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August 2002

The Glass Menagerie
For summer visitors to the resort town of Pentwater, Michigan, a trip to Henry Carter Johnson’s “Glass Menagerie” was a cherished vacation ritual. From 1952-1972, Johnson rented a small space in the back of Bailey’s Hardware store each summer to demonstrate his glassmaking art and sell his creations. Johnson’s skill with glass and his storytelling soon made him a local celebrity, especially among his young customers. Children loved to watch him transform colorful glass into engaging creatures. Johnson made over 400 different glass items, the majority of them animals that included alligators, bears, deer, giraffes, fish, rabbits, and penguins. His human figures included ballerinas and cowboys.

Johnson’s whimsical creatures captured the imaginations of the children and adults who purchased them, providing a tangible reminder of golden moments spent enjoying a Michigan summer.

The Glass Menagerie-- MORE

ID 2001.130.1

Glass Penguin
ID 2001.130.43
Glass Penguin
ID 2001.130.31

Glass Penguin
ID 2001.130.84
Glass Penguin
ID 2001.130.6

Miniature Glass Figures
Made by Henry Carter Johnson
Gift of Ruth Totten Johnson
Henry Carter Johnson (1908-1996) was born in Saginaw, Michigan but moved soon after to Detroit. A trained painter and sculptor, Johnson discovered the art of glassmaking while living in New York during the early 1930s. He worked briefly as a WPA artist in Winter Park, Florida during the late 1930s and served as a photographer and surgical artist for the U.S. Army Medical Corps during World War II. After the war, he returned to his Hart, Michigan farmhouse where he continued to experiment with glassmaking and began to demonstrate his craft each summer in the nearby town of Pentwater on Lake Michigan.

Johnson’s figures were not blown, but were formed by heating colored glass rods to temperatures up to 3000 degrees Fahrenheit and drawing them into shapes that ranged from the slender, delicate legs of a deer to the graceful sweep of a fish fin. This process of forming a multicolored creature was complex, for each color of glass had a different melting temperature. Heating the glass too much changed its color and excessive reheating altered its composition. Johnson soon learned the perfect combination of color and form for each of his designs. Henry Johnson’s official title for his business was always “Fine Miniatures in Glass,” although “The Glass Menagerie” became the informal, and ultimately, more popular title among his fans. In 1972, Johnson moved to the small town of Ferry, Michigan, where he continued to fashion his glass figures until shortly before his death in 1996.

Johnson, also a nature photographer, had his photographs featured in publications that included the New York Times and Natural History Magazine. He also sold many photographs to the Audubon Society.

print version

-- Jeanine Head Miller, Curator of Domestic Life, Leisure and Entertainment

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