The History of Glass
The history of glass is swathed in tales of mystery, secrecy and the quest
No one, of course, knows the first serendipitous event when fire and sand and just the right minerals combined to produce a viscous liquid that hardened into the fascinating and useful material that is essential to modern living - glass. However, every innovation has its own creation myth and the oldest and most oft repeated in glass history dates to Pliney, an ancient Roman historian, who wrote that around 5000 B.C., Phoenician merchants in the region of Syria used blocks of nitrate to hold their cooking pots. The heat from the fire melted the blocks which fused with the sand on the ground, forming a cloudy, thick liquid which the merchants found useful - becoming functional glass, if not yet art glass.
By 3500 B.C., the Egyptians were using glass for making beads and, in the 6th century B.C. Mesopotamian craftsmen were making vases, not by blowing glass, but by melting it and wrapping it around a core. This glass making method was used more widely as the centuries passed and spread to Egypt, China, Greece and elsewhere.
But glass blowing as we know it today, seems to have begun in the first century B.C. in then-Roman Syria. These glass craftsmen used a metal tube to blow air pockets into hot glass. Taking the potential of glass one step further, they then blew glass into molds, creating a wide variety of shapes for vessels and containers. This innovation would continue to distinguish the Italians as glass masters of the craft for centuries to come.
As Rome became an Old World power, the use of blown glass for everyday tasks spread. Glass was a wonderful, lasting material for holding a vast array of things, large and small. Glass containers became necessities of life and the Romans held the keys to glass production and distribution. Indeed, it was the Roman mastery of road building, their adroitness as international merchants and skill for building political alliances that allowed them to dominate the glass-making market. They became Old World mass distributors of blown glass.
Middle Ages Make Murano
The Italians carefully guarded their glass blowing secrets. By the Middle Ages, Venice had
become the heartbeat of glass making. It is reported that the city was once home to more
than 8,000 glass artisans. The city passed protectionist laws, prohibiting the import of
glass (and glass blowers) from elsewhere.
With this many glass shops, even in a city renowned for its water, fires became a serious
problem. In 1291, under edict from city officials, the glass blowing industry moved - artisan,
family and furnace - to the now-famed island of Murano. Here, not only was the threat of
burning down one of Italy’s most prized cities diminished, so too was the likelihood the
secrets of glass blowing would be shared. A cloak of secrecy surrounded the island and
craftsmen lived under threat of death should their glass blowing processes or concoctions
leave the shores of Murano.
Eventually, the art spread from elsewhere and glass blowing became ubiquitous. While the
Italians retained (and, to an extent still do today) a cachet for their particular style and expertise, blown glass was used in daily life throughout Europe and the East. But, it was still a laborious process with artisans trying to make uniform pieces that, by the nature of the art, were necessarily unique to the maker and the moment.
It was not until the 1820s that the industry experienced the most important innovation since the Syrians introduced the blow pipe. This giant leap for glass came from America and the Bakewell, Page and Bakewell Glass Company.
America & the Easy Way
The company owner was an Englishman, Benjamin Bakewell, who opened the company in
Pittsburgh in 1808. He is known as the Father of the Flint Industry – a kind of glass containing a bit of lead that was used for optical glass. It was another member of the Bakewell family - John P. Bakewell - who invented pressed glass, a real American favorite perhaps best known as Carnival Glass and other colored glass that was mass-produced and each piece, nearly identical. The molten glass, instead of being blown and
painstakingly formed by hand, was pressed into a mold. This fast, inexpensive method meant that even people of modest means could have glass at the dinner table. It also meant the decline of the traditional glass blower world over. Only Murano, with its special history, retained the cache of glass blowing capital of the world.
It was also an American who engineered the first bottle blowing machine near the end of the 19th century. Michael Owens received the financial backing of the Libbey Glass Company – a name still familiar more than a century later.
Glass Blowing Reborn
Decades passed before the attraction of glass blowing for art’s sake reemerged. That came in 1962 when Harvey Littleton, a ceramics professor and Dominick Labino, a chemist and engineer, developed a small glass furnace that was compact and safe enough to use in small studios – instead of full-blown glass works housed in factories. They made the art accessible to a greater number of people and led a popular reemergence of art glass. It may seem like a small step in the evolution of glass blowing but it paved the way for many of the giants of today’s glass world – Lino Tagliapietra, Dale Chihuly, Dante Maroni and many others. It was the precursor to the establishment of glass schools across America – schools that have fed the continued popularity of glass blowing.
There is a very interesting interview with Harvey Littleton on the Web site of the Smithsonian Archives of American Art.
There is, of course, much more to be said about the history of glass – and this account has been rather Western-centric. There was a different emphasis and separate developments in other regions of the world. If you hunger for more, just search the Web and more secrets of glass will be revealed.