The Howells are one of the last prominent itinerant glassworker families of the 20th century. Robert Howell Sr. and Ethel Maude Howell led their family and others on tour for decades and each of their children pursued glassmaking as adults.
Let’s take a look at each member of the family and their contributions to glass history.
Robert Howell Sr.
Robert Howell Sr. in the late 1930s.
Robert Howell (American, 1877-1957) was born in Vienna, Illinois. There are several stories of how and why he became an itinerant glassworker, but all agree that he demonstrated at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, Illinois, in 1893. Several years later he met Ethel Maude Pauley while demonstrating at the Saint Louis Exposition and they married in Waterloo, Iowa, in 1900.
By 1904, and possibly earlier, Howell and his growing family were traveling around the country. During the demonstration season they lived in a housecar with a lampworking setup. Howell led his own troupe, Howell’s Troupe of Glass Workers, in which he, his wife, and several other glassworkers participated. Once the Howell children were ready to join the demonstrations, the family toured as the Howell Family of Bohemian Glass Workers and made appearances at schools, clubs, churches, lodges, and fairs. During the off-season they settled down in a home (often rented) and made glass for sale.
In 1937, another notable itinerant glassworker, Madam Nora, sold Excelsior and Columbia, her glass steam engine and glass fire engine, to Howell. He made plans to exhibit them in the sideshow of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.
Two years later, the family made perhaps their most notable appearance at the New York World’s Fair, demonstrating at the Glass Blowers of the World pavilion. There, more than 44 million people had the chance to see their lampworking skills.
As their children grew up and left home, the elder Howells continued to demonstrate, often billed as Mr. and Mrs. Robert M. Howell. Howell died in his home in Scotch Plains, New Jersey.
Ethel Maude Howell
Maude Howell in the late 1930s.
Ethel Maude Pauley (American, 1882-1966) was born in Green, Iowa. Howell learned glassworking from her husband, and the two toured the United States with their growing family. She was a member of Howell’s Troupe of Glass Workers in the early 1900s, specializing in glass spinning and crocheting glass.
After Howell’s husband died in 1957, she continued to demonstrate. She died in Plainfield, New Jersey.
Grace Howell in 1962.
Grace Howell (American, 1901-1976) was born in Waterloo, Iowa. Her parents taught her to lampwork as early as the age of five, and she joined their demonstrations around the age of twelve. By 1920 she was working as a contractor for a mail order house company (perhaps during the off-season). She became the family’s business agent, booking performances across the country.
Howell claimed it was at the New York World’s Fair in 1939 that she first created the “Bluebird of Happiness,” the glass object she is best known for making. Later, when demonstrating solo, Howell started every show by making this piece. She stated she made the first piece for Shirley Temple and her film, The Blue Bird. Howell later sent bluebirds to Mamie Eisenhower, Princess Elizabeth, and the Corning Museum of Glass.
During World War II, most of the Howells made scientific glassware for the war effort. Howell was no exception, making glass tubes for the electrical controls on planes and boats.
By 1953, and possibly earlier, Howell was demonstrating on her own, up and down the East Coast. She performed for scout troops, day camps, schools, and PTAs. She made regular appearances at fairs, craft shows, festivals, and banks. Howell worked at New Jersey-area attractions like the Gingerbread Castle and the Cannon Ball House, and appeared on television variety shows (including those of Johnny Carson and Dave Garroway). Her most recognizable appearance, however, may have been as a lampworking Mrs. Santa Claus in the window of the Manhattan Savings Bank.
Howell died at her home in Scotch Plains, New Jersey.
Robert Howell Jr.
Robert Howell Jr. in 1960.
Robert Howell Jr. (American, 1904-1984) was born in Camden, South Carolina. He stated that he began playing around with glass when he was six. On his eighth birthday, his parents gifted him with a torch and began to teach him lampworking; he joined the family demonstrations once they deemed him ready.
Howell toured the country with many of the glassworkers who worked at the Glass Blowers of the World pavilion at the New York World’s Fair, and met his future wife Marie Swann while performing with the group in Miami, Florida. The two were married on March 3, 1940, in Broward County, Florida. They worked for the Manhattan Project at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, during World War II.
