Dan Ruth - Among the Collectors

Dan Ruth - Among the Collectors

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Carnival Glass - The Ruth Parlor Ashtray & The Chelsea Flea Market

I found this tall, old, worn glass object d’art at the “25th Street Garage” flea market in New York City, in the Spring of 2009.   The flea market on 25th is known by many names, some call it the “Chelsea flea market,” others call it the “25th Street flea,” but I call it “The Garage,” because when I say it, New York collectors know exactly what I’m talking about.  The Garage is just like every other flea market throughout the country.  You have your low-end section and your high-end section.  In this case, the outdoor flea market (the Parking Lot), usually has better deals - granted you’ll find more damage and less care outside, but the price is usually right.  Then you have The Garage, where all of the higher-end dealers are located on two separate levels, inside a monstrous relic of a space.  Rumors surrounding the closing of The Garage have been circulating for years it seems.  According to some dealers, it should have been torn down and made into a Hotel years ago, but the people who run the flea, demanded that “the flea market remain open until the wrecking ball was at the door.”  Luckily the wrecking ball never came and even if it all isn't true, I still love the story.

Ruth Parlor Ashtray

It’s been years now since I first started shopping there and even now, several dealers at The Garage are still always looking for Carnival glass for me.   Quality Carnival is nearly impossible to find in New York City.  I’m convinced that it’s a regional issue and not one of a lack of curiosity or preference.  Since so much Carnival glass was sold by catalogue and corner dime store in the smaller towns and cities during the Golden Age, I wouldn’t want to assume who would have sold the glassware in Manhattan, Brooklyn or Queens.  Nonetheless, when one finds a Carnival glass treasure in NYC, it truly is a rarity.  So back to the Spring of 2009.  I happened upon a table full of old glassware.  Being a full-fledged “glassy,” I hovered for a few seconds over the scant few EAPG items, some blob-like glass, Depression glass and the all-too familiar pieces of Milk glass that you run into everywhere.  Once again, there was no Carnival, but behind that table full of forgettable glass, was a piece that caught my eye and wouldn’t let go. 

It’s usually fairly dark in The Garage, so without good light, it was hard to tell, but I thought I spotted iridescence on this very tall drink of water that looked to be an ashtray of sorts. 

I walked right up to it and saw the iridescence and then I saw the wheel cuts along its long, well-crafted, hand-blown cylindrical body, topped by a wonderful, old finial.  I asked how much the gentleman wanted for the ashtray, and we agreed on a price.  In seconds, the piece was mine and the dreaded trip back to Brooklyn with this uber-fragile creature had begun.  I managed to get the ashtray in and out of the subway and back to Williamsburg, Brooklyn, where every Sunday, people are lined up selling their items street-style.  As I made my way through the crowd, several dealers were curious about my ashtray and wanted to hold it, to which I replied an emphatic, “hell no!”  In the subway, I had discovered that the upper portion of the ashtray was well secured, but at the bottom, the cylinder seemed to be made in a way that it had the base grooved out, with the cylinder on top of the grove, as in “glass-on-glass” as in “potential shattered glass.” 

I got the ashtray home safely and after setting it down in the light of my kitchen, I began seeing ghosts.  This was a very old piece of iridescence glass and I was very pleased that it was now mine.

I must be clear that I am not an expert on antique glass.  I am only a fan, with a great deal of respect for any glass item that was made by hand between the mid-19th Century and the Great Depression.  I love research and look to unknown items with a furious eye - an eye for answers.  This was the first time I felt as though I had an item to actually study: to analyze – to dissect.  I stared at it a long time.  I wanted to know how old it was. 
The light pouring onto the ashtray from the kitchen window was showing me signs that I wanted to see - signs that I did not see in The Garage.  Ripples were present on the surface of the glass that seemed consistent to antique glass of the early 20th century.  The iridescence was clearly Marigold, with highlights of pink, purple, blue and green.  The color had faded with age to a degree but that was in fact, exactly what I wanted to see.   I wanted to see wear.  I wanted to sense a past life here.  It was such a curious piece!  It was clearly too tall to be for a table, yet too short to be for the floor.  Who would put this on their floor?  Where would one put this?   To top all of these questions off, the icing on the cake was that the “base” of the ashtray itself, was actually another ashtray altogether.  It was another ashtray turned upside down, acting as this object’s base.  In all, this gorgeous piece is 22" tall, with each ashtray measuring 5" wide.

After a few hours of gawking at my treasure, I emailed Mike Carwile about the ashtray and sent photos.  At the time, Mike Carwile, author of many glass encyclopedias, was one of the few glass authors who not only welcomed emails, but offered pattern identification as well.  That’s quite rare for a glass author and expert.  I had been in contact with Mike for a few months, and had been sending him photos of EAPG glassware.  He in turn, had been identifying the patterns for me.  It was a very lucky moment in time.  Mike seemed struck by the ashtray and was just getting ready to complete the “Standard Encyclopedia of Carnival Glass 12th Edition.”  He told me that he not only wanted to include the ashtray in the book but he also wanted me to name the ashtray.  With my 97 year old Grandmother in mind, I thought of the name “Ruth” and then I thought of the tiny town she grew up in which was called “New Florence.”

Both names would have been perfectly acceptable, but between us, we agreed upon the “Ruth Parlor Ashtray.”  Its curious size, the etched Egyptian Revival “palm” wheel cuts, the handsome styling and the color says “parlor.”  What I really wanted was provenance.   I wanted the ashtray to be dedicated to the Ruth family of Johnstown, Pa.  Mike Carwile was kind enough to grant my request and the rest is published.

With the book published, I set off for St. Louis and the 2010 ICGA convention, where I showed multiple photos of the ashtray to the collectors there.  Bill Mizell, one of the many collectors at the convention who’s opinions I trusted, smiled on the ashtray and gave me his expert opinion on the history and age of the piece.  It was one thing that I still didn’t have.  Bill told me that the ashtray was probably not made in a factory.  There were very few hand-blown/wheel cut cylinder pieces that would have been produced at that time and if this was indeed a factory piece, there would have been more. 

He told me that it most likely dates to the early-to-mid 1920’s and that it was hand-created by a glass craftsman.   So the ashtray is Carnival glass.  It may be a previously undocumented pattern and it may not be known by anyone until now, but it’s from the Golden Age of Carnival and seems to be the only one known.  The top and bottom ashtray pieces are hand-pressed and wheel cut.  If this were a mass-produced piece, there would be more identical ashtrays, perhaps not with the 22" wheel-cut cylindrical body, but by themselves.  There would be many more 5" Marigold Carnival glass ashtrays with this wheel-cut pattern.  There are not.  

David Doty was also kind enough to post a picture of the ashtray on his Carnival glass website.  He too had never seen such an item before.  I also contacted the Corning Museum in New York and the Museum of American Glass in West Virginia.  Still no one has ever seen the likes of my treasure.  Until another comes up, I will be pleased to call The Ruth Parlor Ashtray a one-of-a-kind.  The ashtray's lower portion is actually more sturdy than originally thought and there is a strip of metal separating the glass pieces.  Recently a friend in Brooklyn, built the ashtray a custom case for it to live in, making it easier to transport.  I am taking it to the Keystone Carnival Glass convention, in New Cumberland, PA.

It will be the first time I've ever had the chance to display it for collectors to see first-hand.  Thank you again Mike and Bill and David.  I have to thank The Garage as well, for still being there and thanks to the dealer who, at the time, didn’t think much of the piece at all.  My research continues and one day, I hope to discover the true origin of the Ruth Parlor Ashtray.  Happy glass hunting!

Dan Ruth