Thursday, January 22, 2015

Things You Didn't Know About American Antique Cut Glass

By Gretchen Sawatzki

Some call it wheel-cut glass, others call it hand-cut, but to most it's referred to simply as "cut glass." This antique American staple can be found in antique malls and thrift stores everywhere these days, but here's some things you probably didn't know about those thrift store finds.

Artisans cutting patterns into lead-crystal. Photo courtesy
Glassmaking was established at Jamestown in 1608,  but cut glass decoration didn't come to be until 163 years later - the first cut being made by German-American artisan Henry William Steigel around 1771. Initially, American glass patterns resembled that of Europe and the English Isles, but by 1830, American craftsmen began cutting new, innovative designs. The 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, established a global stage for American craftsmen and designers to showcase their wares sparking an exceptionally high level competition between craftsmen. By the Brilliant Period (circa 1876-1915) of American glass cutting, domestic cut glass wares exceeded the quality of European craftsmen.

With the discovery of lead-oxide deposits in Ohio, glassmaking was taken to another level. Comprising nearly 40% of the concoction to make lead crystal, lead-oxide was the secret ingredient along with potash and silica that made American "crystal" glass exceptionally smooth, clear, and ideal for cutting.

"Chrysanthemum" cut glass pattern produced by the
T.G. Hawkes Company. Image courtesy of
The 1889 Paris Exposition was the pinnacle of American glass cutting craftsmanship with the grand prize given to T.G. Hawkes Company of Corning, New York for their brilliant glass exhibit. The 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago further solidified the craft in America with The Libbey Glass Company of Toledo, Ohio grabbing top awards. The "Era of Super Glass" (circa 1908-1915) as it has been affectionately called was the height of the American craft with companies like Tiffany, Libbey, and Steuben leading the pack.

With the invention of molding processes and acid polishing in 1897, cut glass became easier to produce and industry leaders could now produce more wares cheaper and faster than ever before. But, with the outbreak of WWI demanding the use of lead-oxide, many companies closed their doors. With trends moving away from cut glass after the war, the quality of the craft came to a quick demise. Although cut glass may be found in thrift stores, its history is vastly rich telling the story of an American tradition that exceeded the world's expectations in the industry.

American Cut Glass Association:
Corning Museum of Glass:

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