2001 >> June >> The Western Glass Manufacturing Company  

The Western Glass Manufacturing Company
by Tom Katonak

Reprinted from "Crown Jewels of the Wire", June 2001, page 28

For many years, I've been a collector of Denver glass insulators with a concentration on those produced by the Western Glass Manufacturing Company. I recall the first purple insulator I ever owned - a WGM toll that I bought at the Colorado Springs flea market back in 1985. I could hardly bear to pay the negotiated price of three dollars, but the piece was gorgeous and I had to have it! Ever since that time, my interest in the Denver glass has continued to grow. The purpose of this article is to focus on the Western Glass Manufacturing Company and provide information for collectors and historians alike on one of the early and most important producers of glass insulators in the west. The interesting story of the turn-of-the-century insulator production, and the men who made the glass document a fascinating chapter in the history of the industry.

Glass production started in Valverde, Colorado, a small village just southwest of Denver, about 1887. Bottles became the mainstay of the operation early on. The plan called for making window and plate glass as well, but bottles were in such high demand that they never got into the sheet glass business. In 1895, famous glassmaker, Robert Good Jr., arrived on scene to take up the glass business he had learned from his father in England and New York. Good rented the glass factory at Valverde and a year later, the R. Good operation was in full production with both insulators and bottles. Soon thereafter, William McLaughlin (of later California fame) came to work at the plant.

Disaster struck in the summer of 1899 when fire caused by a ruptured glass tank destroyed most of the plant. The plant was rebuilt late in '99, but the high cost of investment money precipitated a reorganization of the company as the "Western Flint Glass Company". WFG was prolific in its production of insulators as well as bottles. These items were shipped and used throughout the Rocky Mountain west.

In late 1900, the glass works was reorganized for the third and final time, this time as the "Western Glass Manufacturing Company". WGM was even more prolific than its forerunners, and a major factory expansion phase took place in 1904, more than doubling the available floor space. This expansion is well documented on the Sanborn maps of the period. Again, the major product was bottles, but the fast-growing telephone business gave them a huge market for insulators, particular the toll type, as well. WGM remained in operation until about mid-1909 when it could no longer compete with the new bottle forming machines used by most of the newer glass works. Declining profits during the last several years led the owners to cease operations. Apparently, the seven principals in the company were unwilling to make the necessary capital investment to modernize the plant in order to update the equipment to industry standards.

Notwithstanding their ever-increasing financial difficulties, WGM produced a major portion of the food, beer, wine, medicine, soda and water bottles used in Colorado and surrounding states. During its nine years of operation, it also produced the lion's share of the telephone insulators for both industry and long-line communications in the Rocky Mountain States. Even today, one still finds an occasional purple WGM toll on an isolated pole or perhaps half buried in the shifting sand in the back country of Colorado or New Mexico. 

A fascinating side-bar to the history of WGM is that very little documentation and virtually no records from the business operations have been found to date. In fact, only two company letters with the original WGM letterhead have ever been found and these documents are located in the collections of the Colorado Historical Society in Denver. Thanks to these letters, we know the precise shape of the WGM logo, which I have redrawn for this article. The letterheads on record are black and white, so I've used some "authors license" in making the color red. Nevertheless, it is quite remarkable that for a major operation that produced and shipped thousands of tons of glass products all over the west for nearly a decade, so little documentation of the details survives!

Glass Production:
The R. Good operation produced primarily aqua colored insulators in CD's 106, 121, 134, and 162, although a brightly colored toll turns up occasionally. When WFG assumed control in 1899, less care was taken in the manufacturing process, and many insulators were produced that "wouldn't have met the specification" if Robert Good were still in charge! Many WFG "slumpers", "leaners", "steamers" and other crude pieces have been found over the years and in some quite handsome colors.

When WGM started up their operation, they used new molds and new glass mixtures for their insulators. Their glass tended to be much more consistent in form and the colors more uniform. In addition, they added the beehive (CDI45) to their style list due to the demand-pull from railroad telegraphy. There are some that think the WGM insulators are "boring" most being some shade of purple due to the addition of manganese dioxide. However, there are many shades and hues of purple and other beautiful colors as well: peach, ginger ale, silver, burgundy, gold and light green examples are known - and photographs of many of these accompany this article.

Let's consider the purple insulators for a moment: As it turns out, the lighter the shade of purple glass, the more uncommon the piece. Deep purple WGM insulators are perhaps two or three times more plentiful than the lighter purples. Interestingly, the prices for the various shades of purple insulators do not reflect the scarcity in that the deep or royal purples often command the higher value. This, no doubt, reflects the "desirability factor" as opposed to an evaluation based on scarcity alone. Another interesting aspect about the purple glass is that there are two basic shades of the color: There is the more common "red-purple" subgroup and the less frequently occurring "lavender-purple" subgroup. This distinction becomes immediately apparent when putting a random grouping of 50 tolls in a sunny window or light-box and inspect the color variations in detail.

