Although one of many businesses producing stained glass during the 1880 – 1910 period, Suess Ornamental, as a company, was progressive in some respects. The family history also speaks to the central theme of the American experience, immigration. The family's roots were in Waldkirchen, Freyung-Grafenau, Bavaria, Germany, and along with countless others from Europe, they re-settled in America with the possibility of a better life.
The photo shown at left, is in the collection of a family descendant, Deborah Suess Weaver, Max Suess's great granddaughter, who kindly gives permission for it to be featured here. Seated at the center is Max Suess with his wife Emelie, standing on the left. Reclining on the left is Max's son Max, and the baby in the foreground is Max's daughter Viola and standing on the right is Max's older daughter Rose. This was taken perhaps around 1901 at the Suess's lakefront house at Powers Lake, Wisconsin. As this is clearly a family photo and son Walter is not shown, it's likely that it was taken by him.
Another important family member is John Baptist Suess who arrived in America during 1873, settling in Chicago. However, it wasn't until 8 years later during 1881 that his brother Max Suess followed at the age of 27. John Baptist was a cabinet maker, and according to one report, Max was "a practical draftsman and designer of much ability". The report continues that he studied in Italy for a year and attended art school in Germany. (Industrial Chicago, 1896). We have yet to discover prior glass skills in the family before their arrival in Chicago.
In the early years, it appears Max was working in various capacities at a number of small glass companies. Initially, Chicago Stained Glass Works, and in 1886 it also became known as Suess Ornamental Glass Co. incorporated December 6, 1889. However, there is also mention of yet another name, Suess Stained Glass Works, circa 1888. So, there is a degree of overlap as to where he spent his early years and in exactly what capacity.
One important aspect that Max Suess must have focused on right from the start was in the area of patents. He was granted patents for the Method of Making Ornamental and other Designs in Relief (1885), Machines for Decorating Glass and the Like in (1892). and in 1893 a patent for Processes of Decorating Glass by Sand-Blast. By 1900 the business was well established and producing all manner of beveled, sand blasted and leaded glass windows. The 1900 catalog mentions that it is the sixth catalog from the company so, one daywe may be lucky enough to find at least one or two of those that preceded this. In fact, there were numerous catalogs produced over the life of the company and today, we only have 3 in hand, with artwork for a possible fourth described later.
A recent discovery by Deborah Suess Weaver found that in 1886 a large order for 12,000 glass street signs was secured. The signs were quite elegant, and from existing samples were mounted atop police call boxes. The street names were etched into blue glass and mounted in fours, so perhaps the police call boxes were situated at crossroads in the city. This was a massive task for any company and there is evidence to suggest that fulfillment of the order took at least 2 years. So, in all probability, undertaking this contract jump started the company that we know today as Suess Ornamental Glass Company.
While there is much still to discover about the business, and in particular the role that John Baptist played, three individuals are listed as owners of the company, John Baptist, Max and Max's wife Emelie. It is also clear from early patent filings issued by Max, that Max's strong work ethic, engineering prowess and plain ambition was central to creating and sustaining a business that engendered both efficiency and creativity.
Catalogs, a vital, but incomplete source.
For such colorful products, companies needed color in their toolbox and companies embracing this new capability likely had an advantage over their competition. Suess Ornamental was one of the early adopters of color printing for their catalogs. The Suess 1900 Catalog of windows, both beveled and leaded glass, featured images of stained glass windows colored by hand. While this practice of using color in catalogs was becoming well established in the 1910 through 1920 period, Suess's 1900 catalog was very early. Printers had only just begun developing the new technology, mostly for newspaper advertising, and their catalog, no doubt, was seen as progressive at the time.
The Curt Teich Company of Chicago was one of the companies used, and they were best known for the production of color postcards. However, the Suess 1904 catalog was done in black and white, color being no real benefit for the monochromatic beveled glass and etched windows. By 1906 however, color printing was back after the 1900 window catalog's success. This colored lamp catalog was printed by another Chicago company, Columbian Three Color, which was pursuing color printing a few years earlier.
Trade catalogs from other stained glass companies, Foster-Munger of Chicago being a prime example, have great similarities in layout, fonts and overall presentation. This sample page of their large color 1910 catalog was printed by American Color Type, another Chicago printer. Bear in mind that this one was a full 10 years after Suess came out with theirs.
Suess trade catalogs from 1904 show a colossal range of products that featured beveled glass, windows with designs etched using acid or produced by sand blasting, and stained glass windows in the fashion of the day. Here is a rarely seen current day example of Suess Beveled Glass and Stained glass windows installed in the personal house of Jack Suess (John Baptist Suess's son) in Seattle, Washington.
