Steuben Glass closes after 108 years

Nov 30, 2011

Steuben Glass of Corning officially closed its doors on Tuesday - but the demise of the maker of decorative glass was a long time coming.

The quality of the company's design, a top priority for the firm since its founding in 1903, had deteriorated, says glass dealer Jeffrey Purtell.

"I think the last ten years, a lot of the designs were an embarrassment and they certainly don't compare to the wonderful pieces from the '40s, '50s, '60s and '70s," says Purtell.

The company had tried to change with the times, bringing in young marketing consultants, but according to Purtell:

"They had no clue what they were doing."

Dealer and collector David Goldstein concurs: He says Steuben lost its place as a highly desired status symbol.

"The younger people want function, they want something you can use and put in the dishwasher. You can't do that with fine crystal," says Goldstein.

Steuben and the early 20th Century

Steuben's history can be divided into two periods. The first is known as the Carder Era, named after the company's founder, Frederick Carder. 

Between 1903 and 1932, Carder was a one-man-show. He owned the company, and made and designed all the glass, says Goldstein.

"The man was an absolute genius: he was a chemist, he was a designer, he was an experimenter. In a period of 30 years, he designed almost 7,000 pieces. By comparison over the last 10 or 15 years, I doubt if Steuben has introduced more than a 100 designs," says Goldstein.

But at the outset of World War I, Steuben found it harder to get the supplies it needed, forcing  a sale to Corning Glass Works. Corning, a larger and more diverse company, had access to the gas and lead necessary to manufacture glass, according to Tom Dimitroff, who wrote a book about Carder.

"It really took off after World War I in the Roaring '20s, when Corning Glass Works purchased Steuben," says Dimitroff. "We had Carder's creativity, Corning's corporate organization and skills at merchandising."

Steuben rarely made money: Dimitroff estimates there were maybe 5 years in its entire history when it turned a profit. But when the stock market crashed in 1929 and the Great Depression began, it became harder to overlook the losses, and Corning nearly closed the company.

Modern Steuben

In 1933, Corning's Arthur Houghton took full control of Steuben. Houghton was a member of the family that founded Corning.

As the story goes, he stood up and told Corning's board of directors that if they turned control over to him, he could turn Steuben around. That began the second phase of the company's history, "the Modern Steuben era."

Carder left his company for good.

Houghton started by making a complete break from the Carder era, which was characterized by the use of colored glass and designs exclusively by Carder.

"Steuben had a well-publicized event where they literally staged the public destruction of Carder Steuben glass," says Corning Museum of Glass creative director Rob Cassetti. "They destroyed it in front of the public."

Houghton also led the charge to associate the company with a luxury lifestyle, says Cassetti, a legacy that remains. At a shop in downtown Corning you can still buy a table top lamp made during Steuben's early years for a sticker price of almost $30,000.

Harry Truman became the first U.S president to give Steuben glass as a gift of state in 1947, giving a "Merry-Go-Round Bowl" to then-Princess Elizabeth as a wedding gift.

Steuben very deliberately cultivated its aura as a status symbol, says Cassetti.

"One of the vision documents that was written at the time stated that the idea was that Steuben should be perceived as luxurious and almost as unattainable as a Cadillac."

Steuben maintained its status for the rest of the 20th century, until the Great Recession of 2008 dealt it a final blow.

After Steuben

"They always used the best glass. But they tried to automate the process. And the designs weren't as good anymore," says Max Erlacher, a master engraver, who worked at Steuben for 23 years.

Erlacher works at his own studio now, in a farmhouse outside of Corning. He's been an engraver since 1948 and was laid off shortly after Schottenstein Stores of Ohio bought the company from Corning in 2008.

Some of Steuben's 70 or so workers were picked up by Corning to work on specialized glass for products like smartphones and televisions. Others have their own studios, some teach classes at the Corning Museum of Glass, says Erlacher.

"But fine glassmaking isn't something you can really learn by doing it for a couple hours a week," says Erlacher.

Corning bought back the Steuben name before it closed. Dealer Jeff Purtell says that's a good thing, and wishes they hadn't sold it in the first place. But he isn't worried that Steuben's recent decline will affect his business.

"My customers know what pieces to look for. I'll do just fine," he says.