Dan Ruth - Among the Collectors

Dan Ruth - Among the Collectors

Friday, May 13, 2011

Carnival Glass - A Legacy from the Rust Belt

All Carnival Glass from the Golden Age of Carnival (1907-1928) is iridescent pressed glass that was manufactured primarily in the United States, to compete with other American & European High-end Glass Firms, such as Tiffany and Steuben. One of the five major factories that manufactured original, antique Carnival Glass was Fenton in Wheeling West Virginia. Fenton, sadly closed their doors in 2011, after making glassware for over 106 years. The company is credited for being the very first factory to manufacture such glass, which was first called dope glass, rubigold glass and sometimes poison glass. Each individual piece was poured, moulded, tooled, shaped, re-fired and colored by a factory worker. It was a multi-step process, and the stunning colors that are enjoyed today, were produced by using dangerous chemicals such as cobalt, soda ashe, uranium, borax, as well as other poisonous and toxic materials. The men and yes, sometimes the children who crafted and handled the glass, were often subjected to a great many dangerous conditions, the likes of which would never be found in today’s manufacturing world, outside of a third-world country perhaps. The ruling aspects and necessities for any glass factory included chemicals, a water source, scorching hot furnaces that helped to shape and capture the glass treatments and finally and most importantly, manpower. The people who worked in the factories, for sometimes as little as $2.00 a day, were part of the great American manufacturing explosion in the area of the great Rust Belt, primarily West Virginia, Ohio and Pennsylvania.

Frank Fenton was soon joined by Harry Northwood, Thomas E. Dugan, the Millersburg Company (formed briefly by Frank’s brother John Fenton) and the Imperial Glass Company of Bellaire, Ohio as the five major firms to manufacture dope glass. There were other firms such as Westmoreland and Cambridge who were also making small amounts of the new iridescent glass, but nothing compared to the vast amount created by the "Fab Five." It should also be noted that only the Imperial Glass Company, because it was formed from a group of investors, seemed to have any semblance of “quality control,” making their glass arguably more consistant than the others. The new and exciting iridescent glass came in many forms, both utilitarian as well as for decoration. There’s no denying that life in the early 20th Century was pretty drab. Color itself was money; be it in paint, glass or textiles. Tiffany’s “Favrile Glass” was devised in a costly manor in which the iridescence was part of the glass itself, making the glassware astronomically expensive for the day. Frank Fenton and his contemporaries devised the technique, albeit a dangerous one, to simply “spray the iridescence on,” making iridescent glass very affordable to the working man and his family. Iridescent glass, because it catches the light, was a Godsend when it came to “brightening up a room.” Contrary to non-collector’s beliefs, the rainbow glass was extremely popular in the day and was purchased by every-day men and women, very much like any glassware you would find today at Macys. Ads for the glassware could also be found in a catalogue from companies such as Butler Brothers. Surprisingly, the glass itself wasn't transported safely at all by todays standards. The glass would always arrive at the local store by the dozens, stuffed into wooden barrels, with only straw as protection from the bumpy trains and carriages they must have endured.

Towards the end of the 1920’s as America was loosing it’s “roar” and was about to collide head-on with the Great Depression, the pretty glass fell out of favor and could no longer be afforded by the general public. With their factories full of glass, the surviving manufactures of the glassware were forced to sell their inventory off, well below cost. The glassware that had brightened working class homes for two decades was nearly forgotten and was eventually given away as prizes at carnivals and State Fairs. Yes, like a stuffed animal today, you could win your date a pretty piece of glass at the carnival shooting galleries and spinning wheels. Years passed and in the 1950’s the American glass collector woke up and began taking a huge interest in the old glass. With the history of the glassware in mind, the name Carnival Glass stuck. Soon, thanks to glass historians like Marion Hartung, the long arduous process of calculating Carnival Glass, along with its hundreds of patterns, individual makers, skads of different colors and complete, true history, had begun. To this day, some patterns are attributed to specific firms, simply by what glass shards were found at what factory site. It was not an exact science and some patterns and makers are still argued over by experts and glass historians. Many antique glass dealers and buyers look down on the pretty glass as nothing more than "poor man's Tiffany," and still to this day, do not consider it a true antique. As a glass collector who smiles on the glassware, I bite my tongue and save my impertinence for such autocratic bores because I know that there is no denying that Carnival Glass is pure, classic Americana with a rich history and a beautiful, haunting past. No two pieces are ever the same.

