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Glass Lantern, Research Shed Light on 1860 Political Group

All About Glass

Fig. 1: Brass and red glass lantern, probably for burning coal oil.Late in 1993, The Corning Museum of Glass received as a gift a brass lantern with a red glass globe [93.4.102] inscribed "ELMIRA WIDE AWAKES/ G.L.SMITH/CAPTAIN" (Fig. 1). This lantern had a mid-19th-century look, and I thought it might be an early product of the Corning Glass Works. I was therefore happy to accept it for our collection and to begin looking for the explanation of the inscription.

Norma Jenkins, head of the Museum's Rakow Library at that time, was an enthusiastic guide for my research. She is an Elmira native, and the lantern had belonged to her mother-in-law, a collector interested in local history.

Calls to the Chemung County Historical Society and the Corning Area Public Library produced nothing on G.L. Smith or the Wide Awakes, but Norma found an 1892 Chemung County history that listed one Gabriel Lewis Smith as a prominent local attorney.1 Given the frequency with which this surname appears, we couldn't be sure that Norma had located the "G.L." to whom the lantern referred, but it seemed a good possibility.

Meanwhile, my attempt to date the lantern led me to a related example in the collection of the Sandwich Glass Museum in Sandwich, Massachusetts. This object is clearly inscribed "SANDWICH/WIDE-AWAKES" and "LINCOLN & HAMLIN," so we quickly determined that the Wide Awakes were an organization of the Republican party operating in support of Abraham Lincoln's presidential campaign of 1860, when Hannibal Hamlin was his running mate.2

Using the First Search database, the Museum's librarians turned up some 19th-century references to the Wide Awakes. Having requested these on interlibrary loan, we had the complete story on the Wide Awakes organization a few weeks later.

Because Abraham Lincoln is such an important figure in American history, we tend to think that his election to the presidency in 1860 was inevitable. In fact, the Republican party had been founded only four years earlier, when it finished a poor third in its first presidential election. The nomination of Lincoln, who had come to national prominence when he ran for the Senate against the Democrat Stephen A. Douglas in 1858, was a deal cut in the proverbial smoke-filled room.

Senator William Seward of New York was expected to be the Republican standard-bearer, and Lincoln was initially offered second place on the ticket. The selection of Lincoln was not secured until the third ballot, but this virtually assured him of victory in the election. The fragmented Democratic party had chosen two candidates, Douglas and Vice President John Breckinridge, while a hastily formed splinter group called the Constitutional Union party had nominated Senator John Bell of Tennessee.

In March 1860, the first Wide Awake club was organized in Hartford, Connecticut, for a state election. The organization was active throughout the state that spring. After Lincoln and Hamlin were nominated in Chicago in June, the Hartford Wide Awakes became active again. Similar organizations then sprang up, first in New England and then all over the Northeast. By August, there were 400 Wide Awake clubs in several states, and three months later, the total membership had reached 500,000.3

These clubs were restricted to men over the age of 18. Younger males joined groups called the Young Railsplitters. The principal purpose of these organizations was to arouse support for Lincoln and Hamlin, and this was accomplished by organizing rallies and by marching in torchlight parades. The men carried swinging tin torches fueled by coal oil, and wore uniforms of black caps and capes made of oilcloth (to afford protection against leaking torches). Club members were organized into companies for the marches, and company officers carried lanterns with colored glass shades. Reading about some of the mammoth parades in big cities, one is struck both by the enthusiasm for these activities and by how easily the men got around at a time before the advent of the automobile. The library of Hamilton College in Clinton, New York, sent us a bound 1860 volume of Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper. This publication, the 19th-century equivalent of Time or Newsweek, described several Wide Awake events.

The Wide Awakes of Newark, New Jersey, chartered a steamer and sailed to Hartford, arriving on the evening of July 25 after a day-long trip. Three hundred young men of the Hartford club were waiting for them on the dock, and the two groups marched through the streets to City Hall, where they enjoyed a "bountifull [sic] collation, which, with the speeches that followed, kept all engaged until half-past twelve o'clock." The next evening, the Hartford group received clubs from other towns and

escorted them to the camp or Wigwam on Asylum Street, frame structure erected for such purposes and here they were addressed by several prominent individuals, and presentations were made of banners, capes, lanterns, rails, mauls, etc. At ten o'clock, the grand torchlight procession was formed, and marched through the principal streets of the city to Charter Oakplace, amidst the firing of rockets, the burning of blue lights and a profusion of other fireworks. The sight presented has rarely if ever been excelled and baffles description ... The sight as the procession crossed the park was magnificent in the extreme. From four to five thousand torches could be seen at one time winding their way through and around the sinuous paths; the whole landscape was lit up with innumerable roman candles and other fireworks, and far in the background the city was illuminated with flaming rockets, which sent their shower of parti-colored rain across the heavens in every direction, while the moon, as if paling her ineffectual light, sunk slowly beneath the western horizon.4

The Leslie's reporter also noted that each captain in the parade carried a red lantern, while each lieutenant had a blue or green lantern [see The Henry Ford, 69.145.165].

