From Black Buttons to Black Tom

photo Antonia Martinelli

Elizabeth Ngo/ Popper Spangled Glass Button Necklace

One doesn’t expect old fashioned maker culture to collide with World War I geo-political events in a jewelry case, but that is exactly what happened to me in a purple store front on the corner of DeGraw St. and Court St. The following piece is about a button necklace and it’s many connections to our first foreign terrorist attack, the Black Tom Explosion. You see, the necklace contained a Popper glass button, the glassier who made the torch on the Statue of Liberty, but not the original torch—it was copper after all. What happened to the original torch? After a brief journey through 200+ years of technological and geo-political history, I discovered Leo Popper and Sons, replaced the damaged torch with a glass one after the Black Tom Explosion. This seismic event was the culmination of elite power, simmering populism, people on the move, and ethnic nationalism—notions that are as relevant today as on July 30, 1916. On that journey, the button necklace I purchased became a widow into glass making technology from Popper’s place of birth in 19th century Austria to British aristocratic society. It lead me from the politics and philosophies that straddled the Industrial Revolution to World War I and the damage to Lady Liberty’s torch. Lets examine this button on the 100th anniversary of an explosion that both shattered glass up the Hudson River and our sense of American isolation.

The jewelry case contained a necklace from a bygone era with a simple blue glass button speckled with silver amongst other antique button jewelry from the 1880’s (Victorian – Edwardian era). Having never seen Edwardian buttons before I immediately became fascinated by their intricacy. Who knew such extravagant detail was ever put into buttons? Apparently, Elizabeth Ngo knows. She designed the necklace and developed a fascination for buttons while designing clothing. She now searches estate sales across Europe, mainly England and Belgium to find these rare “gems” that used to adorn the attire of Victorian and Edwardian women. I contacted Ngo to understand the origins of these buttons. “All their wealth was worn on their buttons,” Ngo explained as she described a type of button known as Saphirets, which were made of 24 karat gold melted down and added into glass. Ngo’s jewelry is artful up-cycling to, “…put the buttons back on the women.” Ngo found the blue button I purchased in England though it’s roots are here in New York. It was an example of Leo Popper’s signature Spangled or Silvered glass, like a Saphiret only with flecks of silver.

Austrian Leo Popper came to New York as a child in the 1840’s. After a stint gold mining and running a saloon in California, he returned to New York and did what many young people dream of today. He gathered a group of peers and founded a start-up artisan glass factory in Brooklyn. Why glass? Popper was originally from the Bohemia region of Austria, a village near Goblanz (Jablonec nad Nisou), a centuries-old center for glass and jewelry making.

The Bohemian forests had all the natural resources necessary for glass making: wood, streams, limestone, and silica sand.  For centuries, Austrian nobles encouraged glass makers to settle the region, by providing use of those resources. Consequently, the region developed the highest quality Baroque glass. You may have also heard of another Bohemian glassier Daniel Swartz, who became Daniel Swarovski.

In these “Silica Mountains” Popper was no doubt exposed to glass making as child. He must have seen the cottages with glass furnaces and farmers painting glass in their homes to make extra money. Unfortunately by the time Popper started his Brooklyn glass factory, Bohemians had started exporting cheaper mass-produced glassware globally, including here in the U.S. by mail-order. That first glass factory venture failed in 1875 due to this competition.


Leaving Brooklyn, Leo Popper and eldest son Caleb went into buttons, both manufacturing and importing in a space on Houston St. One of their specialities, was the manufacture of shiny black glass buttons for mourning jewelry and ornaments. Mourning jewelry is jewelry worn during the prescribed period of mourning for a loved one, and became a very strictly applied practice after the 1861 death of Queen Victoria’s husband (her cousin and a fellow Hanoverian) Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha. Remember the term Hanovarian. We will be coming back to it.

The Queen spent the next 40 years in mourning, an act which became morbidly fashionable at a time when people were doing a lot of it. After all, there were no vaccines, antibiotics, building and fire codes, public sanitation, or safe working conditions. The Civil War raged here in the U.S. producing no shortage of widows to mourn in codified solidarity with a Queen across an ocean who favored jewelry of a rare and costly mineraloid know as Jet. Leo Popper’s black glass buttons, earrings, hat pins, cuff links and other black accessories produced an affordable alternative to Jet. These objects mirrored the ethos of the Victorian era, the Queen being the living embodiment.

Victoria’s forty years of mourning was the juxtaposition of extreme control and deep feeling, in the same way that the Industrial Revolution imposed reliable order on top of the extreme expression of the previous Romantic era. Leo Popper’s mass-produced glass buttons are one by-product of the sense and sensibilities of the Jane Austen era and the technology reaped from the earlier Age of Enlightenment.


Further to the point, Victorian mourning buttons were industrialized, restrained expressions of what became yearning. Why was there so much yearning? Expression being counterpoint to Industrial order, Victorians had to express their romantic feelings in an orderly way. They let out the steam on the kettle very slowly and deliberately. That slow, steady bleed of steam, escaping from simmering containment, becomes yearning. People up to this point had little control over their lives, but technology started to awaken them to possibility that they could have more autonomy.  

In 1851, Queen Victoria used her throne to promote the great autonomy building technology of the time by hosting the first World’s Fair, known as The Great Exhibition. Such technology included an early facsimile machine, the first public toilets, and an early voting machine. It was all held in the Crystal Palace, the first structure made entirely of a new process called cast plate glass. It enabled architects to roll larger plates of glass with greater uniformity and clarity. The process was an innovation that Leo Popper and Sons later profited from when they supplied 600 pieces of tinted yellow cathedral glass, to create Liberty’s new torch.