With the end of the Golden Age of Carnival Glass, also ends my interest as a collector in American-made pressed glass. With the Great Depression’s demand for less manpower and more machines, the art of hand-made pressed glass came to a grinding halt. Depression era glass is very pretty indeed, but the majority was all machine-made so at least for this collector, it snuffs out the magic. Fortunately, some European countries caught on and began manufacturing small amounts of Carnival Glass and in the late 1920's early 1930's, the wave of Carnival Glass finally washed up on the shores of Australia.  Crown Crystal of Australia, began manufacturing whole lines of amazing Carnival Glass that are considered rare and highly collectible right alongside the American Carnival from decades before it.  One can only hope that the magic of Carnival Glass will be coveted forever.  Carnival Glass contains magic. From a collector’s viewpoint, the greatest and most expensive Carnival Glass has more color, more magic and more allure. It does seem true what they say; “either you get it or you don’t” and if you do actually “get it” and you believe that you've been bitten by the Carnival bug, chances are you’ll be buying a piece soon and then you'll be wanting more. 

The Carnival Collector is an odd one indeed and by saying that, I’m speaking for myself! My first piece of Carnival wasn't an old piece at all. It was a contemporary Imperial cobalt blue Aurora Jewels Leaf Vase that was responsible for starting me on my way. I purchased it years ago at a friend's antique shop in Johnstown, Pennsylvania. I just thought it “looked cool.” For years I would gawk at the vase, I would hold it and feel the alligator-like glass texture on the outside and gaze at the oil-slick rainbow interior. I wanted to know more about it and I found myself always thinking the same thing; “how the heck did they make this?” The Leaf Vase was okay - there was no magic yet, but I was intrigued nonetheless. I eventually sat down with my sister Susan at her computer and discovered that the mark on the bottom of the vase stood for the Imperial Glass Company, and what I had was something called “Carnival Glass.”

I wanted more. I wanted more but I didn’t have a clue about what I was buying. My interest began to grow, but my addictive personality began to steer me towards a collector’s disaster. I forgot one important thing - research. I still had no idea what Carnival Glass was. Other than it being darned pretty and rainbow colored, who cared! Foolishly, I was breaking a cardinal rule- I was buying blind. Out of nowhere, in a few months time, my tiny apartment was filled with Carnival Glass. I procured every piece I could find. I had all different colors and shapes, toothpick holders, covered butter dishes, compotes - and all with that nifty “IG” mark, stamped on the bottom! At one point, I had four Imperial Luster Rose covered butter dishes, in purple, marigold, white and green. For me, it “had to be Imperial” and if it was, it “had to have that mark.” I had no idea that I had purchased an apartment-full of Contemporary Carnival Glass. Now, some say there are no coincidences, but what happened next was pretty odd. I was shopping in the streets of my neighborhood in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, where there always seems to be a street sale on the weekends. One guy had an assortment of books for sale - they were strewn on a blanket. I looked down and next to the sharpie-written sign reading “books $2,” I saw what I wanted. In a sea of David Grishams, Rolling Stones bio mags and countless paperback romance novels, sat a book titled, “The Standard Encyclopedia of Carnival Glass Revised Third Edition” by Bill Edwards. I laid down my $2 and off I ran home to devour the book. I was amazed by the old patterns and how many there were. The old glass was spectacular and I wanted to read more. Next it was a Warman’s Carnival Glass Guide that cemented my now insatiable appetite for Carnival Glass. Unfortunately, the Warman's Carnival Glass Guide isn’t the best for new buyers. I can't really recommend it because I found it way too confusing and compared to the Standard Encyclopedia, vastly incomplete. It did however, have some of the most breath-taking photos of Carnival Glass I had ever seen. I had just joined eBay, where I discovered their huge Carnival collecting community and soon, my first old, antique piece of Carnival Glass had arrived at my apartment.

