Fig. 1: Attic window, 30½ x 45 inches. Photograph by Al Weems.

The collection of historic objects at Old Sturbridge Village, Massachusetts, is as varied as are the forty period buildings situated on the two hundred-plus acre campus. Comprising more than 50,000 artifacts made or used by rural New Englanders between 1790 and 1840, the core collection was assembled during the 1920s and 1930s by the Wells family, who amassed their wealth through American Optical, a business enterprise located in nearby Southbridge, Massachusetts. The Wells patriarch, Albert Bacheller “A.B.” Wells (1872–1955), was known for scouring the New England countryside for the unusual and the arcane —“oddities,” as he fondly referred to them. It was on one of those trips in 1927 that he discovered the subjects of this article: an attic window, doorway transom, and two sidelights, all accented with colorless glass cup plates bearing a profile image of Henry Clay (1777–1852), five-time presidential candidate and leader of the Whig party.1

Each architectural element is contained in a white pine sash of pegged mortise-and-tenon construction, which encloses the lead frame and muntins that secure the blown-glass panes and pressed-glass plates. Various cast-metal rosette and foliate ornaments are applied to the inner frame and muntins as additional embellishment. The oval attic window (Fig. 1) features eighteen Henry Clay cup plates, while the transom (Fig. 2) is set with five, and the sidelights are set with three.
All but one of the cup plates (Fig. 3) was produced from the same mold featuring two stars above Clay’s bust, the “N” reversed in HENRY, and a rim made up of twenty large scallops with a single, smaller scallop between.2 The lone dissimilar plate is displayed in the attic window. It is a variation of the others and is set with newer plaster, suggesting it was added to replace a damaged original plate.

Pressed-glass cup plates are strictly an American phenomenon. While ceramic examples were produced in England, primarily for the American market, nearly all pressed-glass examples were made and used in North America. Cup plates, which measure three to four inches in diameter were utilized much like a modern-day drink coaster. Prior to the Civil War, it was customary to pour the hot contents from a handle-less coffee- or teacup into an accompanying saucer to cool before consuming. A cup plate was used to rest the cup in order to avoid soiling the table linens. Cup plates were one of the first forms produced using the technology of mechanically pressing glass in metal molds, an innovative technique initially patented in 1826. These plates were produced in large quantities for nearly forty years (roughly 1826 to 1865), and feature hundreds of different designs, including political and historical themes.

Fig. 2: Transom, 14 x 78 Inches. Photograph by Al Weems.

It is commonly thought that Henry Clay cup plates were produced in conjunction with the 1840 or 1844 United States Presidential elections in which Clay was a participant. It is possible, however, that the plates were made slightly earlier, perhaps to commemorate his important role in the War of 1812, or to promote his “American System,” a legislative platform that called for, among other things, increased tariffs on imported goods, and which was extremely popular in the northeastern United States, where these plates were manufactured.

Fig. 3: Cup plate, probably the Boston & Sandwich Glass Co., Sandwich, Mass., ca. 1840. D.: 3⅝ inches. Photograph by William McGuffin, courtesy Jeffrey S. Evans & Associates.

This unique architectural assemblage was originally part of the Pease House (Fig. 4) in Somers, Connecticut. The Greek Revival portion of the home was likely constructed around 1840. A.B. Wells purchased the set from Addie Webster Slater, who, with her husband, George, operated the house as the Maples Inn and Tea Room from 1923 to 1951. The handwritten receipt dated September 17, 1927, records Mrs. Slater receiving $100 “on acc Henry Clay Plates in door frames & attic window,” and requires Wells to “replace with 3 windows around door & attic window and put in place by Wells and to pay $400.00 when he secures the windows” to the satisfaction of Mrs. Slater. The reverse of the receipt notes that the amount was paid in full on November 1, 1927.

Upon acquiring the windows, A.B. Wells incorporated them into the new “great room” ell addition to his Southbridge residence (Fig. 5).3 The room was constructed of reclaimed barn timbers and weathered boards in keeping with the aesthetic sensibilities of his collection. The attic window was fitted into a door at one end and bordered by the transom and sidelights. Wells used this large space to entertain family and friends, and the room displayed some of his most prized possessions.

While no other grouping of this type has been documented, the use of cup plates as decorative detail in an architectural setting does not seem to be unique. Beauport, the Sleeper-McCann House in Gloucester, Massachusetts, for instance, features a fan light and two sidelights set with cup plates. It has not been confirmed, however, if these lights are original configurations from an earlier house or were fabricated as decorative elements by Henry Sleeper, a friend of A.B. Wells, who would have likely been aware of the Clay examples in the Wells home. Additionally, the Old Sturbridge Village research file for the windows notes that “[h]ouses in Chaplin and Weathersfield, Conn. have related transom lights, much less elaborate, in place.” These claims, however, have not been verified.

Fig. 4: The Pease House, Somers, Conn., ca. 1840. Photograph by Caitlin Emery Avenia.

Fig. 5: “Great room,” 1927 addition to the A. B. Wells residence, Southbridge, Mass. Courtesy Old Sturbridge Village Research Library, Wells Collection.

The A. B. Wells residence, Southbridge, MA. Image early 20th century. Courtesy Jacob Edwards Library, Southbridge, Massachusetts.      

The tradition of honoring political and military subjects on domestic tableware extends at least as far back as the seventeenth century, as is seen on English delftware chargers and plates depicting Charles I, Charles II, and William III.4 Widespread availability of politically imbued consumer goods was not realized, however, until the first half of the nineteenth century. With the advent of new technologies and techniques brought about by industrialization, artisans, craftspeople, and merchants were able to produce on a broad scale, and at varying price points, everyday domestic objects exhibiting political support for a specific individual, group, or established set of ideas. The Henry Clay cup plates produced by the Boston and Sandwich Glass Company during the second quarter of the nineteenth century are just such objects, and their unique implementation as architectural ornament at the Pease House in Somers, Connecticut, undoubtedly made a strong political statement about the convictions of the owners during the turbulent decades leading up to the American Civil War. Thanks to the voracious collecting habits of A.B. Wells, and his keen eye for collecting New England artifacts, these windows provide a glimpse into the nation’s rich and varied past.

Side light,  53 3/4 x 14 inches. Was originally one of a pair and set vertically on either side of the door.  Photograph by Al Weems. 

I would like to thank the staff at Old Sturbridge Village for their assistance with this article, especially Shelley Cathcart who unearthed much of the material presented here. Also thanks to Will Kimbrough for his suggestions.

lecture on the windows will be presented at Old Sturbridge Village on Saturday, August 11th at 11:00 a.m. in the Visitor Center Theater. Price to the lecture is included with Village admission. Click here to learn more about the lecture. For information on OSV, Visit 

Jeffrey S. Evans is president, senior auctioneer, and American glass expert, at Jeffrey S. Evans & Associates in Mt. Crawford, VA. He is recognized as an authority on the decorative arts and material cultural of the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, having written a number of books and curated exhibitions on the subject.

This article was originally published in the Summer 2018 issue of Antiques & Fine Art magazine, a fully digitized version of which is available at AFA is affiliated with Incollect.