The history of man-made glass is as rich as it is ancient. While the formula for hot glass – sand, plant ash, and lime — dates back to pre-history, the techniques for forming it have spent centuries evolving. Legends hold that the material was discovered by Phoenician soldiers around 1000 BC when the sodium carbonate in their ocean-side campfires fused with the sand beneath. It is more widely believed man-made glass first came about in the form of ceramic glazes around 3000 BC. The Mesopotamians are credited with making the first vessels in in 1500 BC. This was done by shaping the molten material around solid cores of earth and later removing the earth. It would take 1200 more years before the Syrians laid the foundation for modern glassblowing with the invention of the blowpipe (1). This tool allowed the artisan to gather the glass, which in its molten state has the consistency of honey, on the end of a hollow pipe, inflate it into a bubble and shape the form by blowing, swinging, or rolling on a smooth flat surface called a marver. In the 1st century BC the Roman Empire’s vast experimentation with molds and color formulas created a wide variety of new forms and patterns. Consequently, large glass workshops sprang up in what is now Lebanon and Israel (1). Eventually the technique of blowing glass made its way to Egypt. The Middle East continued to experiment and refine the art, but much of Europe’s knowledge of glassblowing was lost to the dark ages (2).
It was due to peaceful trade with the Middle East during the 12th century that Venice, Italy was able to regain the secrets of the art and become a center of glassmaking. At the same time, the Venetian Merchant Fleet, in control of the Mediterranean, was able to ensure that Venetian techniques did not make it back out of Italy. By 1271, the import of foreign glass was banned and glass blowers who weren’t native Venetians were prohibited from working in the city. As the population of glassblowers in Venice rapidly increased, so too did the fear of their open furnaces. To protect the city from rising occurrences of fires, and maintain control over the glass trade, the Venetian government forced all glassblowers to move their studios to the island of Murano in 1291 (2). In near exile, the glassblowers in Murano developed a deep sense of trade secrecy and perfected their craft, creating an incredibly clear glass called cristalo, along with vivid new colors (4).
Although Venice was still revolutionizing the art — using quartz sand and potash that was extracted from sea plants, they were able to make the first pure crystal in the 15th century — eventually glassblowing techniques made their way over the Alps and into the rest of Europe. During the Renaissance, glass windows, bottles, and drinking vessels became more available to the average person. Shortly after, glass made its way to the American Colonies by way of Jamestown settlers. However, it was not able to progress in America until the 1820’s when the mechanical press was introduced to the glass industry, making production easier and faster. In 1903, an automatic bottle blowing machine that could produce millions of light bulbs a day revolutionized the glass-container industry. Its creator, Michael Owens is the “Owens” in the Fortune 500 firms Owens-Illinois Inc. and Owens Corning (3).
In the beginning of the 20th century, the identity of glass was changed again by two of the first glass designer/artists Emile Galle and Eugene Rouseau. They became well known for the glass they exhibited at the Paris Exhibition in 1878. Rouseau’s work was heavily influenced by Japanese art, and Galle was the beginning of the Art Nouveau style used in glass (3). Louis Comfort Tiffany then began to design the well-known stained glass lamps, windows and other pieces that are still prized today.
One hundred years later, the 1960’s brought about what is now known as the studio glass movement. Beginning in America and spreading across the globe, the movement derived from artists opening their own smaller studios and experimenting with individual styles and techniques. The wide array of artistic styles that emerged from this expansion led museums to look at glass more seriously, which, in turn, has led to glass-specific museums such as Corning Museum of Glass in New York, and the Museum of Glass in Tacoma.
Budding in mankind’s distant past, it was discovered, refined and lost; jealously guarded but unable to be hidden; redefined over and over; and shared by every great civilization. From adornments, to vessels, to the light bulb, even a fine art form, the ancient craft of hot glass has grown alongside mankind and remains one of our finest and most versatile achievements.
(A) & (B) The Metropolitan Museum of Art www.metmuseum.org
(E) The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston http://www.mfah.org/