Eventually, I managed to sell all of my contemporary Imperial glass at a sad loss. Growing in its place however, was a collection of old glass, including some Fenton, Northwood and a real piece of Imperial, because I now knew the difference. I finally knew that there was a huge difference between old and newer Carnival Glass, and I knew the difference in price as well. The Carnival Glass with the “allure” was really expensive! It was my goal from then on, to figure out all the differences and nuances and to continue my research, which eventually lead me to EAPG, Opalescent and Stretch Glass. The rest brings me to today, where I still live in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. I have a rather large collection of Carnival Glass and have been buying and selling on eBay now for nearly nine years. I am writing this blog and dedicating it to you – the new buyer who might just now be falling in love with Carnival Glass. It is my intention, not to speak as an expert, but as someone with a great love and admiration for the long hours, sweat and passion that went into creating this great American glassware. It is my hope that I can guide you along the way and to help you stay on the right path and to not make the mistakes I made in the past. If you’re still reading this, then that means you’ll probably want to continue reading the rest of the blog. I have compiled a good deal of information for you, information that might make collecting more rewarding and less confusing, so here we go.

The "Good Stuff"
The old Carnival Glass patterns varied from ordinary and simple rays, panels and flutes, to more elaborate patterns that were often geometric in nature, and others still that reflected the fashion of the day. As Art Nouveau gave way to the Art Deco styling of the 1920’s, both styles are beautifully reflected in Carnival Glass. For Carnival’s Art Nouveau period, the patterns would sometimes contain peacocks and other animals such as lions and panthers, floral designs and bucolic scenes, such as Imperial’s Homestead and Double Dutch. Grapes were also an enormously popular theme, giving way to Northwood’s ingenious pattern, Grape & Cable. Fenton too had a Grape & Cable line, but their stroke of genius came with their Orange Tree pattern line, which, like Northwood’s Grape & Cable, was made for years and in nearly every form imaginable. Imperial had two grape pattern’s Imperial Grape and Heavy Grape, while Dugan had several grape patterns including Grape Delight and Golden Grape. Millersburg was only inexistence for a few years and seemed to steer clear of grape motifs. It seems that their Deep Grape compotes were the companies sole contribution to the grape craze and it shows. If you came across a Deep Grape compote, it would be worth anywhere from $1,000 to $10,000 in the collector’s world. The scarcity of Millersburg’s glass usually brings a premium. Millersburg was also the first responsible for the manufacture of “Radium Glass,” which was a form of dope glass with a shiny, high-gloss, oil-slick appearance. Many of Carnival's Deco-style pieces seem to have this astonishingly beautiful finish, such as Imperial's Scroll Embossed. Other Deco pattern's include Northwood's Tornado vases, Fenton's Peacock Tail and Dugan's Ski Star.

Color, Condition, Pattern and Rarity
Color, Condition, Pattern and Rarity all play factors in determining what a piece is worth. Antique carnival can be rather expensive and to find pieces for little money is always a score, but beware - read up on the differences so you know before you buy. Flea market sellers are known for fudging because they don't know the difference themselves. I go through all of this below, but if you see a piece with a makers mark on the base or inside, chances are, it's going to be new. All marked Fenton pieces are new, as are most marked Imperial pieces. There are only a few marks on antique glass that you should know about before buying and they are Northwood's mark of an "N" in a circle, Imperial's Iron Cross mark and another firm, Cambrige Glass Company's mark was "Near Cut." If you find a piece that has any of these marks, chances are, you have a piece of antique Carnival Glass and if you ever come across a piece marked "NuART," well then, you can retire or at least send the kids to college. Seriously, the "NuArt" mark is another early Imperial mark that can be sometimes seen on Imperial show-stoppers such as Chrysanthemum and Homestead chop plates. They are both stunning, very expensive and quite hypnotic. I tell everyone that if you see a piece that just kind of ‘sits there,” then chances are, it's not valuable or it's contemporary. If you see a piece of iridescent glass and it’s real and old, you may find yourself thinking, "whoa, what is that. . .how did they make that?"

Here's a sampling of the Five Major Carnival Glass manufacturers. Enjoy!


Northwood - "Fruits & Flowers" in Green with Periwinkle Iridescence.


Fenton - "Orange Tree" with Trunk Center in White with Ice Blue Iridescence.



Imperial "Beaded Bullseye" in Electric Purple.



Dugan "Honeycomb & Beads" in Black Amethyst.



Millersburg "Courthouse" Rare Ice Cream Shaped Bowl in Amethyst.