From the military library at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, we received a photocopy of the Wide Awakes Manual, a handbook for quasi-military marches, which contained instructions for executing parade maneuvers. The manual hints that at least some of the Wide Awake officers were well aware that war might be just over the horizon.5

In October, 20,000 Wide Awakes marched in a New York City rally that, according to the newspaper account, turned Broadway into a "river of fire" for more than two hours. A related article commented on the peaceful nature of the parade:

Here, in the most Democratic of cities, we have the uninterrupted procession of over ten thousand men of very unpopular politics, walking in line in perfect peace, the grand display not even calling forth the slightest expression of ill-feeling from their political opponents, which outnumbered them by thousands ... Such spectacles ... evince beyond all contradiction that a well educated people are qualified to govern themselves.6

Perusing microfilmed copies of Elmira's weekly Advertiser and Republican, Norma learned that Wide Awake clubs were formed in Elmira and Horseheads in August 1860.7 These groups participated in many local parades before the election. The Elmira club had more than 150 members, and the Horseheads unit numbered about 80. Rallies and parades like those described above took place in Elmira (which had its own wigwam), in Owego, and in such smaller places as Veteran, New York, where 70 oxen were in the parade. The Horseheads group would ride and march to Elmira to join the Elmira contingent, and the two clubs would then ride the train, often in special cars, to the site of their rallies.8

G.L. Smith, we learned, was indeed Gabriel L. Smith, a prominent attorney and Republican in Elmira from the 1850s to the 1890s. When war was declared, he was instrumental in raising a local regiment. He also served as one of its officers until 1863, when he was honorably discharged. He then returned to Elmira to resume his law practice.9

After Lincoln and Hamlin's victory, there was one final "Torch Light Procession and Supper" at the Brainard House, Elmira's leading hotel. About 250 people attended the event, where they listened to toasts and speeches by Smith and others.10 Most of the area's Wide Awake activity was confined to Chemung, Tioga, Schuyler, and Broome counties; Steuben is not mentioned in the newspaper accounts, and we assume that no Corning Wide Awakes existed. When the election was over, the groups quietly disbanded and put away their torches and capes. G.L. Smith's lantern was probably placed in his attic.

There is no way to tell where the Museum's lantern was made, but relatively few American glass companies were producing red glass in 1860. The Elmira Wide Awakes' lantern could have been made by factories in New England, Brooklyn, or Pittsburgh. However, it would have been most convenient and logical for them to order it from Brooklyn, where the most likely source would have been the Brooklyn Flint Glass Works. That glasshouse, then owned by John L. Gilliland, was once a noted supplier of colored glasses. Another possibility is the Long Island Flint Works of Christian Dorflinger, which had been established in the 1850s to make lamp chimneys and lantern globes.

For the Museum, the significance of this lantern derives less from where it was made than from where and how it was used. Because it was created for an organization in Elmira, it is part of our area's history. As our research has shown, it is also part of a fascinating period in America's history.

Jane Shadel Spillman, Curator of American Glass
This article was published in the Journal of Glass Studies, Vol. 37 (1995), 140–145.


1 Ausburn Towner, Our County and Its People. A History of the Valley and County of Chemung, Syracuse: D. Mason & Co., 1892, pp. 124–125.

2 Raymond E. Barlow and Joan Kaiser, The Glass Industry in Sandwich, v. 2, Windham, New Hampshire: Barlow- Kaiser and West Chester, Pennsylvania: Schiffer Publishing, 1989, p. 230.

3 Julius G. Rathbun, "The 'Wide Awakes,' the Great Political Organization of 1860," The Connecticut Quarterly, Hartford, October–December 1895, pp. 327–335 passim.

4 Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, v. 10, no. 246, August 11, 1860, p. 188.

5 J.H. Hobart Ward, Tactics of the Wide-Awakes of New York, New York: Gavitt & Co. Printers, 1860.

6 Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, v. 10, no. 255, October 13, 1860, p. 320.

7 Elmira Advertiser and Republican, September 15, 1860.

8 Elmira Advertiser and Republican, October 20, 1860.

9 Towner [note 1], p. 125.

10 Elmira Advertiser and Republican, November 1, 1860.

Published on February 27, 2013