Goofus Glass: That Beautiful Old Stuff

by G. David Ballentine
"The Goofus Glass Museum and Information Center"

Goofus glass berry set
Goofus Glass "all over decorated" 7-piece berry set

Goofus Glass with bluebirds
Above: Goofus Glass "Bluebirds & Strawberries"

"The Manufacturers couldn’t sell them, or so they wanted you to believe, but sell them they did; boxes and barrels for a dollar a dozen. They were bought by promoters for carnivals, medicine show owners, movie houses, and filling stations. Buy 5 gallons and get a bowl and a plate. Buy a movie ticket and get a bowl. Want to take a gift to a wedding reception? Take a bridal jar filled with pickles. Want to have a door prize? Give away a box of six luncheon plates. Maybe it was the "Roses in the Snow" design. Goofus glass was given away by every sort of business – car dealers, furniture stores, at WW1 Bond drives. Buy a house and get a complete set of dishes. Buy a new suit, get an intaglio fruit bowl. Buy an engagement ring, get a vase or a set of dishes. It went on and on until the supply was exhausted. Then grandma and grandpa boxed it up and put it in the barn or the cellar. Let son George dispose of it "when I’m gone". And George did, to his son Junior, and Junior to his Jane. By the mid 1940’s Jane found a new use for this ugly old stuff – wash off all of the paint and use the dishes or better yet, sell them to thrift shops." (Wilma Sumpter, Citrus Heights, CA).

Goofus glass puffbox
A Goofus Glass "Relief Embossed Rose" Puff box

What we collectors refer to as Goofus glass was originally marketed under far more glamorous sounding appellations such as "Oriental Art", "Egyptian Art", "Khedive", "Golden Oriental", "Intaglio Art", etc. etc Somewhere along the way, however, its glamorous reputation became tarnished. It became considered old fashioned and worse yet, it was found that the paint had a tendency to flake off with handling and washings. Early slang for Goofus was "Mexican ware", "Hooligan hoolies", "Bridal glass" "Gypsy glass" and even "Carnival glass" Indeed, it was the first legitimate Carnival glass. There are many stories as to how it got its present name. One story goes that a lady once remarked after seeing a piece, "Oh! They are just trying to goof (fool) us. Another is that somebody "goofed" up when they made something where the paint flakes off.

Goofus Glass lamp
The "Queen", one might say of any Goofus
collector’s treasures, would be an intact old oil lamp
such as this beauty with the classic umbrella shaped shade.

Goofus glass is basically just pressed or mold-blown glass. Various patterns were produced by mold makers so that the distinguishing fruit, flower, vine, insect, animal or whatever was raised above the surface of the surrounding glass; i.e. a " relief embossed" pattern, or, indented beneath the surface of the surrounding glass- in hollow relief; i.e. an "intaglio" pattern. Collectors today use shorthand means of distinguishing these as simply "EP" and "IP". The distinguishing factor that makes an item considerable for inclusion into the "Goofus" family is that along the way, manufacturers of pressed glass commenced to apply paint to these pieces – what is referred to as "cold-painting" i.e. not fired on. Early aerographing processes and combined with hand applied decorating took two forms as well. One form we refer today to as "All-over decorating" or "AOD". One side or the other of the piece was completely covered with paint. The second type of decoration is referred to as "Pattern decorated" or just "PD". Only the distinguishing pattern of the piece was painted and the remainder of the glass remained untouched. The glass itself generally was clear, although milk glass is often seen with both types of decoration. Frosted (acid etched) pieces are known in Goofus but less commonly. Surface patterns were imparted by the mold used. The more frequently seen surface textures are various "basket weave", "fish net", "stippled" ones. Paint colors encountered are most commonly predominantly gold with red decoration but items such as vases can display almost any color imaginable. Paint is applied to the back of dishes, the outside surface of oil lamps and items such as trays and puff boxes

Goofus milk glass
A milk glass plate with Goofus decoration
I don’t feel it is proper to refer to these simply as "Goofus Glass"