Are you Ready for More?
 I am so pleased to finally offer this video for Beginners & Seasoned collectors alike.  This is nearly a complete library of the incredible colors created during the Golden Age of Carnival Glass.  All pieces were photographed by me, and all pieces are and/or were part of my collection of antique Carnival Glass.  I hope that this video will inspire & teach you about some of the colors that were created between 1907 & the mid-1920's.  Carnival Glass continues to be American's greatest kept Secret.  Well now the cat's out of the bag!  Enjoy & Keep Reading!


Colors in Carnival Glass


Know What You're Buying
The average flea market vendor tends to be negative towards selling Carnival Glass. They will tell you it’s because they just don’t like it or it breaks all the time, but I think the real deal with their disparagement of the glassware, lies with their lack of knowledge. Many people simply cannot tell the difference between old and new Carnival, and don’t understand the huge difference in price. I can see why this would be infuriating and I can tell you from personal experience that Carnival Glass is a haggler’s nightmare. When a seller doesn’t understand the many factors that go into grading Carnival and when they think that their blue Indiana Hostess Plate is worth $180, it’s a good time to turn around and run the other way. The hardest thing for new collectors, is determining the difference between Antique and Contemporary Carnival Glass, and just plain iridescent crap glass. “Iridescent, crap glass you say?” Yes that’s what I said. There is a bevy of el crap-ola iridescent glass in the world, all of which I’m going to force you to look at right now. Believe me, it’s for your own good. Please familiarize yourself with these pieces of glass, which seem better suited to cleaning out the cat box than brightening the home. While you're looking, I want you to repeat, over and over again that "it's not Carnival Glass." None of it is.

Worthless Iridescent Glass


This putrid piece of trash is supposed to be some semblance of a bread basket. Who would eat out of this? It looks like a basketweave-propelled spacecraft out of the original Star Trek. These terrible amber glass baskets however, seem to breed worse than Tribbles. They are everywhere. Avoid!



Well just get out the lemonade, deviled eggs, fantasia salad and turn up the Debbie Boone while your at it. I mean, come on. These floral condament dishes are trying so hard to be the real thing, but just look at it. It needs a Pet Rock and a Virginia Slim. This is terrible glassware.


Beware of this next guy. These little dishes, which seem to be custom made for a Thanksgiving cranberry sauce right out of the can, are well known imposters in the Carnival Glass world. They were made in Amber almost exclusively, and are known as Loganberry dishes. They can trick you however, because many come with extraordinary radium iridescence. It’s not Carnival Glass. . .


Here's another flea market table-filler. I see at least two or three of these at every market I go to. They always seem to come equipped with a sad piece of masking tape, reading "Carnival Glass $1" written on it. Trouble is, that it's not even worth that and dag-nabbit, it's not Carnival Glass! There are other pieces out there that hopefully your eye can now spot with more ease. Just back away from it - it's worthless. What's worse is that these pieces are what most non-collectors "think" Carnival Glass is. So never forget these pale, sad imposters. They are everywhere and not worth a dime. Here's the phrase to remember, in case you'd rather forget these photos: "All Carnival Glass is iridescent but not all iridescent glass is Carnival."

Contemporary Carnival Glass
In the 1950s, right around the same time that the experts were coining the name “Carnival Glass” and collectors had begun to form clubs, Fenton and Imperial were both still manufacturing glass. Both decided to give their subsequent iridescent lines a second chance and Carnival Glass was born again. Both companies brought back familiar old patterns from the Golden Age to try out on the new collectors. Imperial brought back their Imperial Grape line, as well as Scroll Embossed, but managed a whole slew of new patterns as well. Fenton not only brought back some of their prized patterns like Fantail and Diamond Point Column vases but they had also succeeded in procuring multiple old pattern moulds from Northwood, Dugan and the others over the years and began reproducing those as well. That’s the reason why a shopper might come across a Hearts & Flowers bowl, originally a Northwood pattern, but marked with the Fenton Logo. Same with Dugan’s Farmyard and Westmoreland’s Carolina Dogwood. This is one to remember: "If it’s marked with a logo besides Northwood’s, chances are it is a Contemporary reproduction."