By 1945, Howell and his wife had set up a shop at the Pine Beach Resort near Brainerd, Minnesota. During the tourist season they demonstrated their craft, and in the off-season they toured high schools and colleges, lampworking for students. In 1953, the couple closed the shop and moved to Pleasant View, Tennessee, close to Marie’s hometown. They parked their trailer next to the Blanket Store gift shop on U.S. Route 41A, and demonstrated to tourists from 1953 to 1955.
In October 1955, the Howells moved to Winter Haven, Florida, and opened their show at The Great Masterpiece near Lake Wales. They demonstrated at the attraction for close to ten years, leaving in 1963. In 1964, they demonstrated at the New York World’s Fair, and the following year they participated in the Florida Showcase at the Rockefeller Center in New York City. They made a spun glass dress for the Showcase, which Marie wore during their demonstrations.
The couple opened a new shop on State Route 540 near Cypress Gardens, operating it until they retired in 1968. Soon they decided they weren’t ready for retirement, and opened a shop in their backyard. Here, they made glass until the early 1980s.
The Howells appeared on a number of television shows, including the Today Show and the shows of Ed Sullivan and Johnny Carson.
Howell died in Winter Haven, Florida.
Nona Deakin in the late 1930s.
Nona Howell (American, 1916-1944) was born in Iowa. She learned to lampwork at age 13. She and her siblings were instructed by a tutor on the road rather than attending school.
She married John L. Deakin in 1938 in New Jersey. The couple had one child together, John Robert Deakin, in 1939. They built a workshop at their home to make glass and demonstrated to local clubs.
Deakin died in Plainfield, New Jersey, after a long illness.
Leigh Howell in the late 1930s.
Leigh Howell (American, 1919-1995) was born in Kansas City, Missouri. His parents taught him to lampwork as early as the age five and he joined the family demonstrations several years later.
During World War II, Howell worked for the Manhattan Project in Los Alamos, California, and Oak Ridge, Tennessee.
He worked for a number of companies making scientific glassware, including the Westinghouse Lamp Division; Olin Mathieson Chemical Corporation in Niagara Falls, New York; Minneapolis-Honeywell’s aeronautical division in Los Angeles, California; and General Motors in Santa Barbara, California. He also worked for and taught scientific glassblowing at the University of California, Los Angeles, and Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts.
Howell was an early member of the American Scientific Glassblowing Society, joining in 1954. In the mid-1950s and early 1960s he served as the vice president of the organization, and during that time he also edited Fusion, the Society’s journal.
By the early 1960s, Howell had been married at least once and had two sons and a daughter. On October 8, 1966, he married Verna E. Haensgen in Santa Barbara, California. In July 1967, the couple opened the Dansk Glas Huset in Solvang, California. They demonstrated to tourists for several months, before divorcing in November 1967.
It is unclear whether Howell operated the shop after the divorce, but by 1970 he was regularly demonstrating to clubs, churches, and other groups. He relocated to Chelmsford, Massachusetts, and taught lampworking classes to local residents at his studio. He later closed his studio and opened a mobile studio, in which he toured and taught classes.
Howell, an evangelical Baptist, later preached the “Gospel in Glass” at Baptist churches around the country, from at least 1977 to 1983. He mainly resided in Florida later in his life.
Howell died in Green Cove Springs, Florida.
The Howell family demonstrated glassworking to hundreds of thousands of people across the United States over the course of 90 years. In addition to becoming experts themselves, they taught many others the art of lampworking. Some, like Charles Kaziun, went on to become respected and groundbreaking glass artists. The Excelsior and Columbia engines, sold to Robert Sr. by Madam Nora, can now be seen at the Lightner Museum in St. Augustine, Florida. Grace Howell’s “Bluebird of Happiness” is preserved in the collection of The Corning Museum of Glass. The family’s reputation as glassmakers endures in these legacies as well as in the many happy memories of those who saw them perform.
Find more biographical information about itinerant glassworkers and those who worked with them by exploring this site’s index of people.