Folk Arts Visual ArtsJune 18, 2014

Two glassworkers are using a mold to make hand blown bottles at the T.C. Wheaton Company in Millville, NJ, c. 1909. Photo by Lewis W. Hine .New Jersey.

Beaches from tip to toe.

Sweet-as-sugar corn on the cob and tomatoes so good you can eat them off the vine.

And glass.

New Jersey is known for glass, right?

What?! You didn’t know that the South Jersey’s saga includes a rich heritage of glassmaking?

Then make your way to Millville to see NJ350: Through the Lens of Glass, currently on view in the Museum of American Glass at Wheaton Arts and Cultural Center.

According to the curator, Kristin Qualls, the idea came along with the statewide celebration of New Jersey’s 350th anniversary. “We wanted to show long-time Jersey residents, as well as visitors to the state, what it is about glass that makes it so significant in South Jersey.”

Qualls said that the research part of pulling together the exhibit was a fascinating exercise. “It was an incredible amount of fun to go through the storage areas at Wheaton and pull out pieces that we could use to fill in this story.”

NJ350_Exhibit_in_MuseumI asked Qualls how long it took to put together the show. “It’s been our focus for well over a year,” she said, “but, honestly, we’ve probably been thinking about doing THIS show since WheatonArts was founded in 1968.”

NJ350: Through the Lens of Glass is on view through January 4, 2015 in the WheatonArts  Museum of American Glass, and is organized around three themes: “South Jersey Glass, History and Histories,” “Memory and Creativity,” and “Continuity and Change: Wheaton Village becomes Wheaton Arts and Cultural Center.”

“In the lobby, there are vignettes. These are the stories that link to the history of New Jersey,” Qualls explained. And this connection is a primary part of what the exhibit is trying to “say.”

As the comprehensive Teacher’s Guide states, “the exhibit highlights the relationship between history, forms of artistry, and South Jersey culture through the lens of glass.”

The Lily Pad decoration is a South Jersey glass tradition going back to the origins of glassmaking in the state 275 years ago. (l-r) WheatonArts 2010, Clevenger Brothers c.1930s, unknown maker from South Jersey early 19th century. Museum of American Glass collection.The two main galleries display dozens of objects that represent the themes, along with quotes from both historical figures and present-day artists that bring the objects to life. An interactive component, “Object Conversations,” invites visitors to share their own stories, and guided tours and discussions add further dimension.

Now, I am a South Jersey girl, born and bred, and I consider myself to be moderately well-versed in the region’s history. But, until I talked with Kristin Qualls about this exhibit, I’d never put together the assorted pieces that explain why southern New Jersey was perfectly suited for glass making.

And why WAS that?

First, the essential elements like sand, oyster shells, clay, wood, salt marsh hay, and easily traversable waterways – New Jersey’s natural resources – were just there.

And, second, the pattern of immigration throughout Jersey’s glass glory days played a vital and specific role in the ways that glassmaking techniques and styles developed.

I could expound more broadly on what goes into glassmaking, on the remarkable legacy that has come down through time, and on the ways in which this special art and craft has developed in New Jersey.

Founders of a scientific glass company in Vineland, NJ, the Kontes brothers turned their considerable skill towards making paperweights, a hobby they continue to enjoy in retirement. James and Nontas Kontes, 1984. Museum of American Glass collection. But, I won’t.

A visit to WheatonArts is always a wonderful experience. On its 65-acres, there is a pond and picnic groves, the Down Jersey Folklife Center, regularly scheduled demonstrations in the Glass Studio and the artists’ studios, and five (count ‘em) shops, including the like-back-in-the-day General Store.

And now, while this special exhibition is on view, is the perfect time to go and discover for yourself why the tradition of American glassmaking began – and continues to this day – in southern New Jersey.

WheatonArts is open Tuesday through Sunday (closed on Mondays), 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.


Editor’s Note: For more about NJ350, visit There’s a special celebration on June 22.  NJ350: A Capital Celebration is a once-in-a-generation celebration of our state’s 350th birthday that will span the length of the Capitol Complex in Trenton. There will be arts, local food and beverage vendors, history activities and attractions for people of all ages. Come sample New Jersey films; hear from NPR’s David Bianculli about New Jersey’s central role in movies and TV; see live outdoor and indoor music, theater and dance; learn about historic NJ artifacts; take a tour of the Statehouse; build a bridge in the State Museum; see New Jersey’s 1664 birth certificate, and more! A Capital Celebration will take place rain or shine on June 22, and admission and parking are free. For the complete list of programs, visit

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About Author

Shen Shellenberger
Shen Shellenberger

Shen’s been a Jersey girl for most of her life, other than living for a three-year stretch in Portland, Oregon, and six magical months in Tokyo. Shen loves the arts in all of its various forms – from the beauty of a perfectly-placed base hit to the raw energy of rock ‘n’ roll – and has successfully passed on this appreciation to her three grown children. Shen’s most recent jobs include WXPN (1993-2001) and the Philadelphia Museum of Art (2003-present). Shen also has been a working freelancer for 25 years, and operated her own frame shop in Mt. Holly in the late-70s.