The Vitrolite Story

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In the middle years of the Great Depression, shinny colored “Vitrolite” glass appeared on store fronts in the U.S. and U.K.  The peak popularity of this pigmented structural glass coincided with the later Art Deco streamlined period, making Vitrolite and Art Deco inseparable.

There were at least eight manufacturers of pigmented structural glass but ultimately, two vied for first place, Pittsburgh Plate Glass, makers of “Carrara” and the Vitrolite Company.

Carrara and Vitrolite were essentially identical in appearance and application so the story of their rivalry is more than anything else, about marketing.

According to Jeffrey L. Meikle’s Twentieth Century Limited, more architects and contractors ordered structural glass from PPG (Carrara) than from any other supplier. So it would seem Carrara outsold Vitrolite yet hardly anybody except historians and Decopix readers remembers Carrara at all.

Am I splitting hairs to mention the Carrara/Vitrolite distinction? Perhaps, but here’s an example. Walter Chrysler’s dining room in the Chrysler building’s Cloud Club was a tour-de-force showcase of Vitrolite. Only it wasn’t Vitrolite; it was Carrara.

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A 1942 Cararra brochure. What’s that, at top right?

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It’s Walter Chrysler’s dining room in the Chrysler building’s Cloud Club. Glorious sandblasted Vitroilite–I mean, Carrara.

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Vitrolite vs. Carrara. Unless you pick a color that’s unique to one or the other, the only way to tell them apart is from the back. Vitrolite (the jade green in back) has fine parallel grooves to maximize the grip of the mastic cement. Carrara (emerald green in front) relies on a roughened surface to create a strong bond.

History

Structural glass sheets were introduced around 1900 as a sanitary, nonporous and economical substitute for marble. Over time, these glass slabs would be used for wainscoting, back bars, table tops, bathroom and kitchen walls, “moderne” storefronts, cinema fronts and the occasional gas station.

Carrara and Vitrolite were cheaper than marble but not cheap. At 4.4 pounds per square foot (assuming the most common 11/32″ thickness) installation took time and expertise. Stocks of Carrara and Vitrolite were warehoused at multiple locations and could be cut on site. Off site, the glass could be sandblasted to create incised letters or patterns. Curved glass was another custom option but could be problematic if the curve was a less than perfect fit when the installer tried to put it in place.

Catalog listings from 1906 show the first appearance of PPG’s Carrara available in black and white. Early Vitrolite catalogs show four colors, white, ivory, jade, lavender and black.

Vitrolite was produced by the Meyercord Carter Company of Vienna, West Virginia, in 1916. Founded in 1896, Meyercord specialized the the decalcomania process, taking customer’s designs and firing them onto white glass at 1800 degrees in a device called the “Vitrolite.” Meyercord modestly claimed its Vitrolite-fired signs would last 1000 years and so far this claim has held up–these signs (usually for beer or whiskey) often turn up on eBay in top-notch condition. A misconception is that all Vitrolite colors were opaque; in fact, some Vitrolite signs were backlit.

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Fired in the “Vitrolite” at 1800 degrees, a Vitrolite sign will last a thousand years.

Following the introduction of Vitrolite, the Meyercord Carter factory became the Vitrolite Company. Meyercord continued operating under its own name as well, making various types of decals and other “transfer” products. Meyercord had its main office in the Chamber of Commerce Building at 139 West Washington Street in Chicago and a factory in Austin, Illinois. A Vitrolite sales office was opened at 133 West Washington.

Back in West Virgina, the Vitrolite factory moved from Vienna, West Virginia to nearby Parkersburg sometime prior to 1922. The 1922 yearbook of the Chicago Press Club reports the Vitrolite factory was located in Parkersburg. The same piece from the Chicago Press Club explains:

“To meet foreign demand, there have been formed in the principal cities of the United States, in Cuba, England, China and Japan, separate organizations composed of thoroughly trained Vitrolite specialists who carry a stock of material and have the necessary machinery to work it and who are capable of making a proper installation.”

Profiting from the Depression

Paradoxically, the Depression’s woes put the new business of industrial design on better footing. Part of the industrial designer’s pitch was convincing business owners that better design meant more sales. Better design also meant modern. Modern, in turn, meant taking advantage of new materials like Carrara and Vitrolite.

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Gas Station with Vitrolite facing, early 1930s.

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Carrara ad, 1930. Kaufmann’s department store in Pittsburgh had pillars of Carrara. Incidentally, it was Edgar Kaufman who commissioned Frank Lloyd Wright to build Fallingwater.

PPG worked with Walter Dorwin Teague, a desinger who had Texaco, Eastman Kodak and National Cash Register among his clients. Other designers also played a role. A 1935 brochure for Carrara was illustrated by Lurelle Guild, designer of the Electrolux vacuum cleaner and numerous items in aluminum, copper and silver for International Sliver and Chase, among others.

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The delightful Personality Bathrooms and Character Kitchens, Pittsburgh Plate Glass, 1935

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A close look at Personality Bathrooms and Character Kitchens reveals the illustrations are by designer Lurelle Guild.

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A poetic page from Personality Bathrooms and Character Kitchens.

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Vitrolite literature contains interesting, nearly hidden details too. This page from is Vitrolite Construction Details, c.1931.

