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American Glassmaking History

GLASSMAKING in America prior to the seventeenth century amounted to little more than a few sporadic attempts, each of which ended in failure because of the lack of trained and interested workmen. Glass utensils were used in the seventeenth century, but their use was confined largely to the tables of wealthy colonists who imported a few pieces from London.

The glassworks established at Jamestown, Virginia, in 1609 by some Dutch and Polish glassblowers should probably be honored as the first American glass works, though it was short lived. Following this was the polyglot attempt in 1621, when imported Venetian workmen from London made Italian beads for American trade with the Indians. After the failure of the bead venture the year 1641 saw the next enterprise, that of O.Holmes and L.Southwick at Salem, Massachusetts, where some crude pieces, later found in that vicinity, were supposed to have originated.

In 1645 Glassmakers Street in New Amsterdam started operations which continued to the eve of the Revolution. The old Dutch glassworkers, Smedes, Dirkson, the Jansens, and the Melyns, naturally patterned their work almost wholly after Holland glass.

Before 1825 the ideas and designs of foreign workers so permeated American glass that, instead of having an individuality of its own, it embodied a welter of European decorative ideas and lines-some good and others not.

Wistarberg glass came from the furnace of Caspar and Richard Wistar which operated from 1738 to 1780, though little table glass was blown until 1752. This rugged, service able Wistarberg flint glass of pre-Revolutionary days quite faithfully expressed the spirit of those pioneers whose serious efforts for existence kept them too occupied to produce or fully appreciate much other than essentials. Although restraint ruled their inherent aesthetic sense, it was fully revealed in the simple decorations they did employ. Perhaps the most characteristic features of Wistarberg glass were: the unusual over-layers of glass partially covering some pieces; the spiral glass cord encircling bottle necks, mugs, and pitchers; the decorative designs of delicately drawn out waves and lily pads; and the extensive use of colored glass, among which the turquoise, amber, and green were exceptionally lovely.

Following Wistarberg came Stiegel glass, also a truly American product, but of more European conception and execution than the Wistarberg. This glass had its beginnings in 1765 at Mannheim, Pennsylvania, where H. W. Stiegel and his assemblage of English, Bavarian, and Venetian craftsmen produced an exquisite lead flint glass, to which they added designs of more formal and sophisticated nature than had previously appeared on American glass. In 1769 Stiegel established a larger works following the failure of his first venture. Despite the persistent foreign influence in Stiegel glass it developed an unmistakably American character. Striking examples were the sturdy mold pattern pieces bearing the Bristol imprint, and the very marked German and Swiss stamp of the enamelled and etched glass.

Following the invention of the glasspressing machine and process in 1827 at Sandwich, Massachusetts, the United States was flooded with the new pressed glass and its machine impressions. Historical objects, emblems and national heroes flashed from pitchers, mugs, whisky flasks and the quaint old cup plates. By the middle of the nineteenth century pressed glass was produced in most of the larger glass works, many of them abandoning wholly the blowing process while others compromised between blowing and pressing. Moderation gradually crept into the decorations and designs to soften somewhat crass excesses, and eventually pressed glass developed a not too objectionable mien. Linked with exceptional durability was the infinite range of selection in shapes, colors, designs, and pieces.

Between 1880 and 1890, concurrent with much of William Morris's revolutionizing work in English decorative arts, there appeared in America the first run of commercial cut glass. This immediately followed the discovery of a fine sand almost free of iron oxide. Despite the overworked prismatic and star cuts, the crystalline purity of the metal was tremendously appealing. It soon commanded world recognition and respect. Great quantities originated at the Libbey firm in Toledo, Ohio. Tiffany favrile glass of the gay, swirling and mystical colors also appeared about this time. The increasing demand, however, resulted in quantity production by means of machine stamping on pressed figure blanks, which were later cut over by hand. As this machine work, at best, did not compare with hand cutting, the popularity of American cut glass soon waned. Very likely even a perfect machine reproduction of the hand work would have met a similar fate; not infrequently its very abundance, partially obscures commonplace beauty. Nevertheless hand cut glass was continued and improved by a few American manufacturers, whose discreet intaglio engraving and copper wheel cutting enhanced their crystal and colored wares.

Bryce glass is made by the Bryce Brothers Company of Mount Pleasant, Pennsylvania, glassmakers for over ninety vears. Largely confined to blown stemware, they have for mulated a partial lead content glass which imparts remarkable clarity to the glass. When struck, it gives off the characteristic lead glass tone. Ranging from the older, heavy cut Waterford styles, down to ultramodern shapes and decorations, Bryce glass fulfills most demands of good taste. Restraint in cutting, judicious use of color, and a lustrous finish, achieved through mechanical and hand polishing, place this glass in competition with many wares of higher lead content.

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