Glass used decoratively can take many forms. It can be made opaque or transparent,
clear or colored, brittle or soft, durable or fragile. It can be molded or blown, cut,
engraved, enameled or painted. In the hands of an artist, it becomes a medium that permits
an almost limitless variety of techniques in the quest for a finished object of great
"Cut Glass" Defined
Lets single out only one decorative technique, explore its demands and
scope, and perhaps learn to admire and appreciate the end product. Lets limit our
attention to "cut glass", which must be carefully defined. "Cut glass"
is glass that has been decorated entirely by hand by use of rotating wheels. Cuts are made
in an otherwise completely smooth surface of the glass by artisans holding and moving the
piece against various sized metal or stone wheels, to produce a predetermined pleasing
pattern. Cutting may be combined with other decorative techniques, but "cut
glass" usually refers to a glass object that has been decorated entirely by cutting.
Cut glass can be traced to 1,500 B.C in Egypt, where vessels of varying sizes were
decorated by cuts made by what is believed to have been metal drills. Artifacts dating to
the sixth century B.C. indicate that the Romans, Assyrians and Babylonians all had
mastered the art of decoration by cutting. Ever so slowly glass cutting moved to
Constantinople, thence to Venice, and by the end of the sixteenth century, to Prague.
Apparently the art did not spread to the British Isles until the early part of the
Early Cut Glass in America
Although glass making was the first industry to be established in America at
Jamestown, Virginia in 1608, no glass is known to have been cut in the New World until at
least 160 years later. Henry William Stiegel, an immigrant from Cologne, Germany, founded
the American Flint Glass Manufactory in Manheim, Pennsylvania, and it was there in about
1771 that the first cut glass was produced in America.
For the next sixty years the "Early Period" of American cut glass, our wares
were virtually indistinguishable from English, Irish and continental patterns, and little
wonder, for most of the cutters originally came to this new country from Europe. About
1830 which historians label the beginning of the "Middle Period" American
ingenuity and originality began to influence the industry, and a national style began to
develop. This came into full flower about the time our country was preparing to celebrate
her hundredth birthday and what is now termed the "Brilliant Period" began. From
about 1876 until the advent of World War 1, American cut glass craftsmen excelled all
others worldwide, and produced examples of the cut glass art that may never again be
Forces of Change
Several exciting events dramatically improved Americans cut glass industry,
and brought about a superiority that won world acclaim. Near the beginning of the
Brilliant Period, deposits of high grade silica were discovered in this country, leading
to glass-making formulas vastly better than those used in Europe. Almost simultaneously,
natural gas replaced coal-fired furnaces, with resultant better controls of the
glass-making process and electricity brought about replacement of clumsy steam-driven
At the same time, many of Europes finest glass makers and cutters were
immigrating to this country to seek their fortunes, and they found ready markets for their
talents when America moved into a very prosperous era in the closing quarter of the 19th century. Cut glass became a symbol of elegance and leisure, and demand for beautiful glass
products spurred intense competition and creativity within the industry.
Brilliant Period Events
High labor cost inherent in the manufacture of cut glass has always made it a
luxury item. Unfortunately, until late in the nineteenth century, American glass houses
found it difficult to compete against a vogue that held European glass to be superior to
the domestic product. The prejudice began to disappear when eight enterprising American
companies showed their beautiful wares at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia.
Rail transportation brought record attendance to our nations hundredth
birthday party, and throngs were captivated by elegant cut glass tableware,
lamps, perfume bottles and other fine products on display. A boom was sparked that lighted
the might glass furnaces throughout the northeast, and the Brilliant Period had indeed
Stunning new patterns quite unlike earlier European designs were developed and
patented. Patterns were given intriguing names, and leading glass houses began advertising
campaigns urging collection of whole sets of goblets, tumblers, wine glasses and finger
bowls in the new designs. Cutting shops proliferated to meet the demand for fine pieces of
cut glass being sought by wealthy American households.
The blossoming industry received another boost at the 1889 Paris Exposition when grand
prizes were awarded to the T. G. Hawkes Company of Corning, New York for two patterns
named Grecian and Chrysanthemum. Worldwide acclaim immediately followed, breaking for good
the specter of European superiority. Incidentally, in 1903, Thomas G. Hawkes teamed with
an Englishman, Frederick Carder, to found the Steuben Company; to this day the
worlds most famous glass house.
Just four years later at the 1893 Worlds Columbian Exposition in Chicago, The
Libbey Glass Company of Toledo garnered the top awards for cut glass with their Columbia
and Isabella patterns. Again popularity increased and huge sets of American cut glass
tableware were ordered by the White House, by the presidents of Mexico and Cuba, by Edward
VII of Great Britain, and by many industrial tycoons of the day. American cut glass had
reached the zenith in its acceptance throughout the world. It had no peers.
