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Looking Through Rose-Colored Glasses
by Bob Brooke


Three glasses from the stain glass museum.For more than a decade, Ed Kleppinger has been looking through rose-colored glasses. No, not eyeglasses but rather his collection of thousands of pieces of ruby stain pattern glass, the common man’s red-decorated pressed glass of the Victorian Era–much of which he has on display in 35 cases in his rebuilt 1880s Creole cottage in the Faubourg Marigny district of New Orleans, Louisiana.

Most people may know this type of glass as it was used profusely for souvenirs, marked with the name of the city and date, from the latter part of the 19th Century to well into the 20th. But Kleppinger’s collection goes way beyond mere souvenir glass.

"My mother collected ruby stained," Kleppinger said. "I started collecting to round out her collection." Unfortunately, his brother inherited their mother’s collection.

"For many people, it was the first beautiful thing they had," said Kleppinger, who lives in the third house of the six-house compound he owns. "They might be living in a sod hut in North Dakota, but they had it, and they took care of it...and they could afford it."

Kleppinger, who’s a chemist with an engineering background, likes glass because it’s so unique and, to him, ruby stained glass is one of the most unusual forms that came out of the 19th-century glass industry. "I like living with the glass and trying to puzzle out its mysteries," he added. "I see something new everyday, something to try to understand."

"My parents cooperated on only two things," he said. "I’m the product of one. Their collection of ruby stain pressed glass was the other. Years ago I thought it was a beautiful collection that should be preserved. I started talking to museums and people who had donated collections. I discovered that museums really don’t want collections and will accept them only if they’re accompanied by a lot of money or have no restrictions placed on them."

After doing a lot of research, Kleppinger realized that his mother’s collection of ruby stain glass did not contain all of the patterns, much less the forms. So he and his late wife, Willi, decided to "buy a few pieces to fill in the collection," once he settled with his brother over custody of it. After amassing even more pieces, he decided that he would build his own museum for ruby stain pattern glass and thus create his own rules.

The creole cottage that houses the stain glass museum in New Orleans, Louisiana.Kleppinger’s collection, which also includes thousands of pieces packed away, is a testament to the loveliness and delicacy of this type of glass. His privately displayed collection fills a picturesque, correctly humidified, lighting-temperature-controlled, rebuilt, two-bay Creole cottage. He houses the boxed portion of his collection in the raised basement of one of his adjacent houses. The collection, housed in tall glass mirror-backed cases, takes up both floors.

Though manufacturers produced thousands of patterns of pressed glass at the peak of production between the 1880s and 1920s, only a few of these patterns ever became ruby stained. So Kleppinger’s collection, which is perhaps the largest of its kind in the country, is an important one.

"It was made to mimic cut glass," Kleppinger said, "and to look expensive. To create ruby stain, glass makers applied heavy paint made of molasses and copper salts to certain areas, and then refired the glass piece. They colored few all over. Most had ruby stain applied on only a small portion." Amber stain is a similar process, and Kleppinger owns examples of the two rare patterns that used both amber and ruby stains.

Kleppinger’s collection shows the ingenuity of glass makers and pieces made from the same molds. Although manufacturers made very few plates in the early years, Kleppinger owns a rare plate in the "Navajo" pattern, made by flattening a bowl. Beside it rests the same plate with the edges folded up to become a banana bowl.

"Some ruby stain collectors can’t be bothered with the souvenir pieces," said Kleppinger. "I have six-inch ruby stained glass shovels and hatchets, dainty shoes, baskets, pin trays, and a pair of solid-color opera glasses marked ‘Souvenir of North Dakota.’ And one of my ashtrays still has the 35-cent price tag on the bottom."

Understandably, Kleppinger views his collection with pride. He even has a case full of unknown examples–pieces he has yet to identify. Unfortunately, ruby stained glass can easily be faked. This case holds an example of a piece from which red nail polish washed off the surface while he was cleaning it.

The interior of the stain glass museum.Currently, Kleppinger has what he calls a proto-museum. He hopes to create a larger, more permanent ruby stain museum if he can find the financial help he needs. He foresees this as a museum that would display donated collections of both ruby and regular pattern glass. In it, Kleppinger hopes to focus on pattern glass, with the goal of creating a comprehensive, in-depth study collection, of which ruby stain pattern glass will be the first category to be collected.

Kleppinger envisions a museum where collectors could be confident that their collections won’t be broken up. The museum would prepare a written agreement covering the terms and conditions in accepting a donation with the intent to preserve collections and not de-accession them. Needless to say, there will be duplication in such a plan.

According to Kleppinger, his permanent museum will operate in an open concept. Storage areas will be set up so that visitors would be able to browse through them, while keeping the glass safe. Examples of less-perfect pieces would be available for hands-on examination by visitors using special foam-covered tables. "No other museum has taken this approach," he added. "In addition, the collection will be electronically photo indexed and available to both researchers and visitors."

When Kleppinger finally finds the funds, he hopes to have his museum fully accredited in five years, with the possibility of it being affiliated with the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.

The other thing they Kleppinger plans is a definitive reference. His cottage currently holds a library of reference books about glass, and he owns the copyright to a classic reference by William Heacock called The Encyclopedia of Victorian Colored Pattern Glass, Book 7, Ruby-Stained Glass from A to Z, which he’s currently updating. He’s also documenting all of the patterns made in ruby stain. "At least 50, maybe 100, weren’t in the book," he said, "which listed 350 when it was published in 1986."

And paraphrasing a common phrase of suburban mall developers, Kleppinger said, " If you build it, the contents will come."

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