Heat, Blow, and Roll: The History of Glassblowing
One of the most fascinating crafts in the art world is the practice of glassblowing. Glassblowing is the art of creating beautiful pieces of glassware by blowing air into semi-molten glass through a blowpipe. By using this technique, glassblowers can create abstract glasswork including vases, bowls, cups, statues, and more. While some of these pieces are more useful than others, the concept of glassblowing as an art form has taken off in recent years.
Glassblowing has existed for quite some time and has even been a major part of various cultures across the world, especially throughout Europe and the Middle East. But who invented the practice of glassblowing? Why was it so important to some of these cultures? And how has it evolved over time?
The history of glassblowing has been traced to Syrian craftsmen from Sidon and Babylon between 27 BC and 14 AD. This photo shows a Venetian glassblowing factory in action making a glass or perhaps a vase. (Dennis Jarvis / CC BY-SA 2.0)
Glassblowing: Just A Tube And Some Glass
As mentioned previously, glassblowing is the practice of using a long blowpipe to blow air into a piece of semi-molten glass. Glass is put over a flame to “melt” until it is a consistency similar to molasses and is then stuck onto the end of a blowpipe. The glassblower then blows into the other end of the pipe to blow a pocket of air into the chunk of melted glass. After the glass expands, the glassblower then uses the blowpipe to roll and swing the glass on a smooth surface to shape it how they wish.
Glassblowers can then continue to manipulate the glass while it is hot by rolling and continuing to blow into it to make it larger or add more shapes to it. They can also use additional tools such as shears to clip off pieces of the soft glass and further shape it into the creator's desired form. Any additional pieces, such as handles or stems, can then be added through welding once the main piece and the attachments are all cooled and firm to the touch.
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A Beautiful Glass Ball Being Made by a Glass Blower. (Hypnotik Photography / Adobe Stock)
While the glassblowing process itself does not take long, it does take a serious amount of skill to perform glassblowing successfully. Given the heat required to turn the glass into a semi-molten state and the tools required to shape the glass, it is not an easy practice, and it requires training to do so safely. Because of this, more intricate glassblowing pieces can be difficult to come by and are usually worth a pretty penny when you do find one. Because of the nature of this craft, each piece is entirely unique, which also contributes to its value.
Throughout history, glassblowing has been used to create items such as vases, bowls, tubes, light fixtures, mugs, and drinking glasses. Eventually, machines were developed to blow glass commercially rather than having to blow each piece individually, which saved companies significant amounts of time and money. Nowadays, finding handmade blown glass pieces for daily use is much more difficult as most modern pieces are designed to be used as decor. In ancient times, however, glassblowing was essential to produce everyday items needed for cooking, eating, and bathing in addition to decor for the wealthy.
Ancient Roman glassblowing craftsmen fashioned these perfume containers, on display in London's Victoria and Albert Museum, from fire and liquid glass. (Charos Pix / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
The Glass Addiction: Syria and Rome
Records show that glassblowing was invented sometime around the 1st century BC in Syria. According to the accounts, various craftsmen in the regions of Hama, Aleppo, and Sidon would create blown glass vessels for both luxury and casual use using clay blowpipes. These pieces were often created with the help of a mold so multiples could be produced at a time and then sent across Europe to be traded and sold. Some of these molds were so detailed that glass pieces would be in the shapes of shells, fruit, and even human heads.
After the fascination with molds wore off, artists began to experiment further with glassblowing without the use of molds. This process was referred to as “free-blowing.” Glassblowers would blow the molten glass up like balloons using only their breath and would shape the pieces into vases and bowls. This process was not always easy, as glassblowers had to experiment with the limits of glass and had to take care not to inflate the glass to the point of “popping.”
In particular, the Roman Empire purchased many of these blown glass pieces. Those that were less fortunate were sometimes able to trade for the more casual pieces, while the most luxurious pieces were reserved for the wealthy and famous. Blown glass was so popular amongst the Romans that the Phoenicians began to set up glass workshops around the border of the Empire so it would be more accessible to them. As the love of glassblowing spread, it eventually gained popularity within Egypt as well, where they used glassblowing to create vessels for oil and perfume.
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A fourth-century-AD Roman blown glass hydria from Baelo Claudia, an ancient Roman town in Hispania or present-day southern Spain. (Luis García / CC BY-SA 3.0)
The Romans were so fascinated by glassblowing that they eventually used this technique to make some of the first glass windows. Around 100 AD, the Romans were interested in using glass to create see-through windows, though they had some issues with producing flat sheets of glass. They decided to try a glassblowing technique in which semi-molten glass was blown into an orb before the ends were cut off, forming a cylinder of glass. The cylinder would then be split down the middle and laid flat to produce a straight sheet of glass for a window!
