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LATEST ANTIQUES ARTICLE______________________________

The Gleam of American Brilliant Glass
by Bob Brooke

 

American Brilliant cut glass was a symbol of elegance in Victorian America from around 1850 to the beginning of World War I. Middle class to wealthy people liked to give pieces as wedding and anniversary presents. Immigrants helped supply glass houses in the United States with skilled cutters allowing them to develop a product rivaling European cut glass. Prior to that time, most cut glass pieces came from England, France, and Ireland.

Early History of Cut Glass
Historians trace the first cut glass to ancient Egypt in 1,500 BCE, where artisans decorated vessels of varying sizes by cuts made by what they believed to have been metal drills. Artifacts dating to the 6th century BCE indicate that the Romans, Assyrians and Babylonians all had mastered the art of cut decoration. Slowly glass cutting moved to Constantinople, then on to Venice, and by the end of the 16th century, to Prague. Apparently the art didnít spread to the Britain until the early part of the 18th century.

The New World didnít see any cut glass until at least 160 years later. Henry William Stiegel, an immigrant from Cologne, Germany, founded the American Flint Glass Manufactory in Manheim, Pennsylvania, and it was there in about 1771 that he produced the first cut glass in America.

For the next 60 years, the "Early Period" of American cut glass, pieces were indistinguishable from English, Irish and continental patterns because most of the cutters originally came to America from Europe. About 1830 American ingenuity and originality began to influence the industry, and a national style began to emerge. This came about the time The United States was preparing to celebrate her 100th birthday. and what historians term the "Brilliant Period" began. From about 1876 until the advent of World War 1, American cut glass craftsmen excelled all others worldwide, and produced examples of the cut glass art that may never again be equaled.

When American glass manufacturers displayed their cut glass at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia in 1876, their clear, bright, leaded glass was an immediate sensation. From then on, American cut glass became extremely popular. Most middle-class and wealthy households owned at least a few pieces to grace their elegant holiday tables.

Representatives from eight American glass manufacturers showed off their leaded-crystal goblets, tumblers, decanters, and serving plates at the Exposition. Each of these pieces had been deeply cut by hand on a succession of metal, stone, and wooden wheels. The Brilliant Period lasted from the Centennial celebration until the first decade of the 1900s, when changing tastes and less-expensive pressed glass, which replicated the look of cut glass, pushed the original to the sidelines. In fact, by 1910 manufacturers of the floral, fruit, and geometric patterns in cut glass pressed their pieces first, then cut them, making their pieces less costly to produce.



During the Brilliant Period,over1,000 cutting shops met the demand. These shops turned thick, unadorned glass blanks into multifaceted creationss, whose cut and engraved surfaces reflected light around a room. Companies such Dorflinger, Hawkes, Libbey, J. Hoare and Co., T. G. Hawkes, Tuthill, Egginton, and Mt. Washington were highly regarded for the quality of their work, as well as their artistry. Hawkes would go on to found Steuben with Frederick Carder, while Libbey made Brilliant glassware for the White House.

Some of the most sought-after patterns cut during the American period of cut glass are Wedgemere, Aztec, and Ellsmere by Libbey; Aberdeen by Jewel; Queens, Chrysanthemum, and Nautilus by Hawkes; Assyrian by Sinclaire; Poppy by Tuthill; Wheat by Hoare; and Russian and Comet by several companies. Shapes can also be considered rare, such as tea and coffee pots, table lamps, oil lamps, triple-ring lapidary neck decanters, cake plates, punch bowls, and whiskey bottles. Finally, while many pieces were clear, some makers produced pieces in a variety of colors, including ruby, green, blue, turquoise, and rainbow.

The Process of Cutting Glass
All glass that is to be decorated by cutting requires the addition of up to 40 percent lead oxide, a chemical that makes ordinary glass soft enough to cut against moving wheels without shattering. Leaded glass is called "crystal.Ē

Cutting glass was time consuming. After a worker brought a blank from storage, a designer marked it with outlines of the decoration. The "rougher" began the cutting by holdng the blank against a rapidly moving, beveled, metal wheel, kept constantly moistened and cooled by a fine stream of wet sand dripping from an overhanging funnel. He followed the designer's marks, making incisions by pushing the glass down against the wheel. A worker would use various sized wheels to make the many different sized cuts required to complete the design.



Next, the piece went to the "smoother", who went back over all the rough cuts with stone wheels called "craighleiths." The smoother also initially cut some of the small lines on the motifs, as indicated by the design. Finally, the "polisher" finished the piece by polishing each cut with wooden wheels made from willow, cherry or other softwoods. Rottenstone or pumice was used with the polishing wheels to give a lustrous appearance to the cut, leaving no imperfections on the gleaming surfaces.

Early in the Brilliant Period one cutter did all cutting on a single piece. Since changing wheels to accommodate various sizes and depths of cuts could occupy sixty percent of a cutter's time, manufacturers quickly adapted assembly line methods. Each cutter was given a different sized wheel, and by passing a piece from station to station, productivity increased immensely.

Artisans in over 1,000 shops cut hundreds of patterns. Some makers polished glass using wooden wheels while others used acid. Hobstars and fans, strawberry diamonds and flutes, beading and chair caning, are but a few of the motifs that make up American designs. Not all cut glass was of the same quality. While some was excellent, other pieces were just fine, and many were downright inferior.

Workers cut facets into finished glass pieces by pressing them against a large rotating iron or stone wheel. The nicest pieces of cut glass had a high lead oxide content giving them extra sparkle showing off the exceptional shine of the cutting in this clear glass.

However, as ;the American Brilliant Period progressed, glassmakers turned from hand blowing blanks to blown glass made with molds, and eventually incorporated design elements in the blown mold as well. However, craftsmanship suffered and the overall quality declined.

Manufacturers also changed how they polished pieces, going from hand finishing to a strong acid bath to eliminate sharp edges. This method worked but lacked the same high-quality finish when compared to the earlier handcrafted glass. And to save money and increase profits, decorations became less elaborate, with less swirled cuts and precise points cut into the glass.

Manufacturers developed and patented stunning new patterns quite unlike earlier European designs. They gave patterns intriguing names, and leading glass houses began advertising campaigns urging collection of whole sets of goblets, tumblers, wine glasses and finger bowls in the new designs. Cutting shops proliferated to meet the demand for fine pieces of cut glass being sought by wealthy American households.

At the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago, The Libbey Glass Company of Toledo received top awards for cut glass with their Columbia and Isabella patterns. Again popularity increased and huge sets of American cut glass tableware were ordered by the White House, by the presidents of Mexico and Cuba, by Edward VII of Great Britain, and by many industrial tycoons of the day. American cut glass had reached the zenith in its acceptance throughout the world. It had no peers.

The Decline of American Brilliant Cut Glass
By 1908 less than 100 cut class workshops remained. A number of leading companies continued to maintain their high standards throughout the waning years, attracting the finest designers and most skilled craftsmen, who from 1908 to 1915 produced some of the most elegant patterns of cut glass ever created. One author has aptly referred to this as the "Era of Super Glass."



The outbreak of World War I dealt the final blow to the fascinatingly brief birth, growth and decline of a uniquely American achievement. Brilliant cut glass. Lead oxide - an essential ingredient in glass made for cutting was needed for more urgent uses, and by the time the war ended, the few factories that had managed to survive used their resources to produce less costly glass. Thus ended an era of Yankee ingenuity, never to return.

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