Letters from the glass workshop

Tom McGlauchlin
Tom McGlauchlin

Tom McGlauchlin was 27 and teaching ceramics classes at Cornell College in Mount Vernon, Iowa, when he heard from Harvey Littleton about a workshop at the Toledo Museum of Art to explore artistic glassmaking. Mr. McGlauchlin had been Mr. Littleton's lab assistant for the previous two years at the University of Wisconsin, where he'd earned bachelor's and master's degrees in art.

He met his wife, Pat Smith McGlauchlin, in Mr. Littleton's ceramic class. Pat McGlauchlin, 22, was pregnant with their first child at the time of the March, 1962, workshop. She would have attended but figured they couldn't afford the $30 fee for each of them. In 1971, Mr. McGlauchlin moved his young family to Toledo, where he headed the museum's glass program and became a well-known artist.

Postage was 4 cents when he wrote these letters to his wife during the workshop. The letters provide insight into the first workshop five decades ago. Mr. McGlauchlin died in 2011.

March 23: "My Dearest Pat … just before supper we drove out to Labino's house [in Grand Rapids], he's the guy who developed this low-temperature glass which sounds very good, and out there we got some steel to build the kiln with. So after supper, we almost got the kiln built. … Harvey [Littleton] thinks it might be possible to actually melt and blow this glass using an ordinary top-loading kiln. … Everybody that's connected with this business is as nervous as I am. … Harvey dreams all night of blowing glass."

March 24: "We got a pot loaded up with glass yesterday, but it wouldn't seem to melt. It just got crusty on the surface and sat there. … We ended up throwing that glass out. We had substituted some things for what the formulas called for and it seems that you have to use exactly what they call for or the stuff won't work. What happened to the first batches was that the materials wouldn't stay in solution. When you melt the glass everything dissolves so that the glass is clear, then when we would cool the stuff, the feldspar and other things would go out of solution and become plain old feldspar again and so forth. When that would happen, the glass would get hard, naturally, and it was lost. … We tried again. … Labino came down and solved our problem. He thought that the substitutions were the problem and in a short time, after we had gone around and gotten all the right things, we finally melted some glass that you could work. We've been fooling around with that all day and night. … We tried some molding and some blowing and some casting but didn't really succeed at anything but we are learning a lot."

March 28: "The last two days, Monday and Tuesday, we have been working from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. … We've been blowing some high-temperature glass and doing pretty well. Everybody has blown something fairly good by now but we haven't been able to keep anything because our annealing oven has been too hot … we were using it to preheat the pots before we loaded them with a batch of glass, so our pieces were either melting or cracking in the oven."

March 29: "Monday and Tuesday we changed the glass and melted it from 11 a.m. or so until about 4 p.m. when we would start blowing. We would blow until 9 or 9:30 when the glass would be all used up. Then we would shut the kiln off and let it cool overnight. Mr. Labino came in yesterday afternoon to see how we were coming and we had just started blowing so he tried some glass and did the best yet. He tried blowing long-necked bottles which are the easiest shape to make. He would start with a gob of glass that is long and narrow and then start a bubble down [into the glass]. After the bubble was started, he would swing the pipe to cause the glass to stretch out into a long, thin neck, then blow again to form the ball on the end. …

"Clay [Clayton Bailey] and I spent all night blowing. We didn't quit until 4 a.m. …

"One of the women in the group, [Toledo ceramicist] Edith Franklin, is blowing right now and she's doing pretty good. She has kept two or three pieces. I did do something last night that I kept. If they get annealed alright I might be able to bring them home. …."

--Tahree Lane