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  • Writer's pictureBelmont County Tourism

An inside look at The National Imperial Glass Museum

The curators and docents of our museums are looking forward to re-opening and safely welcoming visitors. In the meantime, a series of blogs written by our tourism partners will tell the story of how they became involved and give you an inside look at these unique places.

Our second installment is written by Fred Ottoson, the president of the National Imperial Glass Collector's Society.

The National Imperial Glass Museum, 3200 Belmont Street, Bellaire, Ohio, is still closed. As of May 2, 2020, Ohio Governor DeWine mandated that museums "remain closed per existing Stay Safe at Home Orders."

Perhaps we will soon receive clarity from the Governor as to when we will be permitted to open. However, regardless of that unknown date, we do not plan to open until we can be sure that we can protect the health of Museum staff and visitors.

Meeting that goal will require further planning and procurement of necessary items and having procedures in place for protection of staff and visitors. We must weigh our responsibility for the health of everyone alongside the importance of the Museum to glass and art enthusiasts, history buffs, and the heart and soul of Bellaire and the entire region.

How did I become involved with the National Imperial Glass Museum?

My family's involvement with Imperial Glass began in 1931 when my grandfather Carl Ottoson and his family moved from Chicago to Bellaire. Earl Newton, Imperial's sales representative in Chicago, recruited my grandfather to be foreman of the cutting shop at the newly reorganized corporation. (Carl worked at that position until his retirement in the 1950s.) My father Axel, having graduated from Senn High School just months earlier, worked at Imperial on and off through the 1930s when he was not at school back in Illinois earning his degree. His steady employment at Imperial began in the early 1940s and continued until his retirement in 1977. Although I did not choose a career in the glass industry, Imperial has always been a part of my life.

Upon my father's retirement, he and my mother Eleanor became involved with the former Bellaire Glass and Artifact Museum as docents. It was located at a prominent location on old State Route 7 at 4882 Jefferson St. The relocated Route 7 took it, and many other fine properties in the Gravel Hill neighborhood of Bellaire in the late 1980s.

It was a long-time dream of members of the National Imperial Glass Collectors' Society to have a museum devoted to the people, products, and history of Imperial Glass Corporation. The Society believed that the legacy of the "Big I" deserved preservation in its special place in Bellaire. (Imperial Glass incorporated in 1901, produced its first glass in 1904, and continued production until 1984 when its second bankruptcy forced it into liquidation.)

In the 1990s, many Society members worked and traveled tirelessly to find a suitable location for the Museum. They settled upon the current building at 3200 Belmont St. in Bellaire. Several years of inordinate sacrifice and indefatigable work by many members climaxed on Thursday, June 5, 2003 with a celebratory grand opening.

Having nothing to do with the Museum up to that point, I began my volunteerism that summer as a docent. Several years later, my involvement deepened as I worked with the Museum's educational program and publicity. I assumed a position on the Board of Trustees that eventually led to my election as president of the Society in 2017. It has been a privilege to serve the Society in many roles with a multitude of wonderful people through these 18 years.

What makes the National Imperial Glass Museum unique?

Belmont County was home to a plethora of glass manufacturers dating back to 1866 with the founding of the Bellaire's Belmont Glass Works at the corner of 34th & Hamilton streets. The majority of the county's glass works and glass decorating companies were in Bellaire, with others located in Bridgeport, Martins Ferry, and Barnesville. In the 1880s, perhaps even earlier, Bellaire became known as the "Glass City". More glass houses operated in Bellaire than in any other city in the Upper Ohio Valley, including the major manufacturing center of Wheeling, W. Va. Today, one firm stands alone as the most recognizable name associated with the glass industry in Belmont County and Bellaire—Imperial. The Ohio Historic Marker situated in the lawn of the Museum proclaims Imperial to be the "Gem of 'The Glass City.'"

Among the many fine museums in Belmont County, the National Imperial Glass Museum is the only glass museum. Although it is located several blocks north of where the factory was located, the aforementioned yard holds special significance. On that lot at the northeast corner of 32nd & Belmont Streets once stood the First National Bank. Beginning in December 1901, Capt. Ed Muhleman, Imperial's founder, occupied the first office of the company in that building. Over two years later, in February 1904, Imperial made its first glass at the factory located at Belmont & 29th Streets.

Nowhere else can one view and appreciate such a vast collection of the magnificent glass made by Imperial. One can also gain insight into the dedication, artistry, skill, and imagination of the outstanding employees of the institution.

Why I feel people should visit the National Imperial Glass Museum.

The National Imperial Glass Collectors' Society operates and maintains the National Imperial Glass Museum for the benefit of the visiting public as we attempt to achieve our mission. One can best realize much of that multifaceted mission by paying a visit to the Museum at 3200 Belmont Street in Bellaire, Ohio and taking a leisurely stroll through the various rooms and exhibits.

Of course, the most prominent feature of the Museum is the glass that envelops a visitor almost immediately upon entering. With the multiple and varied exhibits, we wish that visitors come to appreciate the design, manufacture, and marketing of Imperial's products. One can also view the various photographs of glass workers, whether group pictures or candid shots as they practiced their craft. Any visitor should not only contemplate the artistry and skill that went into the glass, but also the colorful advertising and promotions that Imperial pioneered.

The Society and its docents expect to help the visitor interpret Imperial's role in the local community, the nation's industrial history, and its place in home and family life. We have a substantial library of books, catalogs, and videos that the visitor can utilize to crystalize his or her understanding of the importance of Imperial Glass in the twentieth century.

We have a modest gift shop where we offer genuine Imperial Glass and associated books and catalogs for sale. Gift shop items are also featured on the museum’s website and Facebook page. Should you wish to make purchase, please message us on Facebook, call 740-671-3971, e-mail, or download an order form from the website.

The National Imperial Glass Museum is a "cannot miss" destination for glass enthusiasts, history buffs, and connoisseurs of art. Please plan to visit once we open in 2020. At the time of this writing, we have neither a projected opening date nor have we finalized procedures for operation during this current COVID-19 pandemic. Please contact the museum ahead of time to be sure of any mandates that we require upon anyone entering and touring.

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