Regular visitors to my website may have noticed that for part of May I was unable to ship any orders. That’s because I was in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. I had a brilliant time meeting existing customers and showing samples to
Two Brits in America
Not only does the British accent tend to open doors (or windows!) but when you walk into a USA antique store with my product, people tend to be very surprised – usually in a nice way. I always say to Americans that British stained glass is not better, but it is distinctive*
I needed an assistant. The successful applicant, my mum, was appointed on the basis that she was happy to do what I want and follow me anywhere: box ticked! We arrived in Philadelphia, where we spent the first four days.
We’re not really into tourist attractions. I appreciated Independence Hall** but what we really enjoyed in Philadelphia was visiting an architectural salvage dealer at a church. He invited us to see all the items of value his crew were removing. This is my idea of sightseeing!
It was in North West Philadelphia, in one of the “less desirable” neighbourhoods. It’s my opinion that this is where the good stuff can be found. Once an area has been “upgraded” or “gentrified” there’s less treasure about and of what remains the new owners may be less willing to part with.
It was an ordinary church for that area and dates to 1927 by the architect George Lovett. I wasn’t particularly impressed with the stained glass as whole windows but there were fragments that stood out. Increasingly with church glass I’m finding it’s more practical to sell as spare parts if one has the time and space to dismantle***. The salvager had already removed several intricately carved stone pieces such as those highlighted below:
What interested me is the large size of the building given it was a relatively ordinary church. Just like in England, these old churches are gutted to be turned into condominiums.
From another church, the dealer gave me this clump of glass which was also from an ecclesiastical window. In his store he had baskets full of these. I guess paper weights are just one ornamental reuse idea. It’s incredible how something this thick could be used in a window; it reminds me of kryptonite from the Superman movies. He gave us each a piece which we treasure as mementos of the trip – you can’t get this from a museum gift shop!
Our accommodation was in Northern Liberties (NoLibs as the locals call it) which was easy access to Old City. I don’t often drink Coke but felt a desire as I was in the USA. However gentrification meant it wasn’t on the menu at the local cafe so I had to make do with a lavender lemonade!
We rented a rowhouse. These charming little buildings are what defines Philadelphia for me. There’s a bedroom on each level. These date to the 1800s – a Philly resident told me those with dormer windows are early 1800s.
A rowhouse on our street.
Shop buildings in Philadelphia, and I imagine many other areas of the USA, have the ceilings decorated with pressed tin. While old British buildings might have ornate plaster moulds it’s not feasible to fill the whole ceiling with that method. I liked how these ceilings haven’t been repainted in a long time. It contributed to the rustic character the cafes wanted to convey.
Many Americans tell me they admire Britain because we have “history” and “old buildings”. How old is “old”? The majority of old houses that most British people live in are late Victorian – 1930s. Philadelphia is a relatively small city but I can’t think of anywhere in London where there are so many clusters of 19th century housing that middle-income people live in. Yes we have castles and stately homes but they are either owned by luxury hotel chains or the aristocracy or have been donated to the National Trust. No doubt you can find quaint British Bed and Breakfast accommodation which claim to date hundreds of years but most likely those buildings have been significantly developed in order to be habitable. If you change the head of a broom and later its handle, is it the same broom?
After Philadelphia we drove to Sullivan County in north eastern Pennsylvania which has a small village on a mountain top called Eagles Mere. We were fortunate to stay in one of its houses built by my Great Great Grandfather. It opened as an Inn in 1890.
In the colour photo my mother sits in the same place as her Great Grandmother from the older photo.
For me there’s a lot of history in the USA! Eagles Mere has gone through several changes. In the first half of the 19th century its lake was used to make glass, due to the sand it produced. The glass factory at Eagles Mere failed partly because it was cheaper for the USA to import glass from England. While in Britain we don’t make new glass for export any more (we don’t make much!) I like that, in a way, I am carrying on the tradition of exporting British made window glass.
I won’t go into detail about where else we stayed in Pennsylvania but it was very nice. We made some planned stops to antique vendors and some impromptu. You can’t miss some of these places on main routes which have huge signs saying “ANTIQUES”. Just like in England, people have varied ideas of what defines antique but half the fun is finding out!
The final two days were spent in New Jersey. Here’s me at one of my customer’s shops.
I get such pleasure from seeing this in person – to know I have rescued what many British people would regard as junk and sent it across the world to people who care. I took with me some samples to show potential customers and on the last day sold everything – needless to say my suitcase for the return flight was a lot lighter.
We spent some time in Cape May which is on the southern most tip of New Jersey and claims to be the country’s first seaside holiday resort. In the UK the “plain” glass in our old houses was never completely plain. If you can still find any, look carefully and you can see the ripples created from the handblown formation but this doesn’t capture on camera. In Cape May this feature is more noticeable…
The Victorian architecture, intricately carved wooden detail and bright colours are worth a visit for.
Nothing felt more American than sitting on the porch and watching the world go by! My theory for this phenomenon is that traditionally there isn’t much space in the “back yard” or as we would say, the garden.
I know some Americans reading this will think I’m a bit eccentric to be so enthusiastic about their country but “the grass is greener always on the other side”. Thank goodness at least half of my sales are to the USA which is partly what stirs my interest. (Since Britain left the world’s biggest free trade market, which was on our doorstep, surprisingly few people in the European Union want to pay 20% import VAT to receive my goods but the USA has a reasonable import policy.)
I have to say a big thank you to Devyn who showed us around Philadelphia including the Happy Birthday Bar (a great place to talk to people or just watch Jeopardy!). He is an artist who knows everything about Philadelphia and more! The visit wouldn’t have been as fun without him. He knows where there are only two establishments that serve genuine philly cheesesteaks which are certainly not on the tourist trail. Devyn was one of the co-hosts who interviewed me for the American podcast, True Tales from Old Houses*.
Already I’m thinking about the next trip somewhere else in the USA! Let me know if you’re interested in a meeting? Perhaps you have already bought from me but are thinking of buying in bulk or perhaps you have not bought anything (yet!). Whatever you are looking for, sometimes its good to meet in person, as I appreciate ordering valuable glass from across the Atlantic is not something you consider lightly!
*I explain the difference between American and British stained glass when I was interviewed by the podcast True Tales From Old Houses, I appear 13 minutes in to the episode.
** As it was out of season the queues for both Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell were short, otherwise I would only recommend Independence Hall.
*** Actually it’s difficult to store church glass either way, if you don’t dismantle then where can you safely store for a long period of time, given how large they are? This is the reality of architectural salvage dealing in modern London.