Decline of American Cut Glass Industry
Since true cut glass is entirely hand-decorated, high labor costs made it
extremely expensive and out of reach to all but the affluent class. Intense competition,
both domestic and from abroad, and the introduction of inexpensive pressed glass in
patterns imitating cut glass, forced cost cutting short cuts on the dynamic, new American
industry. These, about 1897, molding processes and acid polishing techniques began to be
used, and inferior products crept into the market. The vogue of setting entire tables with
glass was passing, and the industry began its decline. During the Brilliant Period nearly
1,000 glass cutting shops were established, by 1908 less than 100 remained. A number of
leading companies continued to maintain their high standards throughout the waning years,
and thereby attracted the finest designers and most skilled craftsmen, who from 1908 to
1915 produced some of the most elegant patterns of cut glass ever created. One author has
aptly referred to this as the "Era of Super Glass."
The outbreak of World War I dealt the final blow to the fascinatingly brief birth,
growth and decline of a uniquely American achievement. Brilliant cut glass. Lead oxide
an essential ingredient in glass made for cutting was needed for more urgent uses,
and by the time the war ended, the few factories that had managed to survive used their
resources to produce less costly glass. Thus ended an era of Yankee ingenuity, never to
Understanding Cut Glass
To appreciate fully the magnificent craftsmanship that resulted in America's
exquisite cut glass, one must have a basic understanding of the nature of the glass
itself, as well as the processes for forming and cutting individual pieces.
Volcanoes make crude glass constantly, called obsidian, but fine glass requires purity
of ingredients, blended under ideal conditions, by talented and experienced master
glassmakers. All glass that is to be decorated by cutting requires the addition of up to
40% lead oxide, a chemical that makes ordinary glass soft enough to cut against moving
wheels without shattering. Leaded glass is called "crystal". All crystal is a
type of glass, but all glass certainly is not properly called crystal.
Cut leaded crystal (or cut glass) has three distinguishing characteristics: a bell-like
ring when gently tapped with the finger, a clarity and brilliance unmatched by pressed or
molded imitations, and weight noticeably greater than the same sized piece made of
unleaded glass. America's Brilliant cut glass is appropriately named, for that is
literally what it is. The cutting is brilliant because it is sharp and deep, reflecting
light from highly polished surfaces. It is deep because it was made from leaded crystal
that was beautiful in its clarity even though thick enough to be cut in high relief.
Imaginative designers improved upon traditional motifs, arranging them in varying ways to
provide for optimum reflective surfaces. American Brilliant Period cut glass was the end
product of talented, resourceful craftsmen who capitalized on new glass technology, using
new cutting methods made possible with electric powered cutting tools - all at a time when
beautiful handmade articles were more appreciated than their machine made counterparts.
Unlike potters, weavers, basket makers or furniture craftsmen, who usually design and
make their art objects while working alone, cut glass is the end product of a number of
people, all of whom must work to the highest standards of perfection to create an object
of exquisite beauty. Let's briefly trace the steps in the manufacturing process of cut
glass, to understand the difficulty that must have prevailed in maintaining peak levels of
quality from start to finish. Let's explore the skills that made this such a unique art
Making Leaded Crystal for Cut Glass
First, the formula consisting of silica, potash, lead oxide (and perhaps other
ingredients) was melted in a 'monkey pot', or furnace, until the temperature reached 2400
degrees Fahrenheit, at which time the red hot, molten glass (called "metal") was
ready to be worked. Four workmen were required to work each glass pot. The first, called
the "gatherer", collected a ball of molten glass (called the "gather")
on the end of his blowpipe, a hollow tube about four feed long. He blew air into it, let
it cool a few hundred degrees, and then rolled it on a metal slab called the 'marver"
to permit the glass to consolidate. Nest, the "gaffer", who was seated in an
armchair, blew the "gather" into the desired shape. His assistant, the
"servitor", reheated the glass when it cooled too much, and helped the gaffer
add stems, feet, handles, or other parts to the piece, as required to finish it.
The fourth member of the team, an apprentice called the "carry in boy",
lifted the finished item with pinchers and carried it to the "lehr", or
annealing oven, where the piece was gradually cooled to room temperature. It could take as
long as nine days in the lehr for cooling to occur without risk of the piece shattering
before being ready for cutting. Once cooled, the "metal" or "blank"
was simply a smooth, shaped piece of leaded crystal, without decoration of any kind, that
was now ready for the next team of craftsmen.
The Process of Cutting Glass
When the blank was brought from storage for cutting, it was first marked by a
designer with outlines of the decoration. Cutting was begun by the "rougher",
who held the blank against a rapidly moving, beveled, metal wheel, kept constantly
moistened and cooled by a fine stream of wet sand dripping from an overhanging funnel. He
followed the designer's marks, making incisions by pushing the glass down against the
wheel. He was blind to the contact of the wheel with the glass, except for what he could
see through the glass - looking from inside to outside. He learned to judge the dept of
the cut simply by the sound of the wheel and the "feel" of the piece in his
hand. Various sized wheels were used to make the many different sized cuts required to
complete the design.