It is worth noting that an organization, the National Ornamental Glass Manufacturers Association, provided a catalog template featuring a consolidation of window designs by member companies, of which Suess was one, as of September 1908. The Rakow libraryin Corning, New York states:
"This catalog is a composite of designs assembled by a committee of the National Ornamental Glass Manufacturers Association to regularize pricing in the industry. Catalogs issued by various firms for 1909 and 1914 incorporated both church and domestic in one volume. An individual glass company would purchase bulk copies of these catalogs and have its own company name added to the cover, and sometimes include a preliminary page of text as well as the firm's name at the top of each page. Therefore, each catalog is identical to that 'issued' by another firm, assuming the titles are the same."
No doubt, this was a far less costly alternative than having each company custom develop their own catalogs and window designs. This could account for why stained glass window designs from many companies appear similar and present difficulties in assigning attribution. As Suess became a member after the 1908 fire, and the first edition was in 1909, it may have signaled the new direction, and rebuilding the company had to undertake.
As most collectors know, trade catalogs of the day are considered treasure as they directly confirm an attribution of an item to a specific maker. In the field of leaded lamps, and perhaps others too, new discoveries surface all the time, and it's true to say that company catalogs often only scratch the surface of what they actually produced. Consider also that a catalog is only a snapshot of offerings at a point in time. So, the reality is that even if we have in hand all the catalogs ever issued by a given maker, then we must also know that we will never know of every lamp ever offered by a maker. This is where things get sticky because the street values of antique lamps can vary dramatically based on attribution. So, the value of a previously unseen leaded shade on an ordinary base can have enhanced value by simply placing it on a known base from a quality maker. This substitution happens all the time, whether deliberately or not, so it is incumbent on any purchaser to be extra cautious and challenge assumptions. One particular leaded shade that came to auction recently carried a known Suess bronze base. So, at auction, it was proclaimed a Suess. Months later, that same shade re-appeared but this time paired with a Handel base, the lamp now became a Handel.
Etched and Leaded Windows from 1900
Some examples of etched windows carry the signature MAX SUESS. Here is an image showing a typical Suess etched glass window of the period. There is evidence to suggest these etched windows were installed in residential housing during initial construction. So it's equally likely the company developed relationships with architects, builders and other suppliers. There is strong probability too that these relationships extended to church builders as a good proportion of Suess’s leaded windows were ecclesiastical in nature.
Their stained glass windows are more difficult to identify. This could be due to their complexity and yet apparent similarity to those made by their competition. The illustrations in the 1900 Suess catalog of stained glass windows , clearly show a signature. This was probably to assign a copyright to the design, we have yet to see one on any actual stained glass window.
This was a time of continued pressure on companies in every area of manufacturing, not just the glass industry, to improve the everyday environment, financial and physical, under which employees worked. Aside from low salaries, working conditions were also hotly debated particularly in the area of safety. Over the history of Suess, just one of many such companies, there were a total of 3 fires that occurred over its lifetime and this continued to be in contention across all industries for decades to come.
Labor issues were reported in September of 1900. Union workers in non-union shops went on strike when their employers refused to sign a union agreement. Chicago area newspapers reported the following:
"Two hundred ornamental glass workers went on a strike yesterday because of the refusal by the manufacturers to sign the union agreement. The manufacturers contend they are willing to sign the agreement, provided other firms within a radius of 500 miles of Chicago recognize the union in a similar manner. The union men did not seem to be inclined to ask employers outside of Chicago to unionize their shops and the proposition fell through. Some of the firms signed the agreement and the men went to work as usual today. Among the large firms who refused to sign are: Flanagan & Beidenweg, Hooker & Company, Kinsella & Co., Ford Bothers, Neuhauser & Co., Linden Glass Company, Louis Millett, Grossman & Sturdy and Suess Ornamental. At these places no work was done yesterday."
It is not clear how long these issues continued but we know it extended to at least 1906 when newspaper cuttings from ‘The Glassworker’, a union produced paper appeared covering the rift between employer and employee unionization. During that year, it was made clear that glass workers belonging to the glass workers union, A.G.W.I.A. (Amalgamated Glass Workers International Association) were on strike in Chicago. Suess Ornamental along with a further 21 other companies were non-union shops. This appeared to cause a hiring problem for these ‘open’ companies. Individuals from outside of Illinois who were seeking employment were contacted by these non-union companies and encouraged to relocate to Chicago. There already was stiff opposition to the hiring of local talent and bringing in candidates from outside was tried as a last resort. Apparently, this recruiting was largely unsuccessful after union member pickets brought pressure to bear on applicants.
