Keep Sweeney Legend Going
No piece of Victorian art glass is more famous than Wheeling’s Sweeney Punch Bowl. Glass collectors all over the world know the story of this famous 5-foot-tall, lidded glass bowl that was blown and cut from lead glass.
The Irish took particular pride in this treasure because the Sweeney brothers and their success were the realization of the American dream for the glassmaking Irish.
It all began when four Sweeney brothers formed the famous Sweeney glass company in 1830, in Wheeling, Va. Two brothers, Robert and Campbell, died before Thomas Sweeney designed his huge masterpiece in 1844. Though there are many stories about the bowl, the most recent and accurate information indicates that Thomas and Michael Sweeney produced two huge punch bowls that are considered the largest pieces of cut lead crystal ever produced.
Standing 5 feet in height, holding 16 gallons of punch, they weighed in at 225 pounds and were made with the assistance of five separate moulds. Each section of the large bowl was blown into one of these wooden moulds then cut. Afterwards the unique moulds were destroyed.
The Sweeney Punch Bowls were exhibited in New York and Philadelphia and won awards and prizes. The Sweeneys hoped to send them on to the world exposition in London for display at the Crystal Palace in 1851, but a factory fire destroyed that idea.
The punch bowl story picks up again in 1875, when the huge example of Victorian art glass reappeared on Michael Sweeney’s Wheeling grave as a monument. According to legend, the two brothers had a falling out and dissolved their business partnership just four years after the punch bowls were made, making this appearance all the more shocking.
It seems that after his brother died, Thomas visited his grave and was stunned to see one of the punch bowls mounted on the tomb. His brother’s memorial read: “Michael Sweeney, died Dec. 11, 1875, aged 65 years – 3 mo. – 4 da. The World is My Country To Do Good My Religion.” The base of the punch bowl was resting on a slab of granite, carved with these words, “Manufactured by Michael Sweeney – 1844.”
Since Thomas designed the bowl, this final statement was an insult and an intentional slight, perhaps in retaliation for the fact that Thomas had refused to lend Michael money, precipitating their estrangement. This punch bowl memorial remained on the grave of Michael Sweeney until 1949, when it was moved to Oglebay Institute’s Mansion Museum for safekeeping and for the public to enjoy.
The granite monument that housed the bowl, minus its glass walls, can still be seen on Sweeney’s grave in the beautiful Greenwood Cemetery on National Road in Wheeling.
Over the years, the gigantic piece of lead glass received some roughing up after the handmade window panes protecting the treasure were broken by vandals and the beautiful cut glass prisms that originally hung from the collar of the bowl disappeared. Only one of these prisms can be seen today displayed with the bowl. It’s a blessing that this valuable glass monument wasn’t destroyed considering it was housed outdoors for nearly 75 years.
Though stories persist about the mysterious second punch bowl, its location remains a mystery. It is known that a Sweeney Punch Bowl was described as being displayed at the National Institute in Washington, D.C., in 1852. The institute was operated by the U.S. Patent Office and later was absorbed by the Smithsonian. But whether this is the same bowl now housed at Oglebay Institute or the second mysterious bowl cannot be determined. The Smithsonian has no record of such a bowl in any of its collections.
The Sweeney Punch Bowl story also includes a legendary link to Henry Clay.
As the story continues, Thomas Sweeney was a big admirer of Henry Clay, the popular 19th-century politician and orator. He wanted to design a unique and impressive gift for Clay and came up with this huge punch bowl design. Yet the bowl that he actually gave Clay was a much smaller version, holding only seven gallons. It stood 3 1/2 feet tall and was used by Clay’s family in Kentucky as a baptismal font until it broke at a reception in 1916. Finally, it was destroyed in a house fire in 1930.
Today you can enjoy the legendary Sweeney Punch Bowl by visiting Oglebay Institute’s Glass Museum, located in the lower level of Carriage House Glass, a perfect place to stop while visiting Oglebay Park. Carriage House Glass has the area’s largest selection of art glass plus a newly added West Virginia artisan market. Keep the legend and its lore going by visiting it soon.
For comments or suggestions on local treasures to be featured in Antique of the Week, Maureen Zambito can be reached via email at: zambitomaureen@hotmail .com or by writing in care of this newspaper.