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Portrait of the Phoenix: The Story of a Glass Man - Fred Aiken, Jr.

Written by Jack Wilson. Posted in People

Portrait of the Phoenix: The Story of a Glass Man

Reported by Kathy Hansen 

Recently, I've had the opportunity to visit with several former glassworkers, to interview them and hear their stories of the years they spent working at "the Phoenix." While the tape recorder runs, we talk about the vaious jobs they held at Phoenix, how they came to work at the company, any favorite pieces they may have, and any special memories. Over the next several issues of the newsletter, I hope to be able to provide you with a glimpse of life at the Phenix through the eyes of the people who worked there, for the greatness of the company rests on the skill and character of its people.

Let me introduce you first to Fred Aiken, Jr. Fred was born on January 29, 1913, in Ingram, PA, a suburb of Pittsburgh, and has lived in Monaca since 1938.

KH: If you were born in Ingram, how did you come to Monaca?

FA: Well, I went to Pitt and graduated in June, 1935. Jobs were very tough to get at this time. It was 1936 that I started at Phoenix as an Industrial Engineer.

KH: How did you come to get the job at Phoenix?

FA: Through Pitt. The guy that was down at Phoenix was a Pitt graduate and so he always wanted Pitt people. I commuted for quite a while (from Ingram), and then I got married and moved to Monaca in 1938.

KH: You started out as an Industrial Engineer. What were some of your job responsibilities when you started? And then what did you do at Phoenix as you changed (jobs) through the years?

FA: Industrial Engineering was to study the jobs in the plant and then try to make them easier or whatever it took...We had an Incentive system there. We'd have to find out hoe much time it should take to do these different jobs.

KH: Like how many pieces of glass they could make in a certain time?

FA: That's right. You put a value on that. I was in the Industrial Engineering Department for....I don't know how many years. But, I asked them if they would put me in a job where I could learn more about the glass, so I went to a Production Engineering job at the plant.

KH: And what does that mean? What did you do?

FA: They designed the glass jobs and I'd go around and find out how long it took people to do their job. Everybody disliked me. The glassblowers would never let us out into the Forming Department.

KH: What is the Forming Department? What does that mean?

FA: Well, they take the liquid glass and they blow it into molds. That's the Blow Shops and Pressed Shops. Then they had semi-automatic machines in there, too, at the same time. It was a Hand Shop production. Then I don't know when we got into automatic making of glass -- probably into the 1950s. We called it a Hand Shop because they fed the glass on a pipe onto the molds.

KH: What other jobs did you do? Where did you end up, and how long did you work there altogether?

FA: Well, I ws an Industrial Engineer. Then I went into the Production Department, and the I was Treasurer of the company when I retired.

KH: How did you go from the production part to being a Treasurer -- accounting and bookkeeping?

FA: Well, they needed some help in that area and I expressed an interest. I was running the office and they need a Treasurer.

KH: How long did you work at Phoenix altogether?

FA: Well, let's see. I had to retire at 65.

KH: They forced you to retire?

FA: Oh, yes! Well, I think that it was mutual.

KH: Did you have any other family members who worked in the glass industry?

FA: Only my wife, Genevieve. She worked in the Decorating Department, down in Lighting. That's where I met her.

KH: you told me that some of the molds went back and forth between Phoenix and Consolidated -- I guess, the vases?

FA: Well yes. In fact, we bought the molds for those vases when Consolidated went out of business.

KH: That was in the '60s. You bought molds from them?

 

FA: Yes, a lot of that Selden, or decorated glass and such at the time. And every once in a while, Consolidated would stop production and send those molds down to us.

KH: I think that there should not be as much confusion as there is about where the molds came from or going back and forth between the factories. Do you think they kept a close record of what they had and when it went back and forth?

FA: Well, I don't think so. When they were shut down, they, (Consolidated and other glass companies) would send the molds to us and we'd make the glass. This went on for maybe 5 or 10 years, and then Consolidated went out of business and we took those molds then. At the time, I was in the Product Engineering Department. At lot of the customers owned their molds and they would take their molds with them after the job was completed.

KH: Phoenix also made their own molds, didn't they?

FA: Yes. At the same time that Consolidated was making this stuff, we were making it, too. We had our own molds. We had a Design Dept. that made a lot of the molds.

KH: I'd like to ask you about this kind of glass ("Sculptured Art Glass") in colors. We call the clear glas "crystal." And the there's the milk glass, which they called "opal". But some of those pieces were made in other colors. I have the "Freesia" vase in red glass.

FA:I'll tell you what happened. We were making signal glass for the government. Sometimes, we'd get a bad tank of red glass what wouldn't work for the lights and then we'd make the vases and things out of that. If the glass was no good for what they made it for, for signal glasses and such, they'd make the vases out of that -- not too many of them, though. They did that with green, too, and opal.

KH: Were there any particular kinds of things that Phoenix made that you liked? I mean, did you appreciate the beauty of the glass, or did you just think of it (working there) as just a job?

FA: I brought some of the glassware home. My wife worked with it, too. She hated it, though.

KH: You used the term "Selden Line" before. Some of the people here in Monaca call it the "Selden Line," but that was not a name on a label. That's Howard Selden. He wasn't a designer.

