A History Insulated in Glass

Farmgirls look at many items thinking, “How can I re-purpose this?”  I love finding new, clever ideas for ordinary or discarded objects. Often bitten by the “collector” bug, one of my favorite things to re-purpose are old glass insulators. While I’ve loved these colorful, shapely pieces of glass for decades, I never really knew the exciting history behind them.

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I met Mary Pitcher Leibold when I purchased some beautiful insulators from her through a tag sale recently. The ones I purchased from Mary were different looking than others I’ve picked up at flea markets through the years. Mary and her husband, John, have been collecting and selling various insulators for years. As a young child, John and his father would walk up and down along train tracks, collecting discarded insulators that had been thrown down from the telephone poles.

Glass insulators were originally designed as conductors and protectors of wires on the tops of telegraph, and later, telephone and electricity poles. The earliest insulators were made from the mid-1850’s, many produced in factories here in the Northeast. The shape and markings on an insulator are clues to its age and origin. Some of the oldest examples are “Brookfield B’s”, manufactured in Brookfield, New York during the 1800’s and early 1900’s, named for their “beehive” or “bell” shape, and usually found in shades of green and light aqua. Hemingray insulators, originally named in the late 1800’s after designer Robert Hemingray, had factories in several states. Whitall Tatum was another factory, located in Mellville, New Jersey, producing light aqua and clear “petticoat” shaped insulators until 1938. Whitall Tatum was then purchased by Armstrong, and eventually later became Kerr glass. Production of insulators by Kerr ceased in 1976.

To make our playroom with its high ceilings cozier, I designed shelves around the perimeter of the room. "Brookfield B's"  look right at home nestled among other pieces of interest.

To make our playroom with its high ceilings cozier, I designed and built shelves around the perimeter of the room. “Brookfield B’s” look right at home nestled among other “treasures”.

Various insulators were produced and used until the 1970’s, and were frequently changed. When one became damaged or obsolete, it would be discarded and thrown to the ground below.  Mary says that long ago, Italian immigrants would be paid $1.00 a day to collect broken insulators to be melted down and made into new replacements. Because of this, many popular Hemingray “42’s” and “43’s”  will have lots of little rocks inside the glass. Mary says some insulators will have pock marks from old BB guns.  Often times, the first of a mold would have a penny indentation indicating the date of production.

Insulators are now found across the country in antique stores, flea markets, tag sales, and on Ebay. There’s sites, clubs, and even trade shows dedicated to serious collectors. The most common colors for glass insulators are clear, green, aqua and blue. Prices depend on color, age, condition, and how common the particular piece is. Some clear ones are dyed into bright colors or melted to change their shape.  While pretty, to serious collectors, these hold only novelty value. (Unfortunately, the process of irradiation has also allowed more common insulators to take on the appearance of rare colors, so if you see something listed as an expensive, rare collectible, make sure you are buying from a reputable dealer).

Mary says the majority of insulators in her collection she decides to part with and sell are often purchased for crafts on Etsy, as pendant lights, as planters, or deck rail decorations. The grammy-winning band Bon Iver purchased over a hundred insulators from Mary to use for stage lighting!

My daddy kept colored glass insulators in the kitchen windowsill at his ranch in the Texas hill country.  As a kid, I loved watching sunbeams play through the glass, (making dish washing less of a chore). As an adult, when I’d see reasonably priced insulators at flea markets, I’d pick a few up.  I still love one in a windowsill, as a sun-catcher.

A Whitall Tatum catches light in my kitchen.

A Whitall Tatum catches light in my kitchen.

I love placing glass insulators among my plants in my flower beds, like tiny gazing balls.  It’s an unexpected way to add color, vintage whimsy, and fill in a bare spot among the flowers. Designed to be used outside, they’re pretty hardy; just make sure to bring them inside before freezing temps, so they don’t get broken from freezing.

An insulator graces a spot in the flower bed until the spider plants get bigger.  Below, one catches the light among houseplants on an antique cart.

An insulator graces a spot in the flower bed until the spider plants get bigger. Below, one catches the light among houseplants on an antique cart.

IMG_7566My new favorite way to re-purpose insulators is a brilliant idea from Mary.  Simply place a battery-powered flame-less “tea light” beneath the insulator. This looks lovely along deck rails or on coffee tables, is safer than traditional candles, and doesn’t change the integrity of the insulator.  So cute!

