03/29/2013 03:44 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Westward Ho...(!)

The distinctive finial on Gillinder & Sons' ungainly covered compote makes the design easy to spot in any crowded museum display case or, if you're lucky, in an antique shop. Centering the clear lid (transparent to reveal what was in the dish), a matte glass figure of a generic American Indian bends down on one knee to gaze far into the distance. With his tobacco leaf headdress, feathered skirt, bearskin robe, and tomahawk, he resembles nothing so much as a Victorian riff on a woodcut from Cesare Ripa's Iconologia (1603). Sixteenth-century Europeans divided their known world into four quadrants, using allegorical figures to represent the continents or cardinal directions: Europe (the north), Africa (the south), Asia (the east), and -- most recently understood to exist -- America (the west). Conventionalized by Ripa, they joined symbols of the four seasons, the four elements, the four cardinal virtues to impose a bit of Eurocentric order on an admittedly chaotic natural world. "America" was usually depicted as a Native American maiden in feathered headdress, armed with bow and arrow. She was likely an Amazon to begin with, given her standard familiar -- an alligator.

covered compote

covered compote

Covered Compote, 1879. Manufacturer: Gillinder & Sons, Philadelphia. The Baltimore Museum of Art. BMA 1992.119a-b

No alligators on the compote (although crocodiles did embellish Gillinder's coeval "Africa" glass). Here, a bounding deer and a confrontational buffalo appear in low relief. There's a cozy log cabin set against a mountain range. Despite an optimistic sunrise, the deer is in full flight, the buffalo will soon approach extinction, and the cabin does not belong to the Indian. Now popularly called Westward Ho!, the pattern was first advertised in 1878 as Pioneer. It was designed shortly after Emmanuel Gottleib Leutze (of George-Washington-Crossing-the-Delaware fame) painted a 20- by 30-foot mural for the United States Capitol Building in 1861. Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way pictures Manifest Destiny, the widely held but ill defined and always controversial 19th-century assumption that the United States held a heavenly mandate to expand its territories from the Atlantic seaboard to the Pacific Ocean.

covered compote

covered compote

Leutze's mural and Gillinder's compote bracket the American Civil War, a conflict driven by fundamental economic differences between the agricultural South (tending to favor expansion in the hope of additional slave-holding states) and the industrial North (warily trying to maintain the uneasy balance of power). By the time the compote was marketed, its log cabin motif had become a highly charged icon representing the "common man" (read white male voter). During the 1840 presidential campaign, the Whig candidate, former Indian fighter William Henry Harrison, swept to victory on the slogan "Tippecanoe and Tyler Too." He joined forces with John Tyler, a pro-slavery Virginian tapped to garner the state's all-important electoral votes in a successful effort to topple the Democratic incumbent, Martin Van Buren. (As the 10th President, Tyler would help bring about the annexation of Texas). Based on "Little Pigs," an old minstrel song, "Tip and Ty" literally sang Harrison into the White House. His was the first modern political campaign, complete with canny speeches, crafty slogans, and colorful emblems. Wood-cut illustrations positioned the aristocratic, classically educated Harrison as a rough frontiersman -- the "log cabin" candidate. Such image-making techniques and strategies remain all too familiar today.

Westward Ho!'s cabin probably derives from Industry, an earlier example of American "pattern glass" emblazoned with a similar log structure. The Industry pattern appeared immediately after the Harrison presidential campaign. Appealing to agrarians and industrialists alike, the Industry plate depicts a farmer plowing a field, and a factory with tall brick chimneys - both harbingers of social and economic change.

With ever-more-sophisticated glass-pressing machinery, "pattern glass" became especially popular around the time of the American Centennial, celebrated with a vast world's fair at Philadelphia in 1876. The entrepreneurial Gillinder achieved public acclaim on the fairgrounds by setting up an entire glass manufactory. Visitors were invited to watch as workers produced small pressed glass souvenirs, including busts and medallions of the Founding Fathers as well as Cinderella glass slippers.

Building on success, the company brought out the Westward Ho! pattern. The compote could be purchased small or large, in diameters ranging from five to nine inches. Low circular compotes, oval compotes, covered containers for sugar, butter, and marmalade also carried the Indian finial, etched with hydrofluoric acid to achieve a frosted look.

The word compote, or compotier, derives from an Old French word meaning "stewed fruit." In 1861, the year Gillinder & Sons first opened its doors, Mrs. Isabella Beeton published her indispensable Book of Household Management. Entry 1512 in her 1112-page treatise on domestic arts offered the following:

To Make Syrup for Compotes, &c.

INGREDIENTS. -- To every lb. of sugar allow 1 ½ pint of water.
Mode: Boil the sugar and water together for ¼ hour, carefully removing the scum as it rises: the syrup is then ready for the fruit. The articles boiled in this syrup will not keep for any length of time, it being suitable only for dishes intended to be eaten immediately.
Time. - ¼ hour.

Whether glass or china or silver, lidded or not, a compote always rises above the tabletop on a stemmed base. It's just the ticket for presenting simple oranges or apricots or berries cooked in sugared syrup as precious, edible jewels. Etymologically, the words compote and compost are the same. Compost, a precious ingredient in successful farming, reminds us that popularity of the Westward Ho! pattern coincides with the United States government's massive efforts to resettle Native American tribes while circumscribing and subsuming the lands they once roamed freely.

Abraham Lincoln signed the Homestead Act in 1862. By 1904, some 500 million acres had been dispersed by the General Land Office, much of it to speculators, cattlemen, miners, lumber barons, railroad magnates. Only the luckiest and most tenacious settlers got hold of a free 160-acre plot without going through some middleman. Oklahoma alone witnessed seven land rushes between 1889 and 1895. A century later, Hollywood productions like Far and Away (1992), a melodrama about the Cherokee Strip land rush in 1893, romanticized the intense hunger for real estate that drove wave after wave of immigration from the "old" world to the "new." Kneeling in a field littered with sawn-off tree stumps, the American Indian finial's far away gaze takes in a different view - historically distressing, but sweetened with the promise of dessert.

Covered Compote, 1879
Manufacturer: Gillinder & Sons, Philadelphia (1861-c.1930)
H: 14 inches
Molded clear and frosted glass
The Baltimore Museum of Art. BMA 1992.119a-b