Unraveling the Mystery of Mary Gregory Glassware

Flacon à sels Mary Gregory (Mary Gregory salt bottle).

 Selvejp/Wikimedia Commons

First getting wind of the legend surrounding glassware artist Mary Gregory, you might hear a tale of a remarkable woman who hand-painted enamel decorations on thousands of pieces of glassware during her career. She allegedly toiled away using white enamel to create portraits of children on colorful glassware around the turn of the last century.

In the tale told for many years, Gregory focused on tykes because she never married or bore children and needed an outlet for her motherly tenderness. Her handiwork appeared on so many pieces of glass, this remarkable story seemed simply amazing.

Well, like so many colorful legends concocted in the antique business, this incredible story turned out to be no more than a myth.

Unraveling the Myth of Mary Gregory

Glassware historians Raymond Barlow and Joan Kaiser, who did some extensive research on the topic for The Glass Industry in Sandwich, found that Gregory did work for the Boston and Sandwich glass factory from 1880 to 1884. They also discovered that Gregory's tenure ended long before the type of glass bearing her name went on the market in this country.

In fact, Gregory, who died on May 24, 1908, painted a far different type of scene on the glass lamps she adorned, according to notes in her diary. Think Gone with the Wind-style lamps decorated with winter scenes and landscapes and you'll get a pretty good picture of the Victorian artwork Gregory actually produced.

Even though the legend has been firmly disproved now thanks to diligent research, the habit of referring to white enameled painting on glass as "Mary Gregory" hasn't slowed one bit. In fact, the usage has actually intensified as this type of decor on glass is referred to as "Mary Gregory" or at least "Mary Gregory style" in numerous marketing descriptions today.

Although the original Mary Gregory myth also led folks to believe white enameled glass originated in the United States, Europeans actually mastered the art well before it became popular here. Many of the pieces from Europe were not all white but had colored flesh and hair.

Imported novelty items bearing this type of decoration included many sets such as pitchers with matching glasses and decanter water sets. Collectors will find single vases and decorative boxes for sale, too. And while it was a popular color at the time this type of glass was produced, not all were done in cranberry glass. Look for red, green, cobalt blue (like the barber bottles shown here) and even aquamarine colored glass with white enamel as well.

Recognizing and Valuing Older "Mary Gregory" Glass

One of the problems, since this glass has been produced for many years, is telling the age of the pieces. If you're looking for only the older items decorated around 1900, then assessing the weight of the glass will be a telling clue.

In general, the older pieces will have a lighter feel since they were mouth blown into a mold rather than being machine molded like the pieces produced by Westmoreland from the late '50s until 1985 when the company went out of business.

Examining the quality of the enamel work also sheds some light on the age, since most of the older pieces were finely detailed. On newer pieces, "the facial features are almost animal-like," said Robert Truitt in an online article titled "Mary Gregory--Myth and Mystery." Truitt also noted the clothing on early examples to have a three-dimensional effect making them "a poor man's cameo." Newer pieces, in comparison, feature décor that looks rather rough and amateurish.

Quality and age factors generally determine the value of white enameled glassware, whether you label it as "Mary Gregory" or not, so it's good to examine a piece closely to figure out when it was manufactured before buying or selling.

Finding older pieces isn't the only way to enjoy this style of glassware, however. Fenton made some beautifully colored glass with white enamel decor many folks enjoy collecting along with other pieces dubbed "Mary Gregory" that have been produced by various manufacturers for more than a century.