Flame-less tea lights are long-lasting, safe, and found in drug, grocery, and dollar stores.

Flame-less tea lights are found at drug, grocery, and dollar stores.

I’m constantly moving mine around here and there.  When I pick one up, it’s no longer just a pretty glass decoration. Now I think about it’s origin, ponder the person who made it, and the journey it’s been on…a tangible piece of Americana.

Do you collect old glass insulators, too?  How do you like to re-purpose them? Share with me in the comments below!

Until Next Time…Farmgirl Hugs, Nicole

Leave a comment 28 Comments

  1. Adrienne says:

    The insulators reminded me of my husband’s distant relative who had a pit behind her farmhouse in Iowa full of discarded insulators. She would paint them with aquarium paint, fire them in her oven, glue them together and add a ring of marbles to the joint to create large candle holders. I had them for years when I had a large dining table and remember them fondly.

    • Nicole Christensen says:

      Hi Adrienne! That sounds beautiful, and very creative, too. (Also, Iowa is one of those places I want to visit someday). Thanks for commenting. Farmgirl Hugs, Nicole

  2. Terrie Coleman says:

    My dad used to make home made chimes for the front porch. The “chimes” were some sort of silver (maybe galvanized) pipe of varied lengths. He drilled a hole at the top of an insulator and hung it from a small chain inside the chimes. The insulator was the part that clanged against the pipes to make them chime. A square piece of plexiglass hung from one of its corners from the bottom of the chain to catch the wind. I may still have one of those somewhere. A sweet memory of my dad.

    • Nicole Christensen says:

      Terrie, How neat! That’s a great idea your dad had. I may challenge myself and try to make something like that, too! If you still have one, you should hang it up…when the wind blows and the chimes make sound, you will think of your dad. Farmgirl Hugs, Nicole

  3. Rebecca says:

    What an interesting post; I never knew all the history of these insulators. I have several that I’ve collected through the years. Some of my uncles worked for the railroad, so a few were passed down to me and the others I’ve picked up along the way at yard sales or flea markets. I love the tealight idea, so I’ll be sure to try that one.

    • Nicole Christensen says:

      Thanks, Rebecca. I didn’t realize that some of the ones I have are so old as they are until I spoke with my friend Mary and did some research on them. Very cool that you have some that were passed down to you from relatives who worked for the railroad! Thanks for commenting, Farmgirl Hugs, Nicole

  4. Nancy Coppock says:

    I have several insulators also! When our local power company was moving power to underground (no poles!), I asked if I could have a few. I came home to find a few blue/green and clear ones on my fence along with a couple of brown porcelain ones! The porcelain ones now sit on my dining room table, upside down, with candles in them. It is a very old town and I have no idea how old they are.

    • Nicole Christensen says:

      Hi Nancy! Lucky you… I myself do not have any of the porcelain ones…yet. There are lots of websites devoted to helping collectors identify their age and make of the insulators. Google “Glass Insulators”…you will be surprised what comes up! Thanks for reading and commenting, Farmgirl Hugs, Nicole

  5. Kim says:

    How interesting! I have a large collection that I’ve picked up here and there at flea markets. My grandaddy and i used to pick them up beside the railroad tracks when I was little. I pretended like they were treasures and they were to me because I was with my precious granddaddy!
    I decorate with them and even use them as doorstops! I like the windowsill idea and will certainly do that! Thank you for this interesting post!!!!!

    • Nicole Christensen says:

      Kim, What a sweet story about your grandaddy. Thanks for sharing it here. Love the doorstop idea…they are heavy enough, for sure. Farmgirl Hugs, Nicole

  6. Janice K. says:

    I also tuck my insulators into my garden landscape, particularly anywhere that has lots of sun. My dad was an avid collector and not only do I have his, but I picked up a couple of BOXES of the turquoise variety at a garage sale a few years ago. They look wonderful in rock gardens and amongst succulent pots and plants, since the color compliments the plants. I also use them on my sun porch (blue accents) in groupings with the little battery tea lights…
    Have fun! Life is about discovering what makes our hearts sing…

    • Nicole Christensen says:

      Hi Janice! Great minds think alike, it sounds! Lucky find…boxes of insulators? Awesome. Farmgirl Hugs, Nicole

  7. Beverly Battaglia says:

    Nicole, I never knew all this about the insulators. I know I had some when you were growing up. Did I give them to you? A good story and love all the comments. I never thought about using them for candle holders.

