by Elise Hempel
For many years I've loved to go antiquing, heading out with my partner on a Saturday afternoon to discover some quaint and hidden new antique shop, browsing through old pottery and glass, vintage knick-knacks and rusty railroad lamps, escaping the computer and TV for a while, the routine of daily life. Even better if the shop is slightly dim, with a certain mustiness to the air, if soft classical music surrounds me as I drift and imagine past the locked glass cases and open shelves. Even better if there's dust on those shelves.
I'm also a long-time enthusiast of antique glass bottles, having collected them and sold them on ebay, having bid in many online auctions and attended bottle shows in various states, having done much reading about them. I'm especially interested in the richly colored, glowing Midwestern pattern-molded bottles of the early 19th Century (the height of glass-making in America), as well as the gracefully curved and wonderfully off-kilter freeblown New England chestnut bottles from the late 1700s and early 1800s. So, if I were to wish for a real return to the past, I suppose I'd want back what I imagine was a national appreciation of skill and craftsmanship, quality and beauty – a time in the world of glass-making "before progress," before the automatic bottle machine started giving uniformity to bottles in the early 1900s, before even the use of glass molds to create the standardized bodies of bottles, a time when the glassblower's breath, out of necessity, regularly created delicate, individual objects of art.
I would not, of course, wish for much else still untouched by progress between the years 1815 and 1830 (the specific time of the Midwestern bottles I love) – slavery, a lack of women's rights, lack of electricity, etc., etc., etc. And one can only imagine the working conditions of a glass factory back then: the long hours and work week; the heat of the furnaces and the danger of molten glass; the dirtiness of the sand, soda ash, and limestone needed to make the glass; the shards of continuously broken bottles.
It is also known that even later, in the late 19th Century and early 20th Century, boys as young as eight were hired in glasshouses to perform "unskilled" jobs such as opening and closing the molds, cracking off hot glassware from the blowpipe, and carrying the finished product to the cooling oven. Girls were there too, performing the more "delicate" jobs of sorting, inspecting, packing, and weaving wicker covers for bottles such as demijohns. And though we're still, in 2017, talking about equal pay for equal work, as late as 1912, according to the Corning Museum of Glass website, the lowest wage for a male worker at one particular glass factory was four cents more than the highest wage for a female worker.
You can't wax nostalgic for long about any era in American history without quashing your dream with a realization of how much was bad back then, especially for women, gay men and lesbians, and African-Americans. Unless, perhaps, you're imagining the lush, green, and beautiful land of our country before humans arrived. Or unless you're Trump's base…. He's back out doing rallies, the thing he likes best besides golfing and tweeting, connecting again with his die-hard supporters, making, for himself, the presidency great again. And though he wasn't wearing his signature "Make American Great Again" red or white hat recently in West Virginia, his audience sure was, as well as holding signs bearing the same slogan or other versions: "Make America Proud/Safe/Strong Again." That word "again" implying, of course, that there was a time when America was greater, prouder, safer, and stronger than it is today. That word "again" over and over again, telling us to stay nostalgic for something, whatever it is, to drift a little longer in that antique shop, to not yet exit through the jingling door into the fresher air and brighter light.