Other contemporary Carnival Glass companies include L.G. Wright, Summit, Smith Glass Co, Boyd and yes, Westmoreland themselves – they too reproduced Carnival Glass with their familiar “WG” logo. Indiana Glass Company of Indiana, Pennsylvania is responsible for an enormous amount of contemporary Carnival Glass and theirs is usually not marked, but it too looks completely different from the Antique originals. "Indiana Glass,” as it is often called, is excessively bright and shiny as far as color is concerned and overly flashy, nearly metallic. Some folks like it. I’ve never been a fan, especially when that seller at the market is still asking $180 for that Indiana Hostess Plate. In reality, the Indiana Hostess Plate, regardless of the color, is usually worth between $10 and 18.00. It should also be noted that most contemporary red Carnival Glass looks nothing like the original red (predominately produced in the Golden Age by Fenton). Old red Carnival Glass is usually rich, textured and on the darker side of a cherry red, while the contemporary reds almost always resemble a bright, shiny candied apple. Keep in mind that Contemporary Carnival Glass is rarely worth the expensive prices that old antique Carnival Glass commands. Don't ever over-pay for a newer piece! Most new pieces are extremely affordable. 







Don’t get me wrong – there’s nothing wrong with newer, contemporary Carnival Glass. Some newer Carnival is stunning and awe-inspiring. Once at the Chelsea flea market in Manhattan, I found a contemporary Fenton Carolina Dogwood bowl in electric purple. The dealer wanted $40 for the bowl, but I didn’t have enough cash. I ran across the street to the ATM, but when I arrived back at the dealer’s table, he had sold it to another customer for $50 while I was gone. Word of advice in the flea market world: If you want to buy an item but have to get more money first, always leave a down-payment of some monetary value with the dealer before you go to a bank or ATM. It’s insurance if nothing else that the item will be yours when you return.

One should hope that contemporary Carnival Glass won’t be going anywhere. Fenton themselves, had actually reported the closing of their factory back in 2007, but a swift turn around, coupled with plenty of Fenton sales on television shows such as QVC and HSN, helped to keep Fenton alive and creating new American made glassware for collectors, both new and old alike. Many Fenton contemporary Carnival pieces often are hand painted and signed by the artist as well. Fenton shapes never seem to end, and with their menagerie of bears, songbirds and the like, one can only hope that Fenton will be around a long, long time. Just be sure you know what you are buying before you put your money down!

Pssst. . .pssst. . .
So. . .are you hooked yet?  Thought so.  There's more info below, but in the mean-time, if you are on Facebook, I'm also the administrator for the Keystone Carnival Glass Club.  Please come by and "Like" our page.  There are many other Carnival Club pages on Facebook, including Tampa Bay, New England, Texas, Mid-Atlantic and the ICGA, just to name a few.  Be sure to go inside the actual page and click the big "LIKE" button at the top right of the page.  There's always tons of photos and information. 

More Rare & Desirable Glass from the "Golden Age"
Okay, back to more of the "good stuff."  Why so expensive?  Here's why.  Rarity, Color, Shape and Condition.  Rarity is a huge factor, when determining the value of a piece of antique Carnival.  While "beauty" lies in the eyes of the beholder, if there's nothing to behold, you have nothing to look at, right?  Some pieces of Carnival were made in such scant numbers, that Carnival Glass organizations and clubs have their whereabouts well documented.  Remember, that no two pieces are ever the same, so get ready for the "Carnival Glass Value roller coaster."  Okay.  If you take the rarity of a certain pattern, find that rare pattern in a rare color, or in a rare shape or size that nobody has ever seen before, then you are adding and adding to the value of your piece.  If the condition is excellent, suddenly your original "rare" piece just became a Carnival treasure and collectors want it and will pay anything they can to pry it out of your hands!  Believe me, if you've never been to a Carnival Glass convention or auction, you are really missing out.  More on Carnival Glass clubs later, but for now lets continue to examine more of the extremes of the "Carnival Glass Value Roller Coaster" just for a moment.  

We will use Fenton's "Chrysanthemum" as the example.  Fenton's Chrysanthemum is a busy, but very appealing Carnival pattern.  With bold chrysanthemum blossoms as its main focal point, Fenton mixes in bucolic notes of pastoral windmills, mountains and even a lake with boats!  The example below is a standard blue Chrysanthemum three-footed ICS bowl, with gorgeous iridescence.  You might see "ICS" a lot if you're looking for Carnival Glass online.  ICS stands for "Ice Cream Shaped" and will always refer to bowls with perfectly round edges, as opposed to bowls with perhaps, a ruffled edge.   This particular example can be bought at auction for anywhere between $60 and $200.00, depending on who's bidding and how badly they want it.  The same pattern in marigold, amethyst or green, demands roughly the same price, perhaps a bit lower or higher, depending on how spectacular the iridescent color treatment is.