Attribution of mold shapes and patterns has been an arduous task with small rewards – few and far between. After much research, contacting leading experts, buying books by the car load, telephone calls, emails, and so on – I have been led mostly in circles. I began to ponder why. Finally, it dawned upon me that for one thing, at the turn of the century there were no photocopiers, no digital cameras, no scanners, no computers etc. we so take for granted today. If a manufacturer wanted to create a catalog of sorts, he had to hire an artist to sketch the products. Those sketches then had to be taken to a second artist who specialized in reverse engraving of lead or wood plates. These plates were then set into a printing press and each sheet of images stamped out singly. The whole machine had to be painstakingly reset for the 2nd sheet and so forth. It must have cost a fortune even in those days for all of this to be done. The second factor was that several catastrophic fires claimed the old glass works. These buildings were for the most part wooden structures and housed giant gas fired ovens that were never shut down. Add to that nearby spark spewing coal fired trains, lightning, careless smokers, brush fires, and perhaps even occasional arson and you had a ripe recipe for disaster that struck frequently. No doubt many a record was lost in smoke. To date I have copies of a few pages from a Dugan catalog, a few pages of a Northwood catalog and a few pages from an Indiana Glass Co. catalog for all my research efforts. Not much to brag about for all of this effort. The final blow to being able to sort out any thread from this blanket of confusion thrown over the entire mess is that at the turn of the century nineteen different glass factories had combined into a giant combine known as the National Glass Company. Factories were leased, molds were interchanged, designs were freely copied and who knows who made what and where during that several year period until the National Glass Combine went bankrupt around 1907.

Goofus Glass by Northwood
Northwood’s "Apples and Pears" Intaglio

Be all of the above as it may, we do know today that the well known H. Northwood firm, in Wheeling, West Virginia along with the Dugan / Diamond firm in Indiana, Pennsylvania made quite a bit of decorated pressed glassware. Both are most well known for their Intaglio ware. In addition one would have to add Westmoreland of Grapeville, Pennsylvania; Lancaster Glass Co. of Lancaster, Ohio; Crescent Glass Co. of Wellsburg, West Virginia; McKee Glass Co. of Jeanette, Pennsylvania; La Belle Glass Works of Bridgeport, Ohio and the Indiana Glass Co. of Dunkirk, Indiana. The last mentioned, I believe, being one of the most prolific producers of the AOD vases, lamps, dishes, etc. we collectors like to call "mainline" Goofus. It was obvious that in order to run a glass works, one must be able to have access to lots of cheap natural gas to fire the furnaces. One notices therefor the clumping of most of these firms about the Northeast and Mid Western states where natural gas abounded. If one were to superimpose a map of gas wells with an overlay of glass factories in America, it would coincide perfectly.

Goofus glass opalescent
This Goofus Glass 3-footed bowl, circa 1907
in Dugan’s "Cherry Panel" is really opalescent glass
with Goofus decoration accentuating the center pattern

We aren’t exactly sure just how long the "hay-day" lasted of paint decorated pressed glass. Estimates today seem to place it somewhere between 1897 – 1920? It continued to be advertised perhaps as late as 1925. We are quite certain that the era of the Intaglio lines was much more narrow – perhaps between 1905 and 1909 at the larger firms of Northwood and Dugan, where it was superceded by iridescent ware known today as "Carnival glass". Carnival kicked off in a big way in 1908 and it was immediately hailed as a much more attractive, popular, and obviously more durable product as the finish didn’t flake off. As mentioned elsewhere, there just aren’t any records of production, photographs, diaries, etc. left to sift through for all of these nagging questions to be definitively answered once and for all.

As mentioned, most Goofus is found with clear and sometimes milk glass, but it is also known to be found with pale aqua, bright aquamarine, apple green, light amber and frosted glass. For these reasons, I speculate that considerable quantities of "blanks" were bought from the original manufacturers and "’gussied up" by decorating houses for resale. Face it, what stupid glassmaker would waste the time (and money) adding ingredients for making colored glass if he knew at the time the aim was to eventually paint it all over? We also encounter special runs of rare advertising pieces for all sorts of retail establishments and products.

Commemorative pieces were made for holidays, world fairs, etc. as well. Some of these are crudely done; some are actually molded at the factory – special "runs". Obviously the ones just scratched out in the paint were "after market" creations. These all, of course, command higher prices and are in great demand by collectors. Intact "sets" of pieces also bring the prices up such as a complete berry set with all of its original paint intact. As with any glass collectible, condition, condition, condition set the price just as location, location, location does for real estate. A piece of Goofus with little or no paint cannot bring but perhaps one half at most the price of a perfectly preserved specimen. Old jars are given a slight leeway with "rough" top rims. Early jars top blown into molds had their tops "snapped" off unceremoniously. More modern processes later produced a safer product.