    Love,

    Mother

  8. Beth Thomas says:

    My husband and I also collect insulators!! I love the idea of the tea light.

  9. Marietta Johnson says:

    I took one of the old cross arms from telegraph lines and added to it and put over walk way with insulators on it everyone coments on it and really pretty at christmas with light on it.

    • Nicole Christensen says:

      Marietta, Oh, I bet that looks pretty! What a creative idea. Thanks for sharing. Farmgirl hugs, Nicole

  10. Jo Ann says:

    My dad was a collector of insulators for many years. I have his original post that the insulators are on they are so cool in my flower garden. It is an inexpensive hobby.I decorate as paper weights in office and upside down to hold dried flowers inserted in canning jar. Have you ever seen a purple one? I have one that I just love and it is a large one. Mostly I have brown porcelain ,aqua and white. Thanks for sharing the tea light idea Jo Ann

    • Nicole Christensen says:

      Hi Jo Ann, love the idea of having the insulators on their original posts. I have never seen that. Mine are just on the ground in the beds, but I bet my hubby and I could mount them somehow to have them off the ground. I also love the idea of putting them upside down in a canning jar! So far, I’ve never seen a purple one in person and I don’t have any of the porcelain, but it gives me something to hunt for this summer at the flea markets. Thanks for stopping by and sharing. Farmgirl hugs, Nicole

  11. Margo Haynes says:

    My aunt made me a lamp out of one when I was in my 20’s(eons ago). My lamp was turquoise & my sister’s was clear. They were both absolutely beautiful. Aunt Inez heated them in a 450 degree oven, I think she said for an hour. Then placed them in cold water in her sink. They crackle and in some instances must be glued back together. She had purchased mini bases that fit around the dimensions of each insulator that she had purchased at a local craft shop. They had a tiny gold colored filigree that was about of a 1/4 to 1/2 inch high that came up over the edge of the insulator. She wired them and each had a small night light bulb inside it with the insulator over the bulb. The lamp had an inline switch. They made beautiful t.v. lamps. Mine was lovely but my sister’s really sparkled like crystal with hers being clear.

    • Nicole Christensen says:

      Hi Margo, Oh your lamp sounds beautiful! Your aunt sounds very talented and creative. What a lovely story to share here, thank you. Farmgirl Hugs, Nicole

  12. Jill Kyvig says:

    I now own several insulators, which I use as door stops, paperweights, and just for decoration. I am going to try the tealight idea soon!

    My fascination with insulators goes back decades, to when I was a little girl. I remember spending hours on car rides watching for an orphan insulator on a pole along the road. My hope was that if I found one, my daddy would stop and somehow rescue the insulator for me to take home. Unfortunately, I didn’t see any. It wasn’t until I became an adult that I actually owned one!

  13. Teresa Stephens says:

    I love them but have 3 aqua blue green insolators 2 is hemingray one has -62 made inusaan the others biger has no# 3 Cable an hem
    ingray the other has a 6 i would like to no the value an maybe sell them. Thanks

    • Nicole Christensen says:

      Hi Teresa, You did not mention where you are, but look in your area. Around me there are several auction houses that appraise pieces, on certain days it is free. Also, you can go to Ebay and search for your pieces, filtering the search for “sold” items. That way you see just what the going prices are, not the “wish” prices. And the best advice I can give you is to Google and research, read all you can. Pinterest can also give you articles and prices if you search. Good luck, sounds like some nice insulators you have! Farmgirl Hugs, Nicole

  14. Bill Meier says:

    There are a huge variety and color of insulators. Most are extremely common as they made billions of them over the course of nearly 150 years. However some are worth $1,000 and up. Take a look at our web site

    https://www.billandjillinsulators.com/

    for a variety of rare and colorful ones!

    • Nicole Christensen says:

      Hi Bill, thank you for adding the information to your website. I checked out your Sample Catalog, and it was fascinating! ~Nicole

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