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Although the technique of overlay glass dates back to Roman days, its popularity in the modern world dates from the Victorian era. Extensive production of this glass originated in Bohemia, spreading later to France, Belgium, and England.
A certain amount was exported to America, but not until the New York Crystal Palace Exhibition of 1853 did our glassmakers take any great interest in it. An impressive showing of French and Bohemian glass articles created a demand that reached its peak during the 1860's. Probably the factories at Sandwich and Cambridge were the first in America to make this kind of glass.
These factories often hired foreign glass blowers to teach their workers such techniques as were necessary to compete with the European product. Lamps of the kerosene type which had superseded the earlier whale-oil lamp were the articles most frequently made of overlay glass. American factories also made a variety of other objects, such as decorative glass for Victorian front doors, vases, carafes, perfume and cologne bottles, and miniature glass hats. Dorflinger of New York made the hats even after the turn of the twentieth century.
The beauty of overlay glass lay in the skill with which the cutter executed the design from a blown blank. Over clear or colored glass a contrasting shell was applied while the whole was white hot. Then came a reheating to fuse the two layers. After proper annealing, it went to the grinding and polishing department where a pattern was cut through the outer shell to reveal the glass of another color beneath it.
Overlay lamps, though popular, were never cheap. With simple types the overlay was confined to the font. Stems and bases might be of brass and marble or of different kinds of glass. Such lamps are from ten to fourteen inches high. Larger and more elaborate ones have bowls and stems of overlay glass cut in intricate patterns and are from twenty-one to thirty-eight inches high. Overlay lamps are popular today with collectors since they can be easily electrified for use in the modern home. Reproductions have appeared on the market but a good observer can usually detect them by the thin overlay on the bowl and the newness of brass collar. They are usually smaller than the Victorian lamp.