However. . . 

If you have the same Chrysanthemum pattern in red?  That would most likely propel the value of your bowl past the $3,000.00 mark.  Literally.  Red is a very desirable color and is "not often seen" in Chrysanthemum bowls.

Fenton blue "Chrysanthemum" ICS footed bowl

The following are a few examples that are considered rare, very desirable or both.   Interesting that they are all rare for different reasons.  I am looking to expand this section.  If you have any Carnival glass piece that you believe is rare or scarce, please send me a sharable photo to the email at the end of this blog so I can continue my expansion. . .


Fenton Marigold "Dragon & Strawberry" Always very desirable.


Fenton Blue "Peter Rabbit" collar based bowl.  Gorgeous and rare in any color or shape (photo courtesy of Beth Freiman).  
US Glass White "Field Thistle" breakfast creamer.  This pattern has rarely been documented in White in this shape.


Imperial "Homestead" chop plate in Electric Amber.  Always in high demand.  Look for the "Nuart" mark on the front but beware if there's a mark on the exterior base, it's a reproduction (see glass marks above).
Northwood Lime Green "Rose Show" plate.  Not considered "rare," Poppy & Rose Show pieces are always in demand however, and collectors continue to pay top dollar for them.  This is a stunning example of Lime Green.  (photo courtesy of Beth Freiman).  


This blog is to be continued with more information on collecting the "Good Stuff." Please look for it in the near future! I will attempt to cover the makers, patterns and just as importantly, all of the magical colors of old, antique Carnival Glass. I also hope to cover some of the European Carnival Glass manufacturers and the incredible world of Australian Carnival. Until then, happy hunting!

Attend a Carnival Glass Convention - They're a Blast!
 
Tom Burns Auctions, Tampa Bay Carnival Glass Club 2014

Notes to Readers:

- I am happy to help identify your Carnival Glass pattern/item.  Please send clear photos and any other comments, directly to my email at amongthecollectors@gmail.com.

- Check out some of my Carnival Glass & other Collectibles on eBay under my username, glassdaze65.

- For more information on Carnival Glass, here are some wonderful sites!
http://www.ddoty.com/
http://carnivalglass101.carnivalheaven.com/

Sunday, May 1, 2011

East River Fondue Park


Yes, the "Brooklyn Flea" has snuggled in on Williamsburg's East River State Park. I've been there nearly every Sunday and each week it all seems quite the same. The crowds are large and between the new Brooklyn Flea and the Etsy-style “Artists and Fleas,” there is plenty of food. Albeit good food, but more food than treasure, as far as I could see. It should also be mentioned that with that food comes both a high price and a long-ass line. Look, I'm a flea market whore and not a neighborhood explorer looking for hipster cuisine and organic green tea ice milk. I want merch and lots of it. If you are a true flea market fan, then sad to say but the Williamsburg wing of the Brooklyn Flea is a real let-down. I did notice that there was a dealer from the Chelsea flea’s 25th Street Garage, selling his items in BKNY now. When I ask him about the move, he stated the closeness in proximity to where he lives, the fresh air and all of the “kids.” The sad reality for me was that I never bought from him in Chelsea either. His items all seem bulky and too Mid-century for my taste. As always, I look for items within my collecting zone: Victorian to Edwardian, including the Industrial Revolution (1860 to 1928). There is none of that in Williamsburg. There seems to be no real Collectibles dealers there, only artisans, print-makers and people who like to set up faux living rooms of orange plastic furniture and those who like to paint and destroy old wood. Yes, the Brooklyn Flea has caught “Etsy Fever” as well. A note to self: stick to Chelsea where the price might be higher, but the items at least have some dust on them and some history to the touch. Sad to say but I don’t think the Fondue Pot I saw will sell for much, as long as it’s usurped by that spectacular view on Manhattan, that Fondue Pot will be back again and again and again. I might not be back but I’m sure that it will be there next time. More bitching later.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Stories of Balto 1997-2011