1899-1900 Movements West
From all accounts, the company continued to thrive during the late 1800s and through the turn of the century. As news of gold discoveries in the Klondike broke in the late 1890s, John Baptist's son Bernard (Jack) Suess met up with Nicholas Smith. They met most likely as individuals that shared the same glass making skills, and common attendance at the same place of worship, St. Michael's of Old Town Catholic church in Chicago. It is now known that Nicholas Smith was employed as a glass worker at Flannagan & Beidenweg.
In 1898, Jack, and, it is believed, Nicholas enrolled with 48 other young men from Chicago, each investing $1000 for an expedition to the Klondike on a boat called the Dusty Diamond. It is unclear whether John Baptist Suess expanded Suess west to Seattle first, or if he came after Jack Suess and Nicholas Smith started the business there. This was around the time of their Klondike expedition, March of 1898. The business that was created in Seattle was named Suess & Smith and its beginnings remain unclear. As it carried their joint names, it's likely that this plan of creating a west coast presence for Suess was perhaps a fallback plan for Jack and Nicholas if the expedition failed, which it very much did by August of 1899.
There is an early reference to the Suess & Smith company in the Seattle business directory of 1901. However, an obituary of Minnie Hagmo, Nicholas Smith's daughter, states that the company was started in 1899, when she and her father came to Seattle to start the business. 1899 was the year of the failed Klondike expedition. So, at this point in time, Max and Walter are still running the Suess business in Chicago with John Baptist, at very least, overseeing the Suess & Smith business in Seattle. We say this with relative confidence as according to census data from 1901 onwards, he is living there permanently with the residential address of the Suess & Smith business, and likely living above the shop. The Suess and Smith story is told elsewhere on this site.
1904 Lighting Begins
In 1904, Walter Suess was just 20 years old, and became president after Max died in January of that year. Even though the company was in full swing manufacturing; it was faced with a leadership question and under pressure to adapt. Clearly, Walter had his hands full in order to fill the void left by his father. Leaded lamp makers of the day continued to produce models for gas, but for a shrinking market. As a 20 year old, we don't know if Walter was fully in command at this time or perhaps assisted by others, but no doubt he was a quick study. It is felt that John Baptist must have offered support and surely must have been a presence immediately after Max's passing. Walter's brother Max. apparently served as a salesman, but there is no evidence he played a senior role besides scouting for additional premises in Topeka, Kansas during 1906; a venture that ultimately was never pursued further.
Walter is credited with the push to develop electric lighting which was now beginning to reach average households in larger cities, demand was strong. He was artistic and was known to have a personal hand in the creation of their lighting products. Other positive conditions for growth included the country's continued economic boom and, for some at least, the discretionary income for beautiful lighting and other decorative items continued unabated. Previously established companies like Suess that initially made windows, were now broadening their offerings to include lighting. Any slowdown of orders for window products was in many cases offset by this new opportunity in lighting. Foster Munger, in fact, proudly mentions this redeployment of their stained glass window makers to work on lighting products. Stained glass lighting was the right product at the right time for many.
There is yet to appear any evidence to suggest Suess Ornamental were producing lighting before this, but it surely must have been discussed, perhaps even planned or prototyped while Max was living. The only published catalog of their lamps discovered so far is from 1906 and therefore, it's reasonable to suggest they were probably getting started during 1904-1905. Their range of leaded shades shown in the catalog is broad, and covers offerings both simple and technically advanced. Given that this 1906 publication is catalog number 10, it opens the door to the exciting possibility of earlier, previously unseen catalogs appearing in the future.
1904 saw a boom in relatively affordable stained glass lighting. This was made possible with the expiration of the Bray copper foil patent in 1903 that Tiffany Studios ultimately owned and strictly enforced. Tiffany Studios had effectively set the standard in quality, design and technique and through use of this patent was largely unencumbered by competition. This patent described the copper foil method of joining pieces of glass together, strips of thin, malleable copper wrapped around and secured to glass segments via a beeswax adhesive. Wrapped glass segments are then soldered to adjacent pieces. The method offered new possibilities for constructing stained glass in shapes and forms considered difficult or in some circumstances, even impossible by the previous traditional method of using lead came, or brass channel stock. It is worth emphasizing that companies were, of course, making stained glass lamps well before the patent expired. John Morgan & Sons and Chandler of Boston, to name just a couple of makers, had constructed stained glass lighting secured by brass channel stock or lead came instead of copper foil. With the copper foil technique now in the public domain, stained glass studios were busy making lighting for a different demographic, one where cost was more of a consideration than it was for those able to afford the high-end products from Tiffany Studios. That said, it should be noted that many of these lamps could still be relatively expensive, and would continue to be so until a few years later when the booming economy ran into trouble.