In this Crystal Palace mingled such notables as Charles Darwin, Charlotte Brontë, and Charles Dickens; prime pundits and critics of Reason, Romanticism and Industrialization.  Also in attendance, was Prince Fredrick William of Prussia, a Hanovarian. Contrary to the enlightened atmosphere present in the Crystal Palace, it was here that the Queen chose to orchestrate a strategic engagement between her daughter and Prince Fredrick. This is where we come back to the Queen’s Hanoverian roots. Queen Victoria was the last in a line of protestant British monarchs that shared the throne with Germany through marriages. Her eldest daughter, Princess Victoria dutifully married Prince Fredrick, in an effort to strengthen ties with Prussia. After becoming German Empress and Queen of Prussia, she gave birth to Queen Victoria’s first grandchild, Kaiser Wilhelm King of Prussia, instigator of World War I, unstable, temperamental autocrat and uncanny Mel Brooks look-a-like.

Kaiser Wilhelm King of Prussia

Kaiser Wilhelm King of Prussia

The Queen of Prussia’s life was orchestrated from within an isolated clan, just like her mother’s, and her grandmother’s, and so on. Despite the enlightened culture on display during the Great Exhibition, a hierarchy is solely invested in maintaining that hierarchy. The Crystal Palace would have been a spectacular back drop to the sudden clarity of your aristocratic pre-destiny. I imagine even those with the most autonomy still felt the yearning.

Yearning for autonomy seemed to be everywhere now that technology had poked more holes in the kettle. People started to move. At the same time that Emma Lazarus described “huddle masses yearning to breath free” in her 1883 poem The New Colossus, freed slaves were leaving plantations in Southern states and French Abolitionists were building Liberty Enlightening the World to recognize that new freedom. All this movement undermined the idea of singular power over all. In Kaiser Wilhelm’s empire and the neighboring Austro-Hungarian empire, yearning for autonomy developed into populism that lead to violent ethnic nationalism and clashed with autocracy.

Even Leo Popper’s family couldn’t escape a yearning for autonomy. Leo’s eldest son Caleb died as Leo was passing the torch to his sons in the mid-1890’s. Years later in a 1951 New Yorker interview with son Emil L., we learn that brother Caleb, “… died in a rage in his thirties,“*  because he wasn’t permitted to marry who he loved. “He went out of his mind, took to his bed, and died.” * I believe it’s safe to assume Caleb committed a suicide of yearning.

His younger sons, Emil L. and Edwin S. took over the glass business. Emil L., channeled his yearning into writing letters to Albert Einstein, stating,

“But I’m really more interested in insoluble geometry problems, like squaring the circle, than in the glass business,’ Mr. Popper said.  ‘I always did what my folks wanted me to do.  If I’d been shoved out into the world on my own, I might have amounted to something.’  He sighed a sigh that dated back sixty-one years…”*

In spite of the yearning, the Poppers amounted to quite a bit actually. After Leo’s death in 1910, Emil and Edwin continued to make exquisitely colored glass for many clients including Tiffany. And they replaced the Statue of Liberty’s torch in 1916; which is the event that I’ve been trying to tell you about in the first place!


Something so catastrophic happened in 1916 that Liberty’s torch has been off-limits to tourists to this day. This event registered 5.5 on the Richter scale and was heard from Maryland to Connecticut. It destroyed Liberty’s torch and the stained glass of St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Glass flew throughout lower Manhattan, mostly up to 44th street, though glass did injure one person at 89th St. Ellis Island was evacuated amid flying shrapnel and smoke.

Aftermath of Black Tom Explosion

Aftermath of Black Tom Explosion

But this was no earthquake. This was the Black Tom explosion. At the time, it was both the largest explosion in modern history and the first foreign terrorist attack on U.S. soil. On July 30, 1916, Kaiser Wilhelm’s German agents, exploded the largest munitions depot on the east coast, Black Tom Island. The island sat between Liberty Island and Jersey City and held over a million pounds of ammunition. It was an attempt to sabotage the transport of U.S. made ammunition to British allies by that autocratic, temperamental grandson of Queen Victoria whose black Jet inspired and created a market for Popper and Sons’ Spangled glass buttons.

The Kaiser’s 1st cousin, Edward V was King of Great Britain by this time. Edward was forced by Wilhelm’s reckless machinations within the Austro-Hungarian Empire to break ties with his Hanoverian war mongering relatives in the House of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha. In 1917, he formally changed the British Royal Family name to the House of Windsor. As Edward was pondering the dilemma of Wilhelm and the family name, I speculate that he might have said to himself, “I never liked that kid anyway.”

An impetuous German autocrat lit a dangerous fuse under populist yearning within the ethnically diverse Austro-Hungarian empire and temporarily extinguished the torch of Liberty Enlightening the World. However, replacing that torch was a $100,000 opportunity for Emil and Edwin Popper: sons of a glass maker from Austria, who made the glass button found by Elizabeth Ngo in England, which was sold to me in Brooklyn nearly 100 years after the Black Tom Explosion!

Quoted Source:
*Down Memory Lane, The New Yorker, Feb. 3, 1951, p 25-6
Additional reading for Googlers:
 The Legend of Bohemian Glass by Antonín Langhamer
 The Glass Trade in Bohemia by James Baker F.R.G.S., Chamerbes’s Journal; pgs.668 -70; 1902
 Memoir on the Manufacture of Glass in Bohemia by M.L.P. DeBette, Mechanics’ Magazine and Journal of Science, Arts and Manufactures, V. 24, pg. 349 1845
 Story of the Leo Popper & Sons Glass Button Business- 1870-1917 by Elsie F. Kelly

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