FA: He was a salesman, and he sold the stuff that we couldn't use for anything; in other words, colored glass that wouldn't come up to par for whatever it was intended for, so we'd make the "Sculptured Art Glass" from that. Usually, that vase line was made in white and crystal, and if they had a bad pot of red glass, they might make some vases out of that, and the same with gree. Howard Selden was just a salesman for that kind of stuff. We remembered him because he was the only one that sold the"Sculptured Artware". He was right in the heart of New York City, where his office was. He could sell anything.

KH: It sounds to me like some of the vases were sort of accidental. If you had good glass for the lighting ware, you wouldn't make the vases.

FA: Well, that's probably true, because if we had orders for that for lighting glassware, we would make a pot of glass, but when you had a light behind it...boy, sometimes, you had to do something else with it. Most of these molds (in unusual colors) came from that kind of thing.

KH: How about telling me about any people that you remember in particular while you were working there -- for example, Bill Milligan. He was there for 49 1/2 years.

FA: Everybody was there for a long time. T.H. Howard was the president of Phoenix Glass for 60 years, and he was really a character. Andrew Stewart was another one that was there for a long time. Bill Massey was the boss in the Hot Metal department for quite a while.

KH: The Hot Metal Department -- What does that mean? I know glass is called metal sometimes.

FA: Well, that's the Forming Department, really.

KH: My grandfather was a glassblower in a hot mold shop - the German hot mold system. From an engineer's standpoint, what can you tell me about that?

FA: Well, if it had any design on it, it had to be blown in a hot mold. If it was just a plain shape, it was probably a paste mold. They had a gathering boy, and then they had an intermediate, a blocker, and then the blower.

  One would get it on the pipe and the other one would put it in and blow it a little bit.

KH: Now I'm going to ask you to tell me about the red "Dogwood" vase because we know of two "Wild Rose" vases, but you're saying that yours is a "Dogwood" vase. Why don't you tell me bout it?

FA: Well, the "Dogwood" vase -- you know the shape of it. We were making red glass for the Navy, for Navy lights, and I had them make me a couple of vases out of that red glass, and Mr. Hicks in the Decorating Department had one of his employees outline the vase. It was red glass. Well, first they sprayed it red with a matte finish and then they wiped off the flowers (i.e., left them clear) and then outlined them in gold. I'll tell you, there's only two of them, and I don't know where the other one is.

KH: I'd like to ask you about electric lamps.

FA: Usually, we'd supply the glass to somebody else who put it together. Except for the Solar Department.

KH: What was the Solar Department?

FA: The Solar Department was a place where they sprayed the glass with cold colors, and they wired the lamps and packed them up.

KH: Why would they do them with cold color? Cold color washes off, doesn't it?

FA: Well, it's cheaper. They sprayed the inside of it with a color. They didn't spray the outside.

KH: They did put the electrical parts on the lamps there in the factory?

FA: Yes, they wired them up. They didn't put any shades on them.

KH: And that would be what time period?

FA: Well, I started there in 1936, and they were making them then, so I would say they made them maybe up until the 1950's -- quite a while. They made those with ceramic colors, too, and highlighted the flowers. They sprayed them on the outside and wiped the flowers off. Did you ever hear of Ceramic Color Company over in New Brighton? Ceramic colors mean they had to be fired on.

One of the marks of a true researcher is the ability to look at the evidence and discover something which others apparently have missed all along. Another characteristic, I believe, is the tenacity to search for bits and pieces of information which might seem unrelated at first, but, after close scrutiny, do exhibit some heretofore unexpected relationship. Researching the history of the Phoenix Glass Company over the past sixteen years has been a time-consuming hobby-turned-passion. I've frequently come upon apparent "dead ends" -- questions for which no one seems to have an answer. But what a pleasure if is for me to talk with a former employee whose stories and comments explain things which have been puzzling me for so long, especially if it is a person who thought that he or she couldn't help me very much.

In a past issue of this newsletter, Mark Lawyer wrote about a group of three unusual vases made by Phoenix Glass. They have a bumpy surface texture, similar to the "overshot" glassware of the Victorian period. They are decorated with pink, white, or blue ceramic finished, and each one has a gold and black "Sculptured Artware: label. Since no original literature has been found to reveal the Phoenix name for the ware and since they have larger granules than the pieces we call "Chipped Ice," Mark dubbed this style of decoration "Pebble."

At the 1998 convention, guest speaker Paul Olshanski explained the process for creating this textured finish. The glass is first bown into the mold. After cooling, it is coated with heavy oil and rolled in crushed glass. Then it is reheated to a temperature where the crushed glass begins to melt just enough to adhere to the body of the vase, while the oil burns away.

Recently, I found a fourth shape, a cylindrical vase. When I showed it to Mr. Aiken and asked if he could tell me anything about this type of finish, he replied, "Oh, yes, I'm very familar with that. We called it 'Ice'." Hearing his answer gave me a thrill! Finding the official name for this line was like finding another piece of the jigsaw puzzle that is the history of my favorite glass company.

Hopefully, I will have more opportunities to visit with former Phoenix workers over the coming months. Then, from time to time, I will share with you another "Portrait of the Phoenix."