Shimmer and Shine

Early American Glassware

No one knows exactly when or where glass was first made. Archaeologists believe glass appears to have been produced as far back as the second millennium BC by the Egyptians. Glass was a lot less common and considered very precious back then than it is today. Glassmaking was the first industry set up in America at Jamestown, Virginia in 1608. In fact Captain John Smith and his Englishmen were responsible for the first glass factory in the New Land. Along with other raw materials, the basic components used to make glass are silica derived from sand, flint and quartz. Once all the materials are combined, they are heated at very high temperatures.

Glass is produced in various shapes, sizes and colors. It may be decorated in a number of ways, including cutting, molding, engraving, and etching. In the 19th Century, glassmaking was influenced by rapid advances in technology and the rediscovery of older methods. Mechanical pressing, introduced in the United States, was a cheap, fast means of production. With the scarcity of materials and few crafters, the depression of the 1930s and 1940s diminished the amount of glassmaking in the United States. This exhibit features a variety of glass, including hand-blown, cut and pressed pieces.

Hand Blown Glass

The earliest method of making glass was to blow the glass. The materials used to make glass are mixed together to form a batch. The batch was then melted in clay pots, heated by wood or coal furnaces to form what is called molten glass, or metal. After the batch was melted it was then blown through a blowpipe to form a ball, much like a child blowing a piece of bubblegum. After doing this, the glass is then shaped.

Once the glass industry was started in America, one of the first products made were glass bottles. Glass bottles were blown by hand; the workman dipped a hollow iron pipe into a batch of hot glass, extracted a glob and expanded it with his own breath. There are various types of glass bottles such as medicine bottles, household bottles and baby bottles.

Glass comes in various colors and the color is determined by the contents found in the hot glass. Iron can produce a greenish color, iron and sulfur together can produce ambers and brown, copper can produce light blues, cobalt produces dark blue, tin turns glass white and gold produces red. Uranium is an element used in glass to make a blue-yellow color. When the glass is reheated it becomes a two-tone color.

Cut Glass

Cut glass has been around since ancient times. The English started cutting glass about 1715 and it began to gain fame by 1760. By the 1800’s, many American factories were making cut glassware for table use. The cut patterns resembled the English or Irish glass of the day and there were few characteristics or designs. The single star and panel curves were the most popular designs and ruby red and dark blue were popular colors.

Between the periods of 1880-1905 was when the most elaborate cut ware became available. During that time, newlyweds were given very expensive cut glass bowls and pitchers, instead of silver. This was a time when water tumblers, dishes, goblets and many more serving pieces were made.

People have trouble distinguishing cut glass from pressed glass. Cut glass has very sharp edges, while the pressed glass will be round and smooth. Cut glass is also very heavy and sparkles. If you tap your finger on a piece of pressed glass it will sound very dull and flat, however, if you do the same with cut glass, it will ring with a clear tone.

Pressed Glass

Pressed glass machines were invented in the late 1820’s. The molds were made from brass and iron, and had to contain the correct amount of those metals. If there was too much metal in the mold, the glass could not be clearly impressed. However, if there were too little, the glass would be too thick.

Early pressed glass pieces such as platters and vases were very heavy and had many bubbles and imperfections. The later pressed glass was almost perfect because the glass was pressed with weights and not put in a mold. More elaborate pieces of pressed glass appeared in the 1860’s with stylish geometric shapes.

In the 1870’s, glass companies made patterns of glass to resemble things in nature such as Daisy, Thistle, and Rose in Snow. More familiar patterns such as Daisy and Button and Hobnail came out around 1880. Colored pressed glass patterns became popular after the Civil War. Press glass novelties such as glass shoes, hats, and animals were among the variety of styles made from 1850-1900.


The Southwest Virginia Museum is a member of the American
Association of Museums, the American Association of State and Local History, and the Virginia Association of Museums.


Famous Glass Companies

As you know, they are several varieties of glassware. They are companies that have became famous for their manufacture of glass. Most companies are know for their rarity and uniqueness of glass, while others are famous only for the color or style.

In business from 1892-1902, one of the most well known glass companies was the Tiffany Glass and Decorating Company. Louis Comfort Tiffany, a glassmaker an artist with great skill, was known for his iridescent glass. Tiffany glass was hand blown and made from 1894-1935. Iridescent glass was made in various shades of blue, green, pink, white and orange.

Another famous company which still exist today is the Fenton Art Glass Company of Williamstown, West Virginia. In 1906, Frank Fenton established the company for the manufacture of colored, blown, pressed and cut glass pieces. Through the use of metallic salts, the Fenton Company was able to produce colors not previously known and gave them unique names such as clam broth, which is a shade of brown.

The Imperial Glass Company of Bellaire, Ohio has been making pressed and cut glass pieces since the late 1880s. Some of the best cut glass was made in the early 1900s. The Imperial Glass company was well known for their reproductions of the expensive Tiffany glass and is still manufacturing glass today.

Collecting and Caring

With centuries of glassmaking came centuries of collecting glass. Whether it has been handed down from generation to generation or bought at an auction, every piece of glass is unique. A well known type of glass being collected today is carnival glass, which originated nearly a hundred years ago. Milk glass is found in many American households and is said to have been named this because it resembled the color of milk. Depression glass originated during the depression of the 1920s and 1930s and is unique to many collectors. These are just a few of the very many types of glass being collected today.

It is important to remember to treat your glass special and care for it properly. Glass should be washed in warm water in clear ivory detergent and wiped with lint free towels. When using cut glass serving pieces do no serve anything very hot, because the cut glass is very sensitive to heat.



The Southwest Virginia Museum would like to thank Ms. Kay Key for sharing her knowledge of
Early American Glassware and helping to make this exhibit possible.