Elizabeth J. Bailey
Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts
July 1, 1999
Although glass has been in existence for at least 5,000 years, it was not until the late nineteenth century that glass became essential in homemaking. Perhaps Charles Eastlake stated it best when he noted, “. . .next to a good display of china on the table or sideboard, there is nothing which lends greater grace to the appointments of a dining-room than delicate and well-designed glass. . .it is not unusual to regard ‘crystal’ as the all-important feature of domestic feasts. . .” (Eastlake, Charles. Hints on Household Taste.)
For many, the Industrial Revolution meant financial freedom. Instead of working for pennies to purchase the necessities of life, Victorian Americans had money to burn. A new class, the middle-class, emerged with enough money to live in comfort surrounded by stylish purchased objects all designed to show their higher social position. American glass made during this period reflects the Victorian desire to gather beautiful and distinctive objects. Glass manufactured during this time also demonstrates changes in etiquette from simpler looser manners to a rigid set of prescribed behaviors set forth in volume after volume of etiquette books.
Glass styles changed dramatically during the Victorian period. The old, often chunky, forms and designs of the earlier Colonial period now fell out of fashion. Again, Charles Eastlake “. . .in the manufacture of table glass, some fifty years ago, great angularity of form, lumpy ornament, deep incisions, and solidity of material were the chief characteristics of design. Now all these are directly opposed to the natural properties of glass, which, in a state of fusion, is capable of being blown and twisted into the most light and elegant forms. . .” What Eastlake is eluding to are the numerous advancements made in glass technology during the end of the nineteenth century. New techniques in producing, refining, blowing, shaping, and decorating glass produced pieces that were fragile in appearance but certainly durable enough to last for generations.
Sparked by the new possibilities in glass manufacture, companies began producing high-quality colored glass goods called “art glass.” During the last decades of the nineteenth century critics fanned the flames of popular taste by declaring art glass “the fine summer of perfected art.” Newspaper editorials and fashionable magazines told consumers that the epitome of style rested in owning pieces of Amberina, Burmese, Crown Milano, Hobnail, Peachblow, Pomona, Royal Flemish, Satin, and Spangled glassware.
Not to be left out of the fray, silver-plate manufacturers soon discovered clever ways to attach themselves to the blazing glass trade by commissioning large quantities of blown and decorated glass that they then festooned with silver-plated mountings and stands. Brides’ baskets, showy fruit bowls, and revolving castor sets designed as table centerpieces all satisfied the Victorian love for abundant ornament. Glass manufacturers retaliated with mercury glass or “poor man’s silver.” Mercury glass pieces were made of two layers of glass with a thin layer of a silver solution sandwiched between. The result was a piece of glass than looked to be made of silver.
Despite the showy and flamboyant glassware that decorated the table, Victorians were calm and controlled in the dining room. Etiquette books prescribed dining behavior right down to the proper way to place your napkin on your lap. Books also called for a variety of serving pieces no longer in common use today. Items like finger bowls, salt cellars, spooners, condiment sets, and nappies, or candy dishes, we all a part of the Victorian table. Glass manufacturers, in their quest to please the Victorian homemaker, offered all of these pieces in glass.
Other pieces were fabricated for particular foods like ice cream, celery, and bananas. Because these foods were relatively rare and expensive, homemakers wanted to stress that their appearance at the dinner table meant that the family could afford lavish items. Therefore, glass manufacturers began making special pieces like banana dishes that resembled a compote with a “folded” top, or a “vase” for celery.
Although glass remains popular for tableware, modern households more often are stocked with ceramic or plastic plates, bowls, and serving pieces. Today, the only glass most of us have on the table is the vessel that holds our beverage. When you imagine a Victorian dinner table set entirely with sparkling cut glass pieces it’s a small wonder that Victorian glass is making a comeback.