Friday, February 8, 2019

Don’t Try This at Home—Glass-Blowing as a Profession

Glass-blowing is a big deal around my neck of the woods. Tacoma just to the north of us is home to the Glass Museum, one of the only working glass-blowing museums on the West Coast. It began as a way to honor Tacoma native, internationally renowned blown-glass artist Dale Chihuly. And you can reach it from the Washington State History Museum via the Bridge of Glass, a structure housing dozens of pieces of blown glass, with end posts boasting huge blue-green pillows of the stuff.

Somehow, I doubt the glass-blowers of the Regency period had such an illustrious and beautiful setting.

According to the Book of English Trades from 1811, glass-makers only worked in the cold months. The high heat of their furnaces would have been unbearable otherwise. These furnaces were made of giant cones of brick, about two-stories tall, with several openings. The ingredients—flint or sand, salt, and metal oxides—went in one opening; fuel in the form of wood or coal in another. The metal oxides were for color. Leave them out, and you had clear glass. Add a little lead, and you had very clear glass (the famed English lead crystal was developed in that way). Iron or copper oxide yielded green glass, cobalt oxide blue, and a sprinkle of gold a beautiful red.

Once the ingredients fused together in a runny molten mass, a glass-maker would scoop some out with a hollow tube about two and a half feet long. The glass-maker rolled the mass on an iron plate to smooth it, then began blowing into the tube to form a bubble. Blowing and turning both increased the size of the bubble and shaped it. The result would generally be some form of vessel—a bowl, a cup, a lamp cover. But the bubble could also be blown and rotated quickly to form a large disk several feet across. Where the glass-blower cut off the disk from the pipe left a little nipple. These plates would be used to create the panes for windows like those below.

The art was not for the faint of heart. Burns were common, and clothing or gloves might catch fire. But the beauty created is still amazing, whether you live in Regency London, or modern-day Pierce County.

Pictures of glass from the Museum of Glass and Bridge of Glass by Kira Picabo.

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