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History of Glassblowing

Who was the first glassblower? How old is glassblowing? Keep reading for a brief history of this incredible art form.

The First Glassblowers

The craft of glassblowing is believed to have originated in the 1st century BC in areas now known as Israel, Iran, Palestine, and Lebanon.

The Roman government went on to be the first to establish large glass workshops, with glass being formed for both utilitarian and decorative purposes.

A few decades later, craftspeople then discovered that they could use molds to create different designs — designs that were more complex and inventive. The result? The introduction of mold-blown glass.

Venetian Glass

Trade with the Middle East eventually brought glassblowing to Venice, an area which became a leader in the industry.

The secrets of forming Venetian glass were considered so special, and the glasshouses so numerous, that in the 13th century the Italian government relocated Venetian glassmakers to the island of Murano to preserve their knowledge and to prevent the growing city of Venice from burning from the numerous furnaces.

It's said that the glassblowers were actually forbidden to leave because they were considered that important. However, some glassblowers fled Murano and took their techniques to other parts of Europe.

The secrets of Venetian glass then spread even further in the late 1660s when a glassmaking guide called L'Arte Vetraria, written by the alchemist and glassmaker Antonio Neri, started to be republished.

Glassblowing comes to America

Meanwhile, in what is now the United States, in 1607 the Virginia Company of London established Jamestown, England's first permanent colony in North America.

Although attempts at a local glass industry failed due to climate and economic factors, this did lead the way for future glassmaking in the New World, and in 1739 German colonist Caspar Wistar founded the first successful American glasshouse in Pennsylvania.

Glasshouses in New Jersey and Massachusetts also operated for many years, creating windows for the new colonies by spinning molten glass on the end of a pipe to create flat sheets that could later be cut into window panes.

Glassblowing and Science

It was also in the 1600s that glassmakers in Europe discovered the magnification properties of glass when formed with particular curves, which brought us the telescope and microscope.

As medicine developed, the demand for glassware and glass tubing grew and in order to satisfy that need, larger furnaces were created that would allow for ribbons of glass to be extruded and then placed into molds of desired shapes — ultimately a less labour intensive and faster process than stretchy and shaping glass freehand.

In the mid-1600s English glassmakers invented what was known as "black glass" (it was actually dark green in colour). This glass created thick dark vessels that were perfect for transportation, as the glass stood up to shipping and protected the goods inside from sunlight. This development soon placed England as a leading bottle distributor.

In 1676 an Englishman named George Ravenscroft lead another development in glassmaking when he created a formula for making glass using lead. The lead glass, or "flint glass", remained workable for a longer period of time than other glass. Given its remarkable weight and clarity, people started to make vessels that didn't have decoration, but instead focussed on form.

The Art and Appreciation of Glassblowing

While use of glass and styles of decoration, engraving, and cutting changed through the 17th and 18th centuries, it wasn't until the late 19th century that the industry saw another big development.

It was at the 1878 Paris Exhibition that designers Eugene Rousseau and Emile Galle lead the Art Nouveau period that would last until the 20th century — an art style characterized by curves that matched well with the fluidity of glass.

Almost 100 years later, a world leader in glass knowledge and creation emerged with the formation of the Corning Museum of Glass by Corning Glass Works in Corning, New York. Arthur Houghton Jr. and his cousin Amory Houghton opened the museum as a non-profit educational institution in 1951. Today, the museum features collections, exhibitions, research, and teaching facilities with 460,000 visitors stopping by annually to learn about glass.

Then in the 1960s, the studio glass movement was born. American glassmakers shifted from factory environments to independent studios. Among the pioneers of this transformative movement was Harvey K. Littleton, who worked with the Toledo Museum of Art and scientist Dominick Labino to develop smaller, affordable furnaces perfect for individual artists. Instead of being characterized by a particular style or philosophy, this movement has been focussed on the glass itself, the artists who make it, and an overall sense of community amongst creators and producers.

Today, glassblowing is an international art form that continues to grow and change, with glassblowers continuing to develop and share new techniques and ideas.

Most recently, you may have watched glassblowers work their magic on the television series Blown Away. Filmed in Hamilton, Ontario, Blown Away was one of the first major television series to give an inside glimpse into life in the hot shop, and it's giving viewers a renewed interest in glassblowing.

If you want to see glassblowing for yourself, we encourage you to stop by our shop in Merrickville. Did you know Gray Art Glass is one of few Canadian glassblowing studios with a gallery on site? Come say hi and watch our glassblowers at work!

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Looking for a beautiful piece of blown glass for your own collection? We may have just the thing, or we might be able to make it for you! Explore our online shop or email us at gallery@grayartglass.com.