The Romans’ love for glassblowing did not end here. They continued to use these learned techniques to produce their own bottles, jars, and vases, some of which were luxurious enough to have special shapes like animals. Romans continued to trade with Middle Eastern glassblowers to get their hands on pieces they couldn’t yet produce on their own and to continue getting new ideas for their own pieces.
An elegant, Murano vase masterpiece from around 1600 AD, which is now part of the State Hermitage Museum collection in Saint Petersburg, Russia. (I, Sailko / CC BY-SA 3.0)
From Europe’s Vases to America’s Glass Houses
By the Middle Ages, Europe’s biggest blown glass center was in Venice. Rather than using the glass shops set up at the borders between Europe and the Middle East, Europeans chose to invest in Venice’s glassblowing instead. Murano, an island just north of Venice, began to establish its own blown glassmakers as well. It was here that some of the first crystal-clear fine glassware was produced using new molds. Much of this glassware was originally in the shape of animal horns to drink out of, and eventually, they evolved to include religious symbols around the 6th and 7th centuries AD.
This blown glass popularity continued even into the 17th century when Europe began to make more glass window panes using the same technique as the Romans centuries earlier. Many of these window panes still had bubbles, distortions, or sand debris in them, but they were effective, nonetheless.
Venetian glassmaking even made its way to the Americas in 1608, when the Virginia Company of London attempted to establish a glasshouse in Jamestown. Unfortunately, this project failed several times due to economic factors and climate issues. It wasn’t until the 18th century when the Quakers assisted German colonist Caspar Wistar that the first successful glasshouse was established.
Throughout the 19th century, little changes were made when it came to glassmaking. Blown glass took a backseat to sheeted glass, which had developments such as hot glass presses in the 1820s. This helped create sheets without the need for blowing glass first. Glass tables and pieces of chandeliers took precedence over handcrafted blown glass artwork. However, this doesn’t mean blown glass was eliminated entirely.
At the beginning of the 20th century, innovator Michael J. Owens created the first-ever automatic glass-blowing machine. This machine could be used to commercially blow glass to form bottles but was eventually used to mass produce lightbulbs! In the 1950s, glassmakers moved away from the glass presses that replaced blown glass cylinders and began to use the float glass method to produce windows. Glass would be poured into containers of liquid tin, which allowed the glass to spread and float on top of the tin and form a clear sheet. Though glassblowing was no longer used to make items like windows, it was still essential for making bottles, jars, tubes, and lightbulbs.
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Modern and contemporary glassblowing has also become an artform that is similar to the ceramic arts in some ways. This vintage abstract blown glass vessel was made by California artist and teacher Dr. Robert Fritz, one of the founding fathers of the mid-20th-century studio glass movement. (Lisa Darcele Huff / Public domain)
What a Centerpiece: Glassblowing in the Modern Era
Though glassblowing has historically been used to create essential objects such as bowls and vases, glassblowing in the modern age is seen primarily as an art form. This shift in perception towards blown glass occurred in the 1960s due to the “studio glass movement,” which encouraged artists to use glass as an art medium. The movement was started by Harvey Littleton and Dominick Labino, a ceramics professor and glass scientist respectively, who held two sessions on glassblowing at the Toledo Museum of Art.
At these sessions, the facilitators allowed participants to melt glass in a small furnace and produce their own blown glass art pieces. This encouraged other artists to begin installing small furnaces in their own art studios for the purpose of creating blown glass art pieces. The movement took off, particularly with sculpture artists, who would often band together to create giant, intricate glass pieces that required the collaboration of multiple artists at a time.
Beyond art, glass is still an essential product used in science, engineering, and medicine. A useful semiconductor, glass is often used in various modern technologies that require specific shaping to be effective. In many of these cases, glassblowing and molds are still used to create many of these pieces, though most are now blown by machines thanks to Michael Owens and his bottle blower.
The “studio glass movement” is still ongoing and has become a staple in the art world internationally. Using glass to produce three-dimensional artworks has been a fascinating challenge for many artists, both young and old, and impressive pieces can be seen in art museums worldwide. Smaller pieces, however, can be found at both art shops and online for those interested in collecting these beautiful pieces.
In the course of over 2000 years, the process of glassblowing hasn’t changed much. With the exception of Owens’ machine, glassblowing by hand is still very much the same, using glass, blowpipes, and the occasional pair of shears to produce some of the most intricate art pieces seen throughout history. As time goes on, we will be sure to see some more incredible work done by glassblowers throughout the world. Who knows, perhaps you’ll take it on someday too!
Top image: Glassblowing processs, with a ball of glass being heated by a kiln. Source: SvetlanaSF / Adobe Stock
By Lex Leigh
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