In 1914 a young crystal cutter named William John Hughes quit his job at Roden Brothers Ltd., a Toronto silversmith and crystal company. Having learned his trade there, Hughes started the W.J. Hughes Corn Flower Company to produce glass pieces featuring a simple gray cut corn flower design. The pieces featured a 12-petal corn flower with a crosshatch centre and winding stems with leaves.
Hughes ran the company out of his basement for 37 years, initially doing the cutting himself, then bringing on employees as the business grew. During most of that time, rather than use salespeople, he would hit the road and sell his pieces himself to jewellery and gift shops, china shops, and department stores. Or buyers could visit his home (and get fed a meal!) at 212 Wychwood Ave. and purchase directly from his showroom. Production moved to a factory in 1949. After his death in 1951 his son-in-law took over the business and the company continued until 1988, staying in operation for around 75 years. In its heyday it would employ as many as 30 glass cutters at once. Corn Flower glass’s simple design appealed to Canadian sensibilities and found its way into millions of homes from coast to coast.
The sheer variety of pieces is astounding. Hughes’ company cut his corn flower design into bowls, plates, dessert dishes, bar glasses, stemware, salt and pepper shakers, serving dishes and utensils, pitchers, cocktail shakers, sugar and creamer sets, vases, candy dishes… you name it, they cut a flower into it.
Identification of Corn Flower pieces can be tricky for a few reasons. Copycats have emerged. Hughes’ design evolved in the early years. As well, the company did not manufacture glass, but instead purchased large quantities of ready-to-cut glass blanks from many companies in the US and Europe, sometimes making it difficult to identify based on the type or design of the glass.
The company’s most steady source was the Imperial Glass Company in Bellaire, Ohio. Hughes once purchased an entire boxcar full of their Candlewick glass line, the only such order the company’s sales representative to Canada at the time ever received. Candlewick Corn Flower glass is still readily found, easily recognized by the distinctive glass beads included in the designs.
Hughes built his company’s brand around good quality, but affordable elegance. His target market was middle and working class families. The company’s pieces became popular wedding gifts thanks to both an advertising push in the 50s and 60s, and a trend towards home entertaining. A family who couldn’t afford fine china and crystal could still have a little elegance in their home.
The largest collection of Corn Flower pieces in the world is held by the Museum of Dufferin in Mulmur, Ontario (Hughes was born in Dufferin County), about an hour and a half’s drive north-ish from Toronto. They have 2200 pieces and just last year opened a newly renovated permanent exhibit. They also hold an annual Corn Flower Festival.
Corn Flower pieces have become collectors’ items. Small clear pieces can still be inexpensive, but rare and/or coloured pieces can fetch hundreds of dollars. The most valuable colours are purple, blue, and “vaseline,” glass coloured a greenish yellow with uranium that glows under black light. I know someone with a stack of blue lunch plates and I covet them hard. She didn’t appear to take me seriously when I asked her to leave them to me in her will.
Have fun posting! If you die, leave me your Corn Flower glass.
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