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Glass-America's First Industry
In 1632 when Captain John Smith made his report on the new colony of Virginia, he said that "glas" was sent "home." What these first made in America articles were has not yet been discovered, but the site of the first glasshouse has been uncovered and the location corresponds with the recorded word. There seems no doubt that glass was the first industry to be established in the New World.
Captain Smith brought to his new colony eight European glassblowers in 1608. A glasshouse was built "neare a myle from James Towne," and on the mainland where plenty of fuel could be obtained. It is almost certain that green glass bottles were made there and perhaps some small panes of window glass were tried. Both are typical products of early American glass factories.
About thirteen years later another glasshouse was built, and this time Venetian glassblowers were instructed to make a few beads for barter with the Indians. Virginians were not to see or understand the manufacture of them nor should the beads be "villified" by overabundance. Recent excavations indicate that this second glasshouse had the same location as the first. Fragments and drippings have been dug from the old floor, but there has been no sign of the beads. Some years ago beads were discovered along the James River near the old town, but these may have come from Europe. What happened to the Jamestown factories is not known. There is a story that the Venetians struck against their overseers-which may have been the first labor trouble in America.
The story of Jamestown, Virginia, is typical of all the glass ventures in seventeenth-century Colonial America. There are practically no records concerning these short-lived plants. From contemporary letters and accounts, it is known that some half-dozen or more glasshouses were established during the century. Conjecture as to products has had to be based on our knowledge of seventeenth-century Colonial life, on conditions in the countries from which colonists emigrated, and on these few extant records mentioning glass. An early document from a New England settler advised newcomers to bring panes of glass as the winters were long and cold. This indicates the desire for glass and also its local shortage. Other letters tell of attempts to make both window glass and spirit bottles.
Historians are constantly searching for new records concerning glasshouses and the uses of glass. Excavations at the sites of early glass factories, such as those recently made at Jamestown, add to the data. The study and analysis of the fragments of glass dug up at Jamestown have already changed earlier ideas as to the quantity of glass beads made in those first glasshouses.
This book reflects the recent knowledge obtained and the new interpretations of old records. An attempt has been made to carefully evaluate the known material. For many reasons the history of American glass will forever remain an unfinished story.
In Salem, Massachusetts, a busy shipping center by 1640, some enterprising men built a glasshouse. Although window glass and bottles were probably the principal products, milk bowls and pitchers were very likely made also, as cows had now been brought to the new country. Since glassblowers have always made off hand or special articles for themselves, a few other items must have been produced.
There is ample evidence that at least two glass factories were established by the middle of the seventeenth-century in New Amsterdam (New York City) by the Dutch traders who had settled on Manhattan Island. The great colonizer, William Penn, speaks of a glasshouse on the edge of Philadelphia. However, it is probable that a majority of the early colonists never used a piece of glass, even though some glass was imported and a little was made in this country. In any case the desire for it was here.