Jeff and Holly Noordsy

Dealers Specializing in the Sale of Early American Bottles, Glass and Period Decorative Arts

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THE EVOLUTION OF FORM AND DESIGN IN AMERICAN BOTTLES: 1739-1903

CHRONICLING THE TRANSFORMATION FROM ART TO INDUSTRY

As Presented by Jeff and Holly Noordsy at the Eastfield Village Glass Symposium in August 2005

 

CHAPTER TWO

 

Prior to embarking upon our study of the American Glass Industry it strikes me that a short discussion of the history of glassmaking itself would be a proper manner in which to give our study context. Originating in Mesopotamia (modern day Syria and Iraq) around 1550 BC, glassmaking continued on a significant scale through the reign of the Pharaohs. Recent excavations in Egypt show evidence of notable glass production at Piramesses dating to 1250 BC. Archaeologists' findings indicate that the glassmaking process at this time began with the heating of pulverized quartz and plant ash within ceramic containers. The resulting product was then crushed and reheated at a higher temperature, forming ingots that were then shipped to fabricators across the Mediterranean. The ingots were then reworked, marvered and "hollowed out" to form small jars and bottles. Naturally, these were luxury items, as the process was time-consuming, tedious, and quite dangerous.

It was not until the end of the Roman Empire that the next great step in glassmaking was made and that was the introduction of the blowpipe. Due at least in part to the creation of larger furnaces and crucibles (and thereby larger batches of molten glass), the invention of the blowpipe greatly expanded the vocabulary of the glassblower. By dipping the end of the pipe into the batch of metal the glassblower could easily and quickly (comparatively) create vessels of any desired size, shape and capacity by blowing, inflating and expanding the gather of glass at the end of his rod. And, with the use of shallow "dip molds", "piece molds" and "pattern molds", these glassblowers were able to give their products rough shape and some low-relief decoration. Although some minor changes did occur along the way, this is the general technique that would be used by glassblowers until the last quarter of the Nineteenth century. Within a century of its arrival to the glassblowers' lexicon, the blowpipe had enabled glass bottles to become the most popular utilitarian vessel, as evidenced by the great numbers of bottles and jars found in the ruins of Pompeii. In fact, as Helen McKearin asserts, "in the heyday of the Roman Empire, (glass) bottles and jars were in more common usage than at any period before the 19th century."

As the Roman Empire was shattered in the 4th century glassmaking withered and it is believed that the craft nearly died, with continuous production (possibly) occurring only in the Low Countries, France and (perhaps) Italy. It is believed that glassmaking's revival was nourished by the church and that the art was practiced mainly within monasteries throughout the 9th, 10th and 11th centuries. As would occur in the United States nearly 8 centuries later, it was the birth of a European Middle Class and their resulting demands for utilitarian vessels that gradually increased the role of glassblowing from the 12th through the 15th centuries. As with all fields of science, art and literature, it was the Renaissance that brought about glassblowing's reawakening in response to the needs and desires of the masses. By the 17th century, glass bottles had become the customary vessel for serving beverages across Europe, including the thick walled "shaft and globe" bottles that first appeared in England between 1630 and 1650. Bottles of this type have been found in significant enough numbers in Connecticut and Rhode Island Indian graves to show with certainty that English made black glass bottles were brought to the colonies and used by the colonists not only within their own homes, but also as a means of trade. For the next one hundred or one hundred and fifty years, England was the natural source of bottles for the colonists, although some wines and spirits from Greater Europe arrived on American shores packaged in European vessels. The antecedents of the American Glass Industry then, can be found in the forms and techniques used both in England and across Europe, especially in Germany.

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