Understanding some of the history of antique cut glass can only add to your overall appreciation of your collection.
History of Antique Cut Glass
The Egyptians were cutting glass about 4,000 years ago using tools that they used for gemstones or drilling metals. The practice spread to Babylonia and to the Romans. With the fall of the Roman Empire, cut glass production, as well as glass production in general, fell into decline and glass became both scarce and cost prohibitive.
Historical knowledge of cut glass during the Middle Ages is hampered by lack of documentation and remnants. One exception is cut glass Hedwig beakers, thought to be produced starting in the 12th century AD. Hedwig beakers, found in Europe, are decorated with animals such as lions, griffins and eagles. Interestingly, chemical analysis of the cut glass indicates that the glass was probably not made in Europe, although remnants of these glasses have not been found outside of the continent.
The 17th century saw innovations in technology that made cutting glass easier. In the early 1600s, Bohemian glass makers invented potash-lime glass. Potash took the place of soda in this glass-making formula. In 1676, Englishman George Ravenscroft created a lead oxide glass. Lead oxide gave glass a clearer, sparkling appearance. Glass made with lead oxide was softer, making it easier to cut.
Glass cutting technology did not jump the Pond to the American Colonies right away. The first company that offered American cut glass opened for business in 1771: the American Flinto Glass Manufactory, located in Pennsylvania.
The "American Brilliant Period" started around 1876 and lasted until the First World War. Several factors led to the decline of American Brilliant cut glass. Lead oxide was required for the war effort, leaving this type of glass without a key ingredient. In addition, labor unrest in the United States started to affect the glass industry. Tastes also changed during this period to simpler, less expensive glassware.
The popularity of cut glass has ebbed and flowed over the ages. Today, we can only imagine what much of the cut glass was like even hundreds of years ago, let alone thousands. We can, however, appreciate samples of antique cut glass that exist today.
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