Guide to Colonial Glass Blowing History, Tools & Techniques [Updated]
Colonists settling in America experimented with establishing various industries to support them in the New World. The first, and ultimately unsuccessful attempt at starting new industries in America was the production of glass in the Jamestown settlement.
Despite early failures, glass blowing would eventually gain success as an industry in America in the 18th century. Colonial glass production involved many of the same tools and techniques in use today, and authentic colonial glass blowing can be viewed at live demonstrations today. Glass blowing as it was in the colonial period thus maintains relevance in modern times.
Early Colonial Glass Blowing & Glassblowers
The settlers of Jamestown began producing glass in 1608, shortly after the initial establishment of the new town. Colonists thought a glass industry would be sustainable in America because of the seemingly endless supply of sand and trees for raw materials and fuel. The Virginia Company of London employed Dutch and Polish glass artisans during the first phase of glass manufacturing in Jamestown. At first, glass production seemed possible.
In 1610, William Starchey of the Virginia Company described the town’s glasshouse as a “goodly house.” However, by 1617, glass production appeared to be a dying industry in Jamestown.
In an attempt at revival, six Italian glass artists arrived at the settlement in 1622. They produced glass bottles and beads that the colonists intended to trade with the Native Americans. After a few years of production, the second wave of Jamestown glass production also discontinued as settlers turned their focus to other industries.
The mid to late 1600s saw more successful glass manufacturing in areas outside Virginia. In 1641, Massachusetts opened its own glasshouse, and in 1650, New Amsterdam also began glass production in a factory setting. Glass produced at this time was green due to a lack of color-changing ingredients in the colonies and was used to make bottles and window glass.
By the 18th century, glass production would grow in the colonies and the types of glass and products created would evolve as well.
Glass Blowing in the 18th Century
The slow rise of glass manufacturing in the 17th century gave way to a boom in glass demands in the 18th century. The production of soda glass and lead glass in the colonies provided attractive alternatives to the green glass products of the previous century. These types of glass were transparent, stronger, and used to produce drinkware, servingware, and decorative items.
Large-scale glass manufacturing began in New Jersey with a factory run by Caspar Wistar. This factory would thrive throughout the 18th century and helped make glassware more readily available in the northern colonies.
In 1783, Pitkin Glassworks opened in Connecticut, further expanding glass production.
Sand was imported from New Jersey to supply manufacturing and products such as window glass, creamers, vases, and bowls were produced for home use. The company also made bottles for the growing rum trade. Pitkin Glassworks is one of the best examples of successful glass blowing in colonial America because the company continued to produce large amounts of glass well into the 19th century.
Colonial Glass Blower Tools and Techniques
The glass blowing techniques and tools used by Jamestown artisans and glass manufacturers in the 18th century are nearly identical to those utilized today. The first step in the process was gathering and mixing raw materials. Sand, soda ash, potash, and lime were all ingredients that could be made using materials found in the vicinity of Jamestown.
Workers gathered sand from nearby beaches, burned seaweed to create soda ash, converted wood ash to potash, and slowly burned oyster shells for lime. Colonial glass workers used hardwoods like hickory and oak as a fuel source instead of the natural gas sources used today. Glass was typically produced four or five days out of the month, as workers used the remaining days to cut all of the wood needed to fuel their furnaces.
Once glass artisans had enough raw materials, they mixed the ingredients together and heated the batch in furnaces at temperatures of around 2,200 degrees. Furnaces had glory holes as they do today, and glass blowers gathered the melted batches on blowpipes through the glory holes after preheating the blowpipes in a cooler flame. After gathering the glass, workers rolled it on a steel marvering plate to round out the shape and prepare for the next steps.
Air was blown through the blowpipe to expand the glass. Artisans used various small tools and gravity to form the glass into different shapes. Once artisans formed the glass into their desired shape, they gathered glass on a punty rod and carefully broke it off of the blowpipe. The glass products cooled in lehr ovens, which are like the annealing ovens used today.
Where Can I Experience Colonial Glass Blowing Today?
The best place to experience colonial glass blowing today is at the historic Jamestown site in the Colonial National Historical Park in Virginia. Actors dressed as colonists reenact the glass blowing process using historically accurate furnaces and tools.
They walk visitors through the entire glassmaking process and answer any questions visitors may have. Items created at the site include candleholders, wine bottles, glasses, vases, paperweights, and pitchers and are available for purchase.