When about 1,200 glass artists and aficionados convene in Toledo this week for the Glass Arts Conference, they’ll be marking a special anniversary in the history of their favored art form.
Fifty years ago a group of committed artists and craftsmen and women gathered here to fit the final pieces into the puzzle of how to make studio glass, those beautiful, intricate designs that can be breathtaking in their artistry.
But in the big picture, this moment was just a blip on the timeline of a history that stretches back thousands of years into civilizations that have risen and crumbled like broken glass. It’s a history that parallels human industriousness and creativity as advances were made after centuries of experimentation, failures, and breakthroughs.
We take glass for granted — look around you right now and you’ll likely see it in many forms — but it took almost 5,000 years for its production to become industrialized enough to be part of our everyday lives.
Toledo’s historical significance as a location for advances in this process is something to be proud of because it speaks to the city’s vibrant combination of industrial ingenuity and can-do attitude.
The timeline on this page covers the key developments in the evolution of glass-making worldwide until the early 20th century. To see a timeline that covers the development of the studio glass movement, check out www.toledoblade.com/glassarts.
— Rod Lockwood
3000 BCE: Glass beads and small pendants, sometimes of gods and goddesses, were crafted from a basic recipe of sand (the largest ingredient), mixed with salt, and either lime or potash. Eventually, glass was set into furniture and walls as decorations. Northern Syria.
50 BCE: With the invention of the blowpipe, glass-making became an industrialized process. Working with others, an artisan would attach a soft lump of molten glass to the end of a pipe, move it into a flame, and as it melted, blow it into a shape such as a bottle. The aim was to reproduce the beauty of natural rock crystal. Around the eastern Mediterranean coast.
First millenium AD: In the early Roman period in Egypt, high-quality mosaic glass was used in intricate wall decorations, furniture, jewelry, mummy portraits, and tombs. Rome and the island of Rhodes also had built factories. And as the Roman empire expanded north in the second and third centuries, people in the area of Cologne on the Rhine created expensive cameo-style glass tableware.
1100-1400: With a flourishing industry in Damascus and Cairo, mosques and Islamic schools commissioned exquisite oil lamps, large platters, and drinking vessels.
1291: Venice’s city leaders designated the nearby island of Murano to be the locus of luxury-glass and mirror production. An island was ideal because fires couldn’t spread to the city, and sequestering the industry allowed glass formulas to be tightly controlled. Local quartz pebbles, almost pure silica, were ground into a fine, clear sand that was added to soda ash. Venice was becoming the primary power in the eastern Mediterranean.
1200-1300: Stained glass was developed for use in Europe’s cathedral windows.
1352: The first image of a person wearing corrective eye glasses appeared on the nose of an Italian clergyman in a painting.
1450:Cristallo glass was developed using a recipe that added manganese (called glassmaker’s soap). The result was a very clear glass lacking the yellow or green tinges of previous recipes. Moreover, this glass hardened quickly and could be formed into complex shapes, emulating what could be done with metal, for expensive tableware.
1660-1690s: Chalk glass, the foundation for Bohemian crystal, was invented in Bohemia and Germany. Mixing chalk with potash (from wood ashes) created a clearer, more stable glass that could be cut and engraved with copper and bronze wheels used for cutting gems.
1660s: Adding lead oxide to the formula resulted in thicker clearer, glass, ideal for making chandeliers and heavily-cut tableware was devised in the Netherlands, but manufactured by the English and Irish.
1700s: Glass windows were increasingly used in middle-class homes of northern Europe.
1825:In the United States, glass industrialization took root with the invention of a glass-pressing machine that made dishware by the thousands.
1894: Louis Tiffany developed opalescent glass and transformed mosaics by innovating shapes and colors.
1903: Michael J. Owens, working for Edward Libbey in Rossford, invented the revolutionary bottle-blowing machine. Mr. Libbey founded the Toledo Museum of Art and his funds still support the museum heavily.
— Tahree Lane