By Sarah Robinson
Magazine Issue: Fall/Winter 2020
For many visitors to the Museum of Dufferin (MoD), the Corn Flower Glass Gallery stirs up memories of their grandma’s china cabinet filled with simple stemware and serving bowls, brought out for Sunday lunches and get-togethers. For others, the colourful blue and purple glasses are coveted collector’s items; many dream of finding these rare pieces at an antique shop or garage sale. What lies behind these delicate objects is the story of a Canadian artisan who grew a small business into a national brand enjoyed for generations. Corn Flower glass was designed with working class families in mind, to add a bit of affordable elegance and charm to their dinner tables.
A glass cutter named W. J. (“Jack”) Hughes developed the iconic floral pattern. Hughes was born in a remote log cabin in Amaranth Township, Dufferin County, Ontario. His mother died when he was seven, and a period of poverty followed as his father struggled to raise six children alone. The children attended school periodically; however, the survival of the family farm often required them to put their studies aside.
Despite the hardship he experienced in his childhood, Hughes made the brave decision to leave the farm and move to the big city of Toronto. In 1902, he began his career of glass cutting at the Roden Brothers Company. The artform took hold of him, and on his own time, late into the night, he experimented with creating his own patterns, shapes, and motifs. In 1912, after a decade of learning the craft of glass cutting in a large factory, Hughes built his own cutting machine in the basement of his home: a simple frame fixed with rotating cutting stones powered by a foot pedal. He maneuvered by hand a glass blank (pre-fabricated and often imported from the United States) over the cutting stones to produce various lines and shapes.
Hughes fixed his attention on perfecting one particular floral pattern, inspired by the blue wildflower cornflower that grows across Canada and in gardens and along roadsides in Dufferin County. His Corn Flower design incorporated soft petals and vines around a grid-like centre. After refining the pattern between 1912 and 1915, it remained unaltered for the next 80 years.
The young artisan approached local jewellery store owners to sell his Corn Flower glass alongside luxury items. He even went door-to-door, selling some of his experimental pieces with small imperfections at a reduced price. As sales increased, Hughes left Roden Brothers to focus on his own business.
In the beginning, Hughes cut the Corn Flower pattern only on clear “crystal” glass. He introduced coloured Corn Flower glass in the 1920s, focusing on electric blue and various shades of purple. For vintage glass collectors today, it is rare to find these colours of Corn Flower glass. In the 1930s, following the trends of Depression glass, Corn Flower was made available in pink, green, and yellow. Also during this time, limited quantities of Corn Flower glass were created in the colour known as vaseline. The bright yellow-green colour included uranium dioxide, which makes the glass glow when exposed to ultraviolet light. The amount of uranium included in this glass is a trace amount—only 0.1% to 0.2%—which is not harmful. However, Hughes discontinued this colour when uranium dioxide was restricted to military use during World War II.
The colours and shapes of Corn Flower glass changed as trends in food and drink evolved. For example, small liqueur or sherry glasses were best sellers in the 1920s, while ruby red beer glasses were popular in the 1940s. Green and pink Corn Flower glass were seen as appropriate for presenting fruits and desserts in the summer months, while amber-coloured serving bowls held root vegetables in the autumn.
For 37 years the W. J. Hughes Corn Flower Glass Company remained a small operation, but in 1944 the introduction of a new family member brought much growth and change. In 1944, a young Royal Canadian Air Force pilot named Pete Kayser married Lois, Hughes’s daughter. After the war, Kayser joined the family business and entered into an agreement with Hughes to build a brand-new factory on Kenwood Avenue in Toronto, complete with conveyor belts and upgraded cutting machines.
Kayser introduced the idea of advertising the glass specifically to brides-to-be, promoting the concept that new wives needed a variety of stemware, serving dishes, and complete matching sets to set up their homes.
The Museum of Dufferin holds a collection of over 2,500 pieces of Corn Flower Glass, with some of the most intriguing examples from the entertaining era of the 1950s and 60s. Celery dishes, heavy glass salad tongs, 20-piece punch sets, and candy dishes in the shape of swans are just some of the highlights. The Candlewick pattern of Corn Flower Glass became one of the best-selling bridal gifts across the country; it was widely available in department stores such as Eaton’s and Simpson’s. The company continued to observe food and drink trends and as a result, the 1960s saw some funky additions to the Corn Flower brand: silver serving trays for martinis and a new line called Vistarama, which combined wood and glass for an array of buffet-friendly platters.
With this popularity came competition. Several rival glass cutters began to copy the W. J. Hughes Corn Flower Glass pattern and sell it at a cheaper price. So, what are the defining features of genuine Corn Flower glass? This question is often asked of the Museum of Dufferin staff. Authentic W. J. Hughes Corn Flower glass was cut by hand in five distinct steps, and if the steps were done out of order, it is a good indication that the pattern is an imitation.
The W.J. Hughes Corn Flower Glass Company continued to thrive well into the 1970s. However, with the pressure to economize and simultaneously expand the line of products, the company moved production overseas. As a result, quality diminished and the company ceased production in 1988. Today, Corn Flower glass is a highly collectible Canadian treasure, with enthusiasts travelling from every province to take in the displays at the Museum of Dufferin.
In 2018, with the assistance of several sponsors and a Canada 150 Community Infrastructure Grant, the Museum of Dufferin opened the brand-new Corn Flower Glass Gallery. As part of the project, MoD digitized the entire collection of Corn Flower glass and added it to the Museum’s online database. Visit the Dufferin Museum collections.
Sarah Robinson is the Curator of the Museum of Dufferin in Mulmur, Ontario. She earned her Honours B.A. in History from the University of Guelph and is a graduate of the Applied Museum Studies Program at Algonquin College, Ottawa.