Looking at the variety of the five WGM CD's, we note that the shapes of all the pieces are remarkably different than the earlier Denver production. Particularly noteworthy is the CD 106 that has a "contemporary look" for that style of insulator. In fact, most collectors agree that the WGM CD 106 is the prettiest of all the CD 106s. Also noteworthy is the fact that there are two major mold styles for the CD 145 - "chunky" and "narrow". The narrow style is similar to the postal beehive shape. No production records of the various insulator types have ever been found, but based on the "findability" of WGMs today, one would surmise that the tolls were the style of greatest production. CD 145s are fairly common too, but they are far fewer in number than the tolls. The third most common piece appears to be the CD 162 signal, followed by the CD 106 ponies. The least common of the suite is the CD 134s, making up perhaps only one or two percent of the pieces found.

In an exciting recent development, research currently being carried out by Mike Miller (of Denver) on the production of both the embossed and un-embossed AM TEL & TEL toll insulators is showing that there is a high probability that some of these may have been manufactured by WGM circa 1909!

The Insulators:
The photos accompanying this article depict all five of the WGM styles and attempt to demonstrate the range of color found in these varieties as well.

Consider first the CD 106 ponies. As I mentioned earlier, the ponies are not as abundant as some of the other CD's and their "swoop skirt" styling is unique among the CD 106 variants. The ponies do not seem to occur in the deep royal purple shades that the tolls and beehives are commonly found in and are most usually located in a pleasing medium purple shade. Only occasionally will you locate a royal purple or "black purple" specimen. The photo grouping of ponies shows the range of rare colors that can be collected including clear, burgundy, light green, straw and pink. The clear and light green specimens are perhaps the most difficult colors to locate. 

Let me interrupt this discussion to make the point that there are a number of WGM insulators that are suspect as to their color authenticity. In the 1970s, there were several people in Colorado who experimented with heating purple WGM tolls to high temperatures to come up with exotic colors. A large number of the burgundy colored pieces in existence came about in this manner. Some of the pale green insulators rarely found in the pony and toll shapes have also been documented to be created through heating alterations. This is not to say categorically that all burgundy and green WGMs are altered, but I certainly regard every one that I encounter with suspicion! 

Next, let's consider the CD 121 tolls. These were the "workhorse" of the insulator world during the early 1900s and were used for all the inner-mountain west long-line phone circuits and phone communications for the burgeoning western mining industry. The vast majority of the CD 121s are to be found in purple glass. In fact, they are in hot demand by today's collector because they come in such a great range of purple colors and are relatively inexpensive. I've shown here the range of purples for the tolls. The darkest are known as "black purple" and are almost impossible to see through without using a very bright light source. These black purple pieces are actually just very dense royal purple glass. To my eye, the medium and light shades of purple are more attractive, but "to each his own"! A second photo shows some of the more exotic shades that the tolls may be found in. In fact, the tolls come in more colors than any of the other WGM CDs. Here we see the range from greenish straw, through peach and burgundy, to silver. Other colors to be found include salmon, ginger ale, pale green, golden straw, and pink. Many of the exotic light colored examples (and this applies to all the other WGM CDs as well) have been found mounted in attics, under eves of buildings, or covered with paint on the outsides of various buildings. In such cases, the UV activation of the Manganese-induced purpling has been prevented. 

Next in the order of CD numbers, we have the CD 134 signal insulator. Again, note that this shape is the least common of all the WGM styles.

Hard to find CD 106 Colors: 
clear, burgundy, light green, straw, pink.

CD 121 Range of Purples: Black purple,
medium dark purple, light purple.

CD 121 Unusual Colors: Greenish straw, 
light burgundy/peach two-tone, burgundy, silver.

Range of purple coloring in CD 134 signals.

CD 134 in light straw, CD 121 with "hairlip", CD 134 "leaner".

Western Glass Manufacturing specialist, 
Tom Katonak, with WGM bottles and insulators.
(Insert Photo) 
"Belt -buckle" logo on a WGM whisky miniature.

Unusual CD 145s: Silver with amber swirls, dark purple with 
cooling lehr "kiss" on the right skirt, two-tone purple/straw.

CD 145 medium purple narrow-dome style, rare greenish-gray and
an underlit purple with milky swirling of microbubbles.

CD 162 Range of purples: Dark, medium and light purple.

Purple, straw and peach CD 162 signals.

Gray and two-tone examples of CD 162 signals.

When I first started specializing in WGM insulators, it took me nearly two years to obtain a 134, and it was pretty badly damaged. The color range on these tends more to the medium purple shade with light purple and deep purple being more unusual. In a separate picture, I show the very rare light straw 134. I have heard collectors talk about this unusual color for many years, but this is the only specimen of this sort that I have ever personally seen. 

The CD 145 comes next in the numerical lineup. The 145 shape was commonly used as the railway telegraph insulator throughout the Rocky Mountain west. There are two "sub-styles" of this shape: The classic chunky variant, and a "slimmed down" version close to the shape of a postal style beehive (see accompanying photo). By far, the chunky style is more common. Again, we find royal purple to be a common color for this shape, but all shades of purple are to be found including black purple on one end of the spectrum and light lilac on the other. Very occasionally, the WGM beehives are found in silver or straw, again the result of being used inside buildings or having had a coat of paint applied so they were not subjected to the color-altering UV radiation. While amber streaking is most unusual in WGM insulators, on the rare occasion that you do find it in the WGM glass, the odds are that it will occur in a CD 145.

