, ghosts of glassware makers lurk at the mucky banks of the Housatonic River, behind the post office on Crystal Street and a veterans memorial park on Walker Street. Mr. Flint collects slag and shards there in a World War II canvas ammunition bag, and he pores through local archives to research the area’s history. He can, with no notes, point out footprints of lost workshops and describe the varied machinery, the hammers and blowers and blades.

Mosquitoes assaulted us as we hacked through roots and dirt with a rake normally used for clams. We lifted out green chunks the size of baseballs, in awe.

“Berkshires emeralds they’re called,” Mr. Flint said. “It probably goes down a few feet.”

Mr. Patriquin showed us opaque white twists, made from cryolite and used in prosthetic eyes. I asked if the rough blue-brown chunks I’d also seen were perhaps called Berkshires lava. “We haven’t named that yet,” Mr. Flint said. He pulled out grayish pieces that looked like agate. “This is what we call frozen foam,” he said.

As my pockets, hands and purse overflowed, I rejected a Ball jar fragment marked “Wire Side.” But I could not resist an inexplicably intact white cosmetics jar with a molded Greek key pattern and a barely rusted lid.

I could have stayed all day, if only I had brought a durable collecting bag, waterproof boots, a high-necked shirt, bug repellent and gloves. With relief, we retreated to Mr. Flint’s air-conditioned store.

We leafed through some research papers, analyzing sand ingredients and mapping the local factories, including one briefly owned by Theodore Roosevelt.

“Glass is fragile, and so was the glass industry of Lenox Dale,” one study concluded.

To help us get home, Mr. Flint brought out shopping bags and Bubble Wrap, and he hosed off our finds. Once the brilliant striations were clean, I had no memory of which chunks had enticed me when they were filthy. I just took away as much as my bag could hold.

I was better equipped for my expedition to Tottenville, Staten Island, where the Atlantic Terra Cotta Company manufactured architectural ornaments for skyscrapers and cultural attractions, including the Woolworth Building and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. After the factory closed in the 1940s, demolition debris was simply mounded on the beach. The Staten Island preservationists and researchers Barnett Shepherd, Nick Dowen and Tina Kaasmann-Dunn drove me to its former site at 101 Ellis Street, where we picked our way through mulch piles and poison ivy to slimy brick and ceramic chunks.

“You always flip them over, because you never know,” Ms. Kaasmann-Dunn said. “Some of them are plain, some of them are elaborate.”

She pointed out the fingerprints of their makers, pressed into the backs, and patches of sepia, blue and white glaze. Seashells and rust mingled with severed brand names: RELIAN, MERICAN, WALSH1, HOLLOW, EXTRA, STATEN and HAWS-V.

“Control yourself, now,” Mr. Shepherd said teasingly, as I scavenged and he contemplated what to take for his own garden. He had researched the neighborhood exhaustively for his 2008 book, “Tottenville, the Town the Oyster Built.”

I stuffed the deep front pockets of my parka with melted beige ceramic cones used to measure kiln temperatures, white and purplish doughnuts that insulated electrical wiring and a plaque stamped “ATLANTIC.” Ceramics clinked together as I walked. A white egret froze into a pillar in an adjacent marsh.

“I wonder how deep it all is,” Ms. Kaasmann-Dunn said. “You could never get a shovel in here.”

On her lawn, she displays Atlantic red urns and creamy plaques with stars, zigzags and flowers. A neighbor owns Art Deco owls from the factory. “I covet them, they’re magnificent,” she said.

She returns to the shoreline from time to time to see what the tides yield, and she researches her finds in collaboration with the Tottenville Historical Society. No one quite knows, for instance, why Walsh bricks landed there.

“It’s not a Staten Island company,” she said.

This summer, I also explored smokestacks and manufacturing complexes where ceramics were made, but found the slag all paved over. The decorative-arts scholars Susan and Michael Padwee, who post discoveries at tilesinnewyork.blogspot.com, toured me through a dozen spots in Brooklyn, and Brenda Springsted, a retired archaeologist, took me to Trenton factory sites, as well as ceramics exhibitions at the Trenton City Museum and the New Jersey State Museum. Trenton had another consolation for me: A white teapot lid fragment that I’m eager to research turned up beside a parking lot at the 1719 brick house of William Trent.

I have cleaned all my finds together in a bathtub, and already lost track of which ones were unearthed where; my journeys will never turn into a footnoted archaeological report. The Berkshires emeralds are on my sunniest windowsill, and I plan to tuck everything else between plants at the community garden where I volunteer (the Lotus Garden, on West 97th Street in Manhattan). I want ATLANTIC to be enigmatically legible between fern fronds, and frozen foam looking like Manhattan schist that just emerged.