A Brief History of Glassmaking
By Lorna Hart
Posted July 2012
Photo: An Imperial Opalescent vase, a Cambridge amber ivy ball, and a Buttercup overlay pitcher designed by Fenton for the Peach State Depression Glass Club.
Before the automation of glassmaking in the U.S. in the 1920s, only the wealthy could afford glassware. Expensive and difficult to make, the supply of glass was limited, and much of it was imported. Glassmaking in America can be traced back to Jamestown where local supplies of sand, potash and lime were in abundance and were used to make a green glass similar to that being made in England at the time. Evidence has been found of glass windowpanes, bottles and drinking vessels. Hampered by weather, hostility with the native population, and lack of food, glassmaking in the colonies was discontinued in 1609 during the Starving Time.
Glass factories were built in New York and South Jersey in the 1730s, and they made an assortment of glassware, including wine and jelly glasses, decanters and candlesticks, usually very simple in design. Glassmaking changed in the colonies in 1746 when The Glass Excise Bill was passed, taxing glass by weight. The phrase new fashion glass was termed and referred to a lighter weight glass, an example of which was the air-twist stemware. By 1761, glasses and decanters were engraved, or “flowered,” and produced in a full array of forms.
During the Revolutionary War period, decoration was minimal. After the revolution in what is known as the Federal Period, Americans adopted new European styles, and although the American glass industry was making a strong beginning, including the making of cut glass, considerable quantities were still imported. The production of elaborate, fine table glass rivaling the European imports failed during this time because there was not yet a market for this type of glass. Glassware was still expensive to produce or import, and most Americans did not have a lifestyle or income that encouraged the purchase or use of glass.
For those who could afford fine glass, the War of 1812 stopped its importation, encouraging American factories to progress in the making of flint glass, which used powdered flint to improve the clarity of the glass. Flint glass manufacture was common in Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, and Pennsylvania. In later production, a lead compound was added which produced glass with even more clarity, resonance and weight. Soon thereafter, the powdered flint was dropped from the glass mixture, but the glass was still referred to as “flint glass.”
The first glass pressed by machine appeared around 1825, producing small items such as drawer pulls and salts, but sets of dishes were not produced on a large scale. The next 20 years saw many improvements in the machines used to press the glass, as well as the addition of color to milk glass, until then only produced in white.
Companies began moving into Ohio and West Virginia, and the manufacturing process continued to be perfected. The craftsmanship of the molds used to make the glass improved, and new colors were developed. By 1891, pressed glass had become very popular, and the cost of production had gone down.
Unfortunately, the U.S. was in a deep depression by that time, and overproduction of glass, along with the sagging economy, led to the closing of many glass manufactures. The quality of glass declined due to lack of reinvestment in molds and factory equipment. As the U.S. came out of the depression, new factories formed, and some remaining factories combined and formed large companies such as U.S. Glass.
Towards the end of the 19th century, an American engineer invented an automatic bottle-blowing machine. Added impetus was given to automatic production processes in 1923 with the development of the gob feeder, which ensured the rapid supply of more consistently-sized gobs of glass in bottle production, and the automation of glass production in the U.S. was born, along with what we now call Depression Era glass.
The discovery of natural gas in the Ohio River Valley, along with all the other natural resources available in the area, made it the ideal location for new glass factories. Factories sprang up in Ohio, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Indiana, almost too numerous to count.
Never before could glass be made so quickly and in such huge quantities. Entire place setting and serving pieces could be produced quickly and inexpensively. Shifts of glassmakers worked ’round the clock producing glass. Some factories had railroad tracks that allowed train cars to come into the factory, load, and go.
During the Depression Era, 1923 to 1939, the seven major glass companies produced 92 patterns in a variety of colors, including amber, blue, black, crystal, green, pink, red, yellow and white. In a time of economic disparity, this glass brought a bit of light into everyday life and was the first time in history that glass was affordable.
However, there was little quality control so the glass might have bubbles, be a bit misshapen, or even have straw marks left from the packing because they were not cooled properly before packing. This glass was meant to be inexpensive and affordable to the average consumer and was sold at five and dime stores, hardware stores, as premiums in soap and cereal boxes, and given away at movie theaters and gas stations. The color and mold markings of the glass were an attempt to hide these flaws, but they became what are most appreciated about this glass.
Production almost came to a stand still during World War II as resources were devoted to the war effort. There was resurgence in glass production after the war, but never in the variety produced during the Depression Era. The U.S. saw a gradual decline in glass production in the 1970s as aging factories could not stay competitive with new factories being built abroad. Most closed their doors in the early ‘80s with a few continuing for a time and eventually closing as well.
Today, only Blenko Glass Company remains as one of the original glass factories in the U.S. (excluding Corning) still in existence. Glassmaking in the U.S. has a long and rich history, and it is important to preserve its place in American history.
Lorna Hart is vice president and marketing chair of the Peach State Depression Glass Club in Marietta, Ga., a member of the National Depression Glass Association, and a member of the West Virginia Museum of American Glass.
To learn more about the history of glass, visit the Peach State Depression Glass Club’s website at www.psdgc.com. See their ad in Poor Jim’s Almanac for their upcoming show.