Glass collector Margaret Oldham is a pioneering collector. She was an early collector of contemporary New Zealand studio glassware but in the early 1990s switched her focus to a field largely unperturbed by collectors, Victorian and Edwardian pressed glass tableware. It is only very recently that pressed glass has been considered as interesting as cut and engraved glass. Beyond her long standing affinity with glass she says she likes pressed glass because "it was for everyday usage "and for the reason that "these are products of stupendous craftsmanship on the part of the mould makers".
The Victorian era saw a great expansion of the glass industry largely brought about by the perfection of press moulding to produce relief patterns by mechanisation. Up until then glassware had been the preserve of the highest levels of society. The advent of press moulded glass enabled table and ornamental glass to be produced in huge quantities at a price which made it available to all but the poorest. In the nineteenth century glass production developed in three principal streams catering for different groups and tastes. Richly cut and engraved tableware was preferred by the upper classes. Plainer glass, often with antique associations, appealed to the design conscious, while pressed glass catered for the vast mass of glass buyers.
Press moulding was developed in the US in the 1820s and the technology was brought to Britain soon afterward. It was a process requiring little skilled labour as workers could be trained relatively quickly. The much greater skill was required in the design and mould making. Because pressed glass was at the cheaper end of the glass trade little is known about these designers and mould makers unlike the more prestigious areas of ceramics and silver.
The collection comprises over 500 pieces of pressed glass and has largely been formed by fossicking through junk shops up and down the country from Kaikohe to Invercargill. Although she has nearly 20 pieces in one pattern these pieces have been acquired singly. The ubiquity of certain popular patterns attests to the fact that they were often in production for decades. And as some firms went out of business the expensive moulds would be taken over by different firms which may account for differences in colour and weight in what look like identical pieces.
By the late nineteenth century the major centre for British pressed glass was in the north around Gateshead, Newcastle and Sunderland. At its height one leading company, Sowerby, employed thousands of workers but on a recent trip to the North of England Margaret Oldham found no evidence of this former industry which assisted in the commemoration of national and royal occasions and created for so many a sense of domestic splendour.