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Duncanmiller glass swans

Duncan-Miller Glass Swans

The History

In 1865, George Duncan bought the glass factory of Ripley and Company in Pittsburgh, where he had been employed by D. C. Ripley. He formed a partnership with his sons under the name George Duncan and Sons. Augustus Heisey, his son-in-law, was a partner also. Sand was brought in on the Monongahela River, only two blocks away.

The plant in Pittsburgh was destroyed by fire in 1892 at which time August Heisey broke away and started his own glass company in Newark, Ohio. Heisey glass is also a highly valued collectible. See the article on Heisey glass on this site. Meanwhile, the Duncan sons (their father, George, had died in 1877) decided to build their new glass factory in Washington, Pennsylvania. The justification for the choice was the availability of cheap natural gas to run the furnaces and railroads for bringing in the sand. John Ernest Miller had been hired in 1874, and it’s his designs that have become most valuable to collectors. When the new plant opened, the company was named the Duncan-Miller company and Miller became a stockholder along with the members of the family.

Reasons for Collecting

Why is Duncan-Miller glass so desired and so collectible? Actually, the method of making the glass was not very different from the other glass makers in that part of the country. However, the art is outstanding-the designs and the beautiful colors distinguish Duncan-Miller pieces from all others. At least ten persons handled each piece. Some required even more.

The factory closed in 1955 when the competition from machine-made glass and assembly-line production made cheap glass so much more affordable. The Duncans refused to compete in this new market because it required a departure from the artistry and care they had taken such pride in. They preferred to go out of business. The plant was sold in 1956 but before the new owners could get their business up and running, the building burned.

What to Collect

While there are many Duncan-Miller designs that are prized by collectors such as the lovely patterned glass baskets, what most people think of when they think of Duncan is the swan. Other companies were making swans, but the Duncan version stands out. The swans were made in various patterns, but the gracefully curved neck distinguishes these from all other glass swans. Not only do they come in various patterns, they can be found in a wide range of sizes and colors. There is a beautiful red one that was made in a very large centerpiece size. On the other hand, a valuable small one is in Vaseline glass. Less valuable identical ones to the Vaseline-glass one can be found in pink, blue, and clear.

Identifying Duncan-Miller Pieces

It’s important to have an expert confirm that a piece you are considering purchasing (such as on eBay) is, in fact, Duncan-Miller because many sellers either intentionally or because of lack of expertise sell as Duncan-Miller swans that were made by other companies. In fact, I made a valuable acquisition of a swan the seller called Duncan-Mailler made possibly by an artist in Murano in this way before I realized that I needed help identifying the Duncan-Miller pieces. However, it’s also possible to spend quite a bit of money and get one that is inferior.

There is a Duncan-Miller museum in Washington, Pennsylvania, where you can see examples of this very collectible glassware.

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