In the late summer of 1997, a fire engine red sign reading “Adams Grocery” was being painted over with a coat of royal blue on the corner of North 8th & Berry Streets in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. The corner was about to do an abrupt about-face from a small local grocery store, to a local pub – a new group of local dreamers had just staked claim at 103 Berry, and as the new pub took hold, with it came the kids – Cleo, the lovable black lab, and Balto the brown & white rescue pup. With all the fresh faces that congregated at the newly opened Brooklyn Ale House, the two dogs became staples. If it wasn’t the younger Balto landing a dumplestiltskin in the middle of the sidewalk that got your attention, then perhaps it was the older and more languid Cleo, who preferred to roll around in the hot, roasted & toasty dirt of the Ale House wooden flowerpot. Cleo would roll around in the flowerpot for hours it seemed, happy to pass the lion’s share of the attention onto the younger Balto. After all, Balto’s image had already made itself onto the bar’s logo. Time passed, as did sweet Cleo, leaving Balto to truly become the mascot and symbol of the Ale House. He wasn’t like other dogs.

There was something about him. Truth be known, Balto wasn’t actually “just a dog.” Balto may have looked like a dog, but there was much more of a presence of mind, attached to that brown & white canine. There was an unyielding gratitude and duty in those eyes - Balto was a loyal pup. From the day he was rescued and saved by one Sean Connelly, it was if there was a debt to be repaid and Balto never faltered. As Sean put it, “he was his drinking buddy and best pal.” Balto, from day-one it seemed, was a commanding presence at the bar. If Sean was at the bar, you could guarantee Balto to be close by. Perhaps you might hear one of his single barks, echoing through the space (the only exerted effort Balto had to make to have his presence known). You could always spot him roaming through floor scraps, cigarette butts, peanut shells and stinky shoes, or perhaps dreamily lapping at a small rocks glass of Guinness. His favorite spot however, was the front table, settling into the corner, with his noble head, gently resting on the back of the booth. There he could always be found, content to wait patiently for the return of his master.

Possessing an amazing regal personality, tufts of thick white fur at the neck, custom-fit for his leather studded collar and his famous half-cocked ear, Balto was a star. He had an uncanny colt-like gallop - one of which would have been envied by even the greatest of racehorses. He never just “came into” the bar, he chose instead to always “make a grand entrance,” as if the door to the Brooklyn Ale House was flanked with a red carpet. He never carried himself as just another dog. His air seemed more akin to a matinee idol or even more so, to a Brigadier General. Rarely would he actually jump up to greet you; it was more as if he was simply answering the call of duty. In fact, sometimes one would get the feeling that while we were drinking away the ups & downs of the day, Balto was wandering the floor, quietly inspecting the troupes. Everyone who ventured near 103 Berry Street knew Balto. Whether you were there at the bar to get hammered, or if you lived down the street, you knew him. If you had food, then you could guarantee that he knew you.


He wasn’t just a dog. If you were as lucky as I was, to encounter the eerie human side of Balto, then you know that he was smarter than any purebred. He was just as proud and arrogant as any Labradoodle or Chiweenie. He was his own man and aware of everything. I remember sitting at the bar back in 1998 thinking, “that dog hates me.” Balto never greeted me, he never paid any attention or even acknowledged me – it was always the cold shoulder. There he would go, right on by without a glance. That was Balto’s way. As long as all was right with the bar, all was right with Balto. Regardless, there was no love in Balto’s dog bowl for me – no love that is, until the minute I got hired to work at the Ale House. As soon as Balto saw me behind the bar, out of nowhere, he suddenly seemed super-happy to see me. He actually jumped up onto my chest and nudged my chin with his cold, wet nose. Another time soon after, he even gave me, what could have only been construed as a “high-five” with his paw. I was finally Balto-approved. Thanks Balto - I will miss you.

15 years have passed and so many years later, so many of us are still here. We all meet here and with the passing of our friend Balto, there are new figures in the Ale House cyclical family. There are new faces, new regulars, old friends and priceless stories. Leann and Becca join us in this sad moment, and Sean Jr. will only know him through images – pictures, yes, but he might know Balto a little clearer if we all saved him stories - stories we all might tell Sean Jr. one day about Balto, Cleo, Becca and the corner of North 8th and Berry.

Dan Ruth