While any company documentation listing the workers at Suess has long since been lost to time, several names did appear in newspaper articles that covered the fire. Unofficial reports number the staff at 30 during their peak. Newspaper reports include the names of two women who staffed the office. Census data show others simply as glass workers. Like his father, Walter Suess was a hands-on person. Only a few company artifacts remain including Walter's art boards of beveled window designs, and an impressive draft dated 1907 of what was certainly intended to be a new catalog, perhaps for 1908 publication. This draft was either destined for the printers or had already been converted into a final printed catalog, yet to make its appearance. As a snapshot in time, it is very special, for it features hand colored illustrations annotated with hand written lamp dimensions and model numbers.
Beyond design, Suess employed a workforce of many talents. We know metal workers were among the employees. We know there was a metal department. Most of the high-end lamp styles in the 1906 range featured expensive bronze bases and other hardware. While it is certain they subcontracted their designs to foundries for casting, it is likely Suess workers finished the rough castings and applied patina etc. Many, if not all, designs were likely to be exclusively theirs.
1908 and Beyond
A company cut short, the 1908 fire was a tragic event, too common in many cities where working conditions and safety in particular were yet to receive the focus that took so long in coming. A fire that was thought to have started in the Wintermeyer Box Factory spread quickly to Suess Ornamental Glass Company on the third floor. Tragically, seven people died including Walter Suess. What it meant for Suess was a sudden hard stop, followed by a period of restructuring; it was clearly a shadow of its former self.
It is doubtful whether any product catalogs were produced after 1908. In fact next to nothing is known from the product standpoint. In the 2 years following the fire, little was known about who had ‘spiritual’ control of the company. Investors, who were unlikely to have had a hand in production matters, have been identified but the actual state of the company after 1908 remains to be discovered.
In 1909 a new company appeared in the National Corporation Register, M Suess Ornamental Glass Company and the most likley reason is that Max was restarting the business. Advertisements for stained glass windows appeared in October of that year showing the company located at Maywoord, Illinois. Then a surprising advertisement (left) was published in a trade journal during October of 1910 soliciting new business from builders. Surprising because it featured one of the company’s more complex and expensive lamps, which must have been a hard sell in 1910 when the general trend in lighting was going in the opposite direction. This could be seen to be a last ditch effort to bring back lost business and relationships that existed before the fire. For companies that survived the downturn in the stock market of 1907 and continued on, there was a corresponding sharp decline in the appetite for leaded shades. Both the images of windows and the lamp appearing in the advertisements were recycled from previous years.
Cost was now an issue and that meant quicker production by designing lamps that would appeal to more people and be produced quickly and cheaply. Most companies moved towards simpler panel lamps, some with filigree decoration, and others without. Long gone were the bronze bases as cost, and therefore ultimate profitability was driving the market.
So, Suess never had to compromise their technical standards and endure the steady simplification and dumbing down of products that their competitors pursued to save cost. They finished on an artistic high-note at least. However, there is still much to discover about what went on behind the doors of the company. Access to the most basic office records would have provided us with possible answers. For example, are there existing invoices from glass makers for the glass Suess purchased? We would certainly expect to see Kokomo amongst these, a major supplier to most of the art glass studios of the day, (including Tiffany Studios!). What about other vendors that supplied Suess with the more organic glass found in some of their better work? Did they buy from the New York makers like Dannenhoffer and Heidt? Which foundries did Suess use to produce their bronze bases and other important castings? Is there correspondence with builders that might point us to installed windows in churches? These missing records and other documents would perhaps also give a glimpse into the individuals at the company. Were women employed in design and other artistic capacities as has been substantiated at Tiffany Studios?
There are a dozen important aspects that would add to our knowledge about Suess if any documents that survived the fire were to surface. My thought is that someone somewhere has a shoe box filled with many previously undiscovered clues. In the meantime, we must celebrate what we do know and enjoy what they left us, a distinctive array of art glass produced during one of the most creative periods in American industry.
- 3rd Ave N Seattle, WA
John Bernard (Jack) Suess's house in Seattle, thankfully preserved, featuring beveled glass and stained glass made in the Seattle workshop of Suess & Smith.
Image © Steve Kennedy, Re/Max Metro Realty, Seattle, WA
- 3rd Ave N Seattle
Elegant entryway. Many of the houses on this street have since been updated and the original stained and beveled glass windows removed.
- Beveled Glass Windows from the catalog