Next, the piece went to the "smoother", who went back over all the rough cuts
with stone wheels called "craighleiths." Thesmoother also initially cut some of
the small lines on the motifs, as indicated by the design. Finally, the
"polisher" finished the piece by polishing each cut with wooden wheels made from
willow, cherry or other softwoods. Rottenstone or pumice was used with the polishing
wheels to give a lustrous appearance to the cut, leaving no imperfections on the gleaming
Early in the Brilliant Period one cutter did all cutting on a single piece. Since
changing wheels to accommodate various sizes and depths of cuts could occupy sixty percent
of a cutter's time, American assembly line methods were quickly adapted by the glass
cutting industry. Each cutter was given a different sized wheel, and by passing a piece
from station to station, productivity was immensely increased. Imagine, if you can, the
true craftsmanship required from every member of the manufacturing and cutting teams, for
cut glass of magnificent quality and unsurpassed beauty to have emerged, and to have
become the unchallenged best in the history of the art form.
Cut Glass Today
Leaded glass is being cut today in Ireland, France, Belgium, West Germany, eastern
European countries, Korea, Mexico and elsewhere, but careful comparison will show that the
very best and most expensive does not rival the quality, craftsmanship and intrinsic
beauty of most old American cut glass. Skillfully used advertising has romanticized much
modern day cut glass to acceptance by the American public much beyond its true value, if
compared with similar items still available from the American Brilliant Period.
If you are intrigued by the shimmer and sparkle of faceted glass, you are probably very
familiar with such household names as Baccarat, Cristal d'Arques, Lalique, Orrefors, St.
Louis, Val St. Lambert, and the ever-popular Waterford. Do you likewise recognize and know
something about these equally famous names: Dorflinger, Egginton, Hawkes, Hoare, Jewel,
Libbey, Meriden, Sinclaire, and Tuthill? All of the former are foreign, all of the latter
are American - Brilliant Period American.
Collecting Brilliant Period Cut Glass
If you now know little or nothing about Brilliant Period cut glass, you have an
exciting adventure awaiting you, for minimum effort will acquaint you with a thoroughly
American art form that is rapidly being rediscovered and appreciated by connoisseurs and
collectors across the land.
In some respects there is much to learn, for thousands of patterns were cut by hundreds
of shops, and only a small percentage has been confidently identified. Some have maker's
signatures, others have only wear marks. Some glass was wood-polished, some acid-polished,
and it helps to know the difference. Hobstars and fans, strawberry diamonds and flutes,
beading and chair caning, are but a few of the motifs that make up American designs, and
all need recognition. Some superb, some fine and some inferior glass was cut, and it is
mandatory that quality be judged before a purchase is made.
On the other hand, collecting American Brilliant Period glass is one of the simplest
hobbies you can undertake. The subject is only cut glass produced by only one nation. Its
manufacture spanned less than half a century. Most of the best was made by the nine
leading glass houses previously named. Contrast that to the extensive study necessary
should you opt to collect paintings, porcelains or pottery, and knew nothing about any of
the three fields. The choice should be clear, if glass excites you.
Cut Glass Association
The non-profit American Cut glass Association, founded in 1978, has grown rapidly
to more than 1,700 dedicated enthusiasts, who have reproduced long forgotten cut glass
catalogs to aid identification of manufacturers and patterns. An informative publication,
the "Hobstar" is mailed regularly to the membership. A summer convention brings
together experts for demonstrations and seminars, to widen knowledge about the fascinating
hobby of collecting. Leading dealers participate in convention activities, and bring
choice pieces for sale. A major feature of each convention is a member's only collector's
sale night, where many fine items change hands and add to growing collections.
Regional chapters of the national association have been formed, to bring study of the
hobby closer to a growing list of participants. Meetings are held throughout the year,
with "show and tell" sessions and visits to inspect other member's collections.
Brilliant Period cut glass, forgotten for about sixty years, has been rediscovered, and
is being collected and preserved for future generations to appreciate and enjoy.
Tips for New Collectors
If you would like to join the host of budding collectors, consider these suggestions:
1. Borrow or purchase one or more authoritative publications about Brilliant Period glass, to start the learning process.
2. Join the American Cut Glass Association (and a local chapter, if one is nearby) to learn from others who have accumulated some knowledge about the art form.
3. Obtain a reference from an Association member to one or more reputable, knowledgeable dealers in your area, from whom you can both learn and buy with confidence.
4. Attend as many auctions, antique shows and "estate" sales as possible, to see, feel, and ask questions about American cut glass. Be prudent about making purchases until you achieve a reasonable level of knowledge.
5. Take the "plunge" and buy a piece of glass to start your own collection. You may make an occasional mistake, but with the foregoing preparation, it should not be a too costly one.
If you already have American made cut glass that belonged to a grandmother or another
family member, cherish it as you would any prized possession, for no more like it will
ever be made. If you are looking for a rewarding hobby, consider becoming a collector.
Fellow collectors are a friendly clan, eager to help the newcomer.
Whatever you do, take joyful pride in those years, the years of the Brilliant Period,
truly a part of our great American heritage.
Photos courtesy of Warren and Teddie Biden