Goofus Glass vase
A pristine condition Indiana Glass Co.
"Love Birds" vase

Speculation for a long time held that Goofus was sold as packers goods used to contain pickles and mustards and that housewives kept the colorful jars to use as vases. I have ample proof now after much research that – yes – blown jars in clear glass were used in the latter years of the 19th century for that purpose but I cannot place them being painted. It is suggested that waxed plugs sealed the jars, topped with lead foil caps and a label. This theory wanes and withers with proof of an abundance of beautiful, well made Goofus glass decorative vases made by Indiana Glass Co. of Dunkirk, Indiana. Nor does it jell well with copies of ads by such wholesalers as Butler Brothers which likewise advertise such items as the "Relief embossed rose", Relief embossed Poppy" marked with no ambiguity whatsoever as vases, and intended to be sold as such by the dozen, packed in barrels.

Organizing a collection of Goofus glass would no doubt differ from collector to collector. I try to view our collection from the standpoint of a zoologist or botanist.

I look at the opalescent pieces with patterns painted to accentuate them as deserving their own "place" apart from the rest. Likewise, I view the Intaglio pieces with patterns painted in the Goofus style as being different specie. I see pattern decorated milk glass as something to isolate out as a third special and distinct entity. The decorated lamps – particularly those with intact decorated shades are certainly deserving of their own space – would these be the crowning focal point? The various sized vases, they must go together in a special display of their own, hardly having to bow as they face the lamps by any means. If I were to write my own book on Goofus, I am sure that separate chapters roughly as defined above would be my outline. What fun it is to rearrange one’s collection from time to time. We secure many a piece on the wall with a loop of wire about the collar base and hang it from a hook. While it may be argued that one looses a bit of paint from the wire, I feel over time, this saves far more damage as it is beyond harms way now forever unless the house burns down. No little hands, accidental dings or drops, no handling possible.

I hope that this brief introduction may have whetted your appetite to buy a few Goofus glass objects for your collection. You soon may be hopelessly hooked for life. "Just one more piece!" might very well become your mantra as well. We happen to feel it is a real piece of old Americana if there ever was one. There will never be more of it made, it will never be worth less than it is today and will only grow more dear – particularly if a more recent price guide ever hits the market and as the century mark is rapidly approaching placing it as a true antique as well as a super find on the collectible circuit. Unfortunately, one finds they may soon need to build a larger house to be able to display all of the collections.

I have been asked repeatedly where to find it and my best answer is to haunt Ebay online Auction as well as Yahoo’s online auction daily. It has virtually disappeared from antique malls and shows altogether, as has so much else. Such a shame – it used to be such fun venturing out looking for our various collectibles while roaming about the country while on vacation. Possibly there still is hope in certain parts of the country going to various farm and estate sales. We hope to give that a try this coming June. I’ll have to let you know how that pans out.

One last plea - Please leave the entire original paint intact on any Goofus glass objects you may acquire. Repainting is NOT restoring, and is NOT repairing. You don’t polish antique copper, you don’t refinish antique furniture, and you don’t repaint the old master’s oil paintings - so DON’T REPAINT YOUR GOOFUS! If the paint is almost gone, perhaps it would be best to just strip it all off! At least it wouldn’t live a lie. Try to avoid handling Goofus repeatedly, never stack it, never put it in the attic for storage subject to the ravages of extreme temperatures and finally, never put it in a dishwasher unless all the paint is already gone.

If you are looking for Goofus glass, you can usually find items on offer on ebay. Click Goofus Glass to take a look.

If you would like to contact the author about Goofus Glass, his email address is:

References and Further Reading:

The following books about glass include sections or information about Goofus. They are helpful reference sources. Click on the title to see more information.

1: Dugan/Diamond: The Story of Indiana, Pennsylvania, Glass (1993) by Heacock, Measell & Wiggins.
2: Goofus Glass(1984) by Carolyn McKinley, publisher Collector Books.
3: Harry Northwood: The Wheeling Years 1901-1925 (1991) by Heacock, Measell and Wiggins.

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