The History of Fenton Hobnail Glass
The Fenton Art Glass Company is an artistic glass company that was founded in 1905. It got its start in an art glass that was called carnival glass, but it also was known for the production of many other types of art glass, such as Burmese, opalescent, and hobnail. One reason Fenton is still so widely-known and respected is because of the fact that it makes every glass item by hand, ensuring a quality product. There are currently third- and fourth- generation Fenton family members running the company, and they have employed skilled glassworkers and decorators to make the Fenton glassware that is so popular.
Hobnail glass is one of the most important types of art glass in the Fenton Art Glass Company’s history. Just as carnival glass established them as innovators and competitors in the hand-made glass industry, hobnail glass came at a time when it was difficult for them to make money on glass: the Great Depression. The Fenton Art Glass Company is well-known for its hobnail glass products even to this day, especially as they continued to further innovate and refine their hobnail glassware offerings.
Hobnail glass has a pattern of raised knobs on the surface of the glass, kind of like the studs used on the soles of boots in the time period. The Fenton Art Glass Company eventually had lines of all types of hobnail glass, from clear to colored to opalescent. Their first products were translucent, but they introduced milk glass hobnail products in 1950, and these proved to be one of their most enduring and successful legacies. In fact, without the success of this line of products, Fenton might have gone bankrupt like a number of its contemporary art glass competitors.
The Fenton Art Glass Company has a fascinating history that coincided with the history of hobnail glass. During the Great Depression, the majority of glass being manufactured by glass companies was depression glass, or glass designed to be used for meals and other everyday activities. Unfortunately, these were priced very low and were usually of a lesser quality. Toward the end of the Great Depression, it became clear that companies would have to have some higher-quality glass products, and for the Fenton Art Glass Company, this product was a perfume bottle in association with the Wrisley Perfume Company.
While the Fenton Art Glass Company had produced their first hobnail glass product in 1935––the Ruby Overlay lamp––they didn’t produce them en masse until they were approached by the Wrisley Perfume Company. The Wrisley Perfume Company needed a way to revitalize sales of its perfume products, and it was apparent that a quality perfume bottle went a long way toward selling more perfume. For its part, the Fenton Art Glass Company needed a new glass product line. It was a match that proved to be profitable.
Frank L. Fenton already had a hobnail glass bottle from the turn of the century that had attracted the Wrisley Perfume Company’s buyer, and to make the bottle something that could be mass-produced, his company shortened the neck and widened the interior of the neck to make it fit for corks and wooden stoppers. Once the design was approved, production of Wrisley’s perfume bottle began in earnest in early 1938. It was a runaway success for Wrisley, and consequently rescued the Fenton Art Glass Company from bankruptcy at a financial time that was particularly tough for them.
Spurred on by the success of their original hobnail glass product, the Fenton Art Glass Company designed many other hobnail glass products. This was a fortunate decision for them, because they discontinued production of the original perfume bottle with Wrisley in 1940, and they also lost their contract with another company called Anchor Hocking. Instead, Anchor Hocking decided to go with their own machine-made hobnail bottles. The Fenton Art Glass Company not only did not go bankrupt with their line of hobnail glass products, but they also continued to be quite profitable.
All types of Fenton products came out with a hobnail glass pattern, not just perfume bottles. There were vases, ashtrays, jars, bowls, bottles, candleholders, cups and saucers, mugs and pitchers, and more. Hobnail glass was popular in the Victorian time period, but experienced a resurgence of interest after Fenton began to produce the Wrisley hobnail glass perfume bottles. Fenton’s continued innovation and willingness to design new types of products was aligned with the original founder, Frank L. Fenton’s, vision. This allowed them to thrive.
One of the most difficult aspects of the art glass business, in fact, is the need to be positioned in the right market when trends occur. When popular tastes change and a different type of art glass is flying off the shelves than the type your company is famous for producing, your company is not sustainable. Among the many reasons the Fenton Art Glass Company is still around today, their vision about staying on the cutting edge of the hand-made glass industry means that they are properly situated for the next fad in glassware.
It also has to do with their dedication to producing only top-notch glass products. It might come as a surprise to many that, while companies like Anchor Hocking had transitioned to producing their glass products by machine as early as the 1940s, the Fenton Art Glass Company continues to produce all of their glass products by hand and with a great deal of attention to quality. In addition, while the Fenton Art Glass Company does not have a monopoly on the production of hobnail glass products, they are easily the most famous of all hobnail glass manufacturers because they are the ones credited with popularizing hobnail glass in modern times.
It cannot be understated how valuable the hobnail glass has been to the Fenton Art Glass Company. It has been said that almost every shape of Fenton products has been produced in hobnail milk glass. How fitting that the Fenton Art Glass Company should be recognized for its quality hobnail glass products to this day.