Life

Corn-flower glass design a sparkling work of art

Robert Britnell

SUBMITTED PHOTO
Jack Hughes's corn flower glass design is highly collectible.

SUBMITTED PHOTO Jack Hughes's corn flower glass design is highly collectible.

In 1914, William John “Jack” Hughes began cutting glass tableware full-time in the basement of his home at 212 Wychwood Ave., Toronto. Ninety years later, his popular floral pattern, which he called “corn flower,” is one of the most sought-after glass patterns in Canadian antique and collectible outlets.

Corn flower was cut and sold across Canada for more than 70 years and, for many, it has become a cherished heirloom for more than three generations.

Hughes and his twin brother, Robert, were born in April 1881 and were the third and fourth children of Margaret Jane and Henry Hughes. In 1888, the family moved from the hamlet of Bowling Green (near Orangeville) to a farm near Riverview in Melancthon Township. Margaret Jane Hughes died soon after the move.

Farming was difficult and the lesson of hard work was learned by all of the children and remembered for the rest of their lives.

Jack left the farm and found work in 1901 in Toronto, where he was employed by Roden Brothers Silversmiths in their silver metal department. The firm set up a lead crystal-cutting department in 1907 and Jack was offered an opportunity to learn the art of glass cutting. He enjoyed the work, learned well and eventually became foreman of the cutting department.

Jack had a natural gift for understanding how glass was made and shaped and was able to turn his lead crystal pieces into sparkling works of art.

In 1912, when Jack built a cutting frame in the basement of his home, he began cutting on “elegant” or finer glass on which he produced what is known in the industry as a “grey cut.” By doing that, he was not directly competing with his employer.

Between 1912 and 1914, he experimented with several cuts. Fruit, flowers and lineal designs were his focus. The 12-petal flower and leaf sprays, which he later named corn flower, were the most popular with his customers.

Corn flower was cut in five steps, and it was those five steps that made Jack’s corn flower unique in the marketplace.

Glass blanks used in the early years of the business were purchased from American companies such as Tiffin, Fostoria, Lancaster, Heisey, New Martinsville Glass and Imperial.

Sales of corn flower increased slowly as Jack continued his efforts to make his business a success. He called on relatives to obtain orders, then returned home to cut the glass and delivered the glass to the retailer. Sometimes payment was made at the time of delivery; other times, he had to wait until the glass was sold.

Toward the end of the First World War, Jack could not keep up to the orders by himself and began to hire glass cutters to work for him. His production area consisted of four wooden cutting frames, powered by long, flat leather belts that ran from pulleys on a line shaft. A single electric motor ran the shaft.

Business continued to increase through the 1920s until orders came to an abrupt halt in 1929. Many dollars were outstanding and lost when retail accounts closed their doors due to the Depression. During those years, the cutters could only work when orders were brought home and several left to take positions in other professions.

Business improved as the 1930s progressed and, during those years, Jack’s twin brother came to work for him, as did three of his nephews. Jack also purchased the house on the lot next door and built a duplex. The basement became the company’s showroom and was open to customers and friends. Jack as an excellent salesman who liked to deal personally with his customers and he always tried to provide high-quality products at the lowest price. The popularity of corn flower travelled by word of mouth and sales continued. Although money was tight in the decade of the Depression, corn flower was considered an inexpensive gift of high quality.

In 1939, Jack acquired the Canadian cutting rights to candlewick, a glass tableware line produced by Imperial Glass Corporation of Ohio. Corn flower and candlewick blended beautifully and sales soared briefly. The outbreak of the Second World War changed the world of business everywhere and Jack’s business was affected drastically. The government classified cut glassware as a nonessential luxury item. As well, all but two of the company’s cutters who were over the age of military service enlisted.

During the war, the foil label that had been applied to corn flower since 1932 could not be produced and a paper label with blue writing was substituted. Few pieces exist today with that label. The foil label resumed its place after 1945.

After the end of the war, business began to return to normal. Together, corn flower and candlewick began an unbelievable success story. When Jack’s brother died suddenly of a heart attack, he was able to convince his son-in-law to join the company. Then, in 1949, a new factory was built at 148 Kenwood Ave. in Toronto. The factory was equipped with new cutting machines that were designed by Pete Keyser, Jack’s newly recruited son-in-law. The move to Kenwood ended a 37-year tradition of cutting corn flower in the basement of 212 Wychwood.

During the years Jack and Keyser worked together, they were able to expand the business. The new idea was to promote the concept of open-stock of selected items, which customers were able to add or replace to their existing collections. Those items were also ideal for gifts. In early 1951, the company was incorporated as W.J. Hughes & Sons “Corn Flower” Ltd. Later that year, Jack died at home of a heart attack at the age of 70.

In 1952, a new plant was built at 102 Tycos Dr. in North York. Corn flower was distributed from that location for 33 years. Between 1951 and 1988, corn flower changed with the times and expanded with new lines. In 1962, Hungarian-made stemware blanks were received. The quality and uniformity of the glass were excellent. Soon, unique lines of lead crystal, ovenware and cut glass lines such as Caramia and snow flower were added to the growing list of products. As well, in the early 1960s, due to the cost, the number of flowers and leaf sprays were restricted to one or two per piece.

The company started by Jack in 1914 remained in the Greater Toronto Area until 1988, when all production of corn flower ceased and the company was moved to Bobcaygeon. With the move, company memories were made and Canadian families have had something to share for generations. Corn flower will remain a collectible treasure for years to come.

Thanks to Krista Taylor, who has written the Canadian Identification and Price Guide to Hughes “Corn flower” Glass. Serious collectors will find a wealth of information at the Dufferin County Museum and Archives.

Robert Britnell lives in the Bracebridge-Muskoka area and is prepared to travel reasonable distances to evaluate fine antiques and collectibles and offer guidance in how to best market them. He has a special interest in fine art, estates and downsizing projects. He can be reached at 705-645-6157 or robertbritnell@sympatico.ca.


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