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Glassmaking in America
by Bob Brooke

 

Glassmaking was the first recorded industry in the New World, with "glasshouse" factories built in the woods in 1607 and 1621 a half mile from Jamestown in what was to become the Virginia Colonies. But glassmaking existed for centuries before this.

The making of glass dates back to antiquity. Pliny wrote that Phoenician sailors, returning from Egypt to Syria, were transporting a cargo of soda. A storm drove them ashore. To dry off and cook, the men made a fire of seaweed and rested their pots on the soda; that and the sand and ashes on the seaweed formed the first manmade glass.

Syrian craftsmen invented the glass-forming technique of glassblowing using clay pipes in the 1st century B.C.E., somewhere along the coast of what is now Syria and Palestine. But it was the ancient Egyptians that perfected the technique for making glass.

When the Romans occupied Egypt, they saw the potential for making everyday glass objects and motivated the Egyptians to develop the glassmaking methods further. Glassmaking all but disappeared in the 5th century when barbarians sacked Rome. However, early Christians continued to use glass for sacred mosaics and church windows until the Renaissance.



Meanwhile, glassmaking reached Venice by way of traders from Asia. But it could as easily been Roman glassmakers, escaping from the sack of Rome, who, seeking refuge in Venice, brought their craft with them. And it was Venetians who kept it alive during the Dark Ages. By the 13th century, the Venetians had earned a reputation for beautiful glass. By 1591 glass houses were so numerous, the Venetian City Council regarded them as a fire hazard, so it passed laws requiring all glassmaking to be done on the Island of Murano in the Venetian Lagoon. Here, Venetians glassmakers carried on their craft, producing cristallo, a clear, fine glassware by employing a new technique, mold-blowing, in which they blew molten glass into wood and metal molds.



The glassblowing craft was passed from father to son or from master to apprentice. From its beginning, glassmakers kept the formulas and techniques they used a secret on penalty of death.

In spite of penalties imposed by the new laws, Venetian glassmakers traveled from Murano, spreading their secrets across Europe and England. During the reign of Elizabeth I, English glassmakers made a new beginning with flint with the addition of lead, making the glass brilliant and comparatively soft; so it was easy to cut or etch the surface.

Glassmaking in the New World
By 1606, during the reign of England's James I, the first permanent English-speaking colony in America was set up in Virginia by the London Co. One of the first things the colonists asked to be sent to them was glass. But the company, realizing the difficulty of transporting this fragile commodity across the ocean, sent, in 1608, eight skilled workmen to teach the Virginians how to make glass.



Glassmakers established a dozen or so more of these glass “factories” in Salem, Massachusetts, New York, and Philadelphia in the 170 years before the Revolution, but none of them succeeded. It was Caspar Wistar, a German button-maker, who established the first successful glass factory in America, in Salem County, New Jersey.

It wasn’t until Caspar Wistar, a German button-maker, established the first successful glassmaking operation in Salem County, West Jersey, in 1739 that the glass industry took hold in the New World.

Born in 1696, in Wald-Hilsbach, Baden, near Heidelberg, Germany, Wistar arrived in America in 1717, landing in Philadelphia where he began making brass buttons, which he advertised as lasting seven years.

Wistar was an entrepreneur extraordinaire, establishing a retail store in Philadelphia, as well as getting involved in the real estate market there.

In 1738 Wistar bought about 2,000 acres of pine woods near the village of Allowaystown, West Jersey. He used the wood to fuel his factory furnace and the rich sand to provide silica for making glass. A nearby river provided convenient transportation to send his glassware to market.

Unfortunately, Wistar didn’t know how to make glass. But that didn’t stop him. He hired four glass craftsmen and asked them to come to America and teach him and his son, Richard, how to make glass. He gave them each shares in the project for their instruction. By the following year, Wistar’s first furnace was operational, producing flat glass for windows and various types of utility and beverage bottles in various colors, including striking green, blue, amber, and various shades of brown.

The plant flourished for 40 years around a small village of workers' homes, factory buildings, general store, granary, barns, a wagon-house, and manager's house. When Caspar died in 1762, he left Richard in charge of the glass factory. But the plant closed permanently during the American Revolution.
 

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