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You can just make out the names Raymond Hood and Alfonso Ianelli.

The Vitrolite Company got a boost when it was acquired by Libbey-Owens-Ford in 1935. L-O-F, a comparatively new enterprise incorporated in 1930, was already the country’s second largest glass producer. A major supplier of glass for homes, offices and cars, L-O-F heavily promoted its automotive safety glass which, by 1937 was a requirement in 30 states. Despite these successes, the Depression had cut into L-O-F’s business.

Modernize Main Street 

The purpose of L-O-F’s acquisition of Vitrolite was, at least in part, to allow L-O-F to take advantage of a government initiative aimed at lifting the U.S. out of the Depression. The Federal Housing Administration’s “Modernize Main Street” campaign provided publicity and crucially, low-cost financing to store owners hoping to get more business by modernizing their shop’s appearance.

Following the acquisition of Vitrolite, L-O-F hired designer Bruce Goff in 1936. Goff is generally credited as the architect of the spectacularly Art Deco Boston Avenue Methodist Church in Tulsa.

Vitrolite, the “Colorful Structural Glass”

1936 was an auspicious year for Vitrolite products. New Vitrolite colors appeared, including “agates” which simulated real marble. Another Vitrolite option was “fire polished”, a matte finish “polished” by fire but un-buffed, thus having no gloss. Wisely, L-O-F made all Vitrolite colors available in full-sized sheets whereas PPG Carrara’s color palette, already smaller than Vitrolite’s, featured some colors intended for use as trim, in small sizes only.

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Vitrolite ilustration attributed to Bruce Goff, 1937. Looking at the tabletops, it appears he realized they needed to be sandblasted to conceal scratches.

Bruce Goff left L-O-F after just one year and the company turned to Harold Van Doren, an industrial designer and color expert.

One more key figure joined the L-O-F team responsible for Vitrolite. Toward the end of 1937, H. Creston Donner was hired. As head of the L-O-F design department, Donner was both manager and salesman, and apparently very good at both. Like Van Doren, Donner was also greatly interested in color, it’s application and effect on the consumer.

The stage was set for a matchup between two glass manufacturing giants.

Both PPG and L-O-F produced lots of advertising. But it seems Libbey-Owens-Ford did more, or used color more extensively which may be why Vitrolite is more well-known.

PPG & L-O-F were present at the Worlds Fairs of the 1930s. They also launched a number of promotions to generate interest in modernization.  (It should be said that these efforts were not only about structural glass since both companies had related products as well–windows, mirrors, Pittco storefronts, Vitrolux spandrel glass, etc.)

In 1935 L-O-F sponsored the Modernize Main Street competition. a call to architects to illustrate contemporary thought in architecture, design and merchandising.

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An entry in the Libbey-Owens-Ford Modernize Main Street competition, 1935.

PPG introduced the Pittco Caravan in 1936, a traveling exhibit in a truck designed by Teague that showed scale models of his Moderne storefront designs.

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For the 1939-40 New York Worlds Fair, PPG displayed a series of miniature Carrara storefronts.

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Some of the miniature Carrara storefronts shown at the New York Worlds Fair 1939-40.

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A Vitrolite brochure produced for the Golden Gate International Exposition, San Francisco 1939-40.

Creston Donner’s Department of Design at L-O-F went on to create many promotions–Visual Fronts, Design for Happiness, the Kitchen of Tomorrow and the Solar House, among others.

With extensive advertising combined with a healthy emphasis on good design, you may wonder why we are not surrounded by gleaming Vitrolite buildings. Alas, the economics and the nature of the material itself made the golden age of Vitrolite surprisingly short.

Vitrolite was cheaper than marble but soon had to compete with even lower cost alternatives. Some, like porcelain enamel sheets, could even imitate Vitrolite’s streamlined appearance. Durability of the glass was an issue and from a practical standpoint, some suggested uses for Vitrolite like tabletops, were not ideal due to the ease of scratching the glass.

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Vitrolite Table and Counter Tops, Libbey-Owens-Ford, 1939

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Some Vitrolite counter tops. These were improved designs with metal corner guards and “noise reducing cushion construction.”

 

A History of Vitrolite Colors

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Vitrolite colors, 1927

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Vitrolite colors c.1932

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Vitrolite colors, 1939

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British Vitrolite colours, 1930s

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Vitrolite colors, 1947

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From 1951, a Vitrolite Color Selector. A sampler that let homeowners visualize their new Vitrolite home. Clear transparencies of a kitchen and bath could be superimposed over backgrounds of colors to see the final effect.

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An exotic jade and black bathroom? Maybe not.

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A quick color change and it’s red and black.

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Vitrolite’s History in Catalogs

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Vitrolite Company, 1920s

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Vitrolite Company c.1929

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Vitrolite Company c.1932

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Libbey-Owens-Ford, 1937

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Libbey-Owens-Ford 1947

Looking at period brochures, one can see the range and number of colors was reduced by the late 1940s. By the late 1950s, the manufacture of structural glass reached its end.

Because of the network of warehouses and the need to keep replacement sheets on hand, odd bits of Vitrolite still turn up in old glass shops and in the U.S. there is one lone Vitrolite specialist, Tim Dunn.

Copyright (c) 2015 Randy Juster.  All Rights Reserved.

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