Finally, we come to the highest numbered WGM CD, the 162. The CD 162 was used for signaling purposes on the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad, and also for light power applications in many of the western towns. As it turns out, the bases of the WGM CD 162s are relatively fragile; a large fraction of specimens have considerable base damage. In fact, to find a WGM signal in so-called "mint" condition is most unusual! 

Again, most of the CD 162s are to be found in various shades of purple. Probably the most common shade is close to medium purple, but royal purple shades are available as are the very pale purple shades. Interestingly, two-tone effects are perhaps most pronounced in this CD. Beautiful combinations of straw and light rosy purple exist and are in high demand. Light non-purple specimens occur occasionally like in the other WGM CDs, although I have yet to find a pale green example. The accompanying photographs show the range of purpling, straw and peach examples, and the gray and two-tone specimens. 

No discussion of the WGM glass insulators would be complete without mentioning "misfits". By "misfits", I'm referring to insulators that are misshapen, or contain bubbles, swirls of other colored glass, or steam. Compared to the glass of the Western Flint Glass Company production, which was known for its crudity, bubbles, swirls, gunk, etc., the WGM operation produced pristine glass. You find very few bubbly pieces, especially pieces with large bubbles, and only rarely pieces with steam or steamy swirls. I've included here some pictures of a pair of tolls full of steam, and also a steam-swirled beehive. Such pieces are most uncommon in tolls, and rare in other CDs. Apparently, the WGM plant had very good quality control so the examples shown here of the toll with the under-pour and the CD 134 that leans are essentially "freak occurrences". It is also very unusual to find dramatic amber swirls in the WGM glass. Occasionally one might find a "spot" of amber, or a thin amber wisp, but almost never a well-swirled piece. Deformation as a result of colliding or touching in the cooling lehr also falls in with the "misfits". What happens in this case is that an insulator in the lehr bumps up against another piece, and the two stick together because the cooling glass is still soft and sticky. When the workman separates the insulators, a small chunk of glass is pulled off one of the pieces. Again, you don't see this very often because the workmen were quite careful to keep the hot insulators well separated as they placed them on the cooling table. You can see a photo example of the "lehr kiss" on the right side of the skirt on a CD 145 in this article. 

While quality control was relatively good for an insulator manufacturer, certain aspects of quality diminished as WGM ran into the lean years. I haven't done enough research to determine how many different molds were used for each of the styles, but from studying the glass, it is clear that the molds were used well beyond their useful life. Late production insulators, particularly the tolls, show obvious signs of mold damage due to heat. In several cases, the mold wear has been repaired and you can see the imprint of the repair on the insulator itself. Symptoms of spent molds include extrusion spurs along the mold lines and "mushy" embossings.

The Bottles: 
The Western Glass Manufacturing Company's major product was glass bottles, and they supplied a vast number of bottles to the area's commercial industries. Bottles of every shape and description were made during the first decade of the 1900s. Many of the large food processors of the west depended on WGM to supply them with bottles for the canning of foodstuffs. WGM probably made more soda and beer bottles than anything else, but patent medicine bottles and various food containers, for example pickle bottles, were in wide distribution. The Kuner Company, a large Denver food processing and distribution outfit, bought thousands of clear glass bottles to package their wares in. Many of these bottles were embossed "KUNER" in large stick letters. A few of the beer bottles were made of amber glass, much the same color as modern beer bottles, but on the whole, WGM bottles were made of Manganese dioxide-laced clear glass. These clear bottles eventually turned various shades of purple of course, just like the insulators, but there are many more instances of finding non-purple glass as compared to finding clear insulators. One assumes most bottles, once used, ended in landfills where they were not irradiated by the sun. Many bottle dealers and collectors take the clear glass bottles and place them in "purpling boxes" for a month or so to bring out the purple colors. Strangely enough, there are no known examples of WGM insulators occurring in light aqua, blue aqua and amber although these colors do occur in the WGM bottles. This may indicate that there were actually two entirely different process operations at the plant and that even the glass tanks were separate. The trademark oval with a horizontal bar across the long axis (nicknamed "the belt buckle") was usually embossed on the bottom of each bottle to represent the logo depicted in this article. In rare cases, the embossing "W.G.M. Co." is actually embossed on the bases.

So here we have the story about one of America's most prolific producers of glass insulators and bottles in the early part of the 20th Century! In essence, the economy of the Rocky Mountain States rested on the output of a small glass company in Valverde Colorado. Insulator collectors from around the world treasure the beautiful purple glass with the W.G.M. Co. embossing.

I would like to thank Denver glass authority Mike Miller for his extensive consultation and advice. I am also indebted to Carol McDougald for making all the photographs in this article look like real WGM insulators!

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