History of Glass Blowing
Thousands of years ago, the Mesopotamians discovered glass, a versatile material of liquid sand that is now as prevalent in our lives as sand. From the camera lens to the container to the skyscraper, inventors have manipulated it to fulfill a variety of purposes. The potential of glass, however, does not end at utility. Since its invention, artists have played with it as well.
In Jerusalem of the 1st century, a Syrian craftsman found a new way to shape glass: glassblowing. This method of inflating glass into a bubble using a blowpipe expedited the glassmaking process and brought more glass goods to the public market. Gradually, glass replaced clay in many everyday household articles.
A couple of decades later, glassmakers took glassblowing a step further by using molds that gave blown glass different designs. It didn't take long for glassmakers to craft molds with more and more inventive and complicated shapes. The result was called mold-blown glass.
Once the Roman Empire got word of the glassblowing technique, glassblowing boomed in the capital city. Remarkably, archaeologists have recovered intact glass artifacts from the age of Roman glassblowing. From these artifacts, we know about some of the products, both mass-produced and luxury, that Roman glassmakers molded. These include storage jars, bottles, and vases. One preserved container is shaped like a fish!
Craftsmen from the Middle East and Egypt perfected Roman techniques of glassblowing. Trade with the Middle East brought glassblowing to Venice, which gained a monopoly on glassmaking and glassblowing especially. In the late 13th century, the Italian government, intent on guarding Venice's glassblowing secrets, relocated the Venetian glassmakers to the island of Murano. But some craftsmen fled Murano to share their glassblowing techniques with the rest of Europe.
The craft spread even further with the republication in the late 1660s of L'Arte Vetraria, a glassmaking guide that alchemist and glassmaker Antonio Neri wrote in the early 17th century. In this book, Neri divulged even more of the hard-kept secrets of Venetian glassmaking.
In May 1607, the Virginia Company of London established Jamestown, and it provided the resources to start a glasshouse there in 1608, the first attempt to establish glassmaking in the Americas. Attempts to establish a glass industry in Jamestown failed then and again in 1622 due to climate and economic factors, but the efforts did lay the groundwork for future glassmaking pursuits in the New World. In 1739, with support from Quaker merchants and leaders, German colonist Caspar Wistar founded America's first successful glasshouse. From there, the industry only expanded and improved.
Until the late 19th century, no monumental changes took place in the glass industry. Then, at the 1878 Paris Exhibition, designers Eugene Rousseau and Emile Galle ushered in the Art Nouveau period, an art style that lasted until the first decade of the 20th century and was characterized by whiplash curves and organic, stylized forms. An international style, Art Nouveau influenced all forms of art, including glass.
In the 1960s, American glassmakers broke from factory environments to open independent studios, launching the studio glass movement. Harvey K. Littleton is highlighted among the pioneers of the movement. In the early 1960s, he collaborated with the Toledo Museum of Art and scientist Dominick Labino to make a small, affordable furnace for individual artists to use. Notable among the early studio artists was Littleton's pupil Dale Chihuly, who today works with a team of glassblowers to sculpt large-scale glass art.
The studio glass movement spread across the ocean, and through sharing ideas, artists have developed new technical skills and design techniques that are changing the face of glassblowing. The movement is an international one that continues to grow to this day.
Learn more about the history and process of glassblowing with the following resources: