The History of Glass

2022 International Year of Glass

2022 has been declared the “International Year of Glass” by the United Nations General Assembly. This year we celebrate the essential role that glass plays in society. At the Reading Public Museum, our collection of glass numbers in the hundreds. We are taking this opportunity to share selections from that collection to highlight the beauty and functionality of glass throughout history.

Our broad collection includes utilitarian objects such as bowls and decanters, decorative art spanning both artistic form and function, and glass sculptures which push the boundaries of the medium.

Balsamarium (0099/0200)Reading Public Museum

According to archaeological evidence, the first glass vessels were created around 3500 BCE. The once slow and laborious production process was made significantly easier with the invention of the blowpipe in the 1st century BCE

Balsamarium (0099/0200)Reading Public Museum

Glass production flourished throughout the Roman Empire, with utilitarian Balsamarii such as these being produced to hold lotions and perfumed oils. Balsamarii were often gifted to the dead, therefore earning them the name "tear bottles."

Crucifixion, with Dr. Peter Baumgartner and His Family (1524) by Hans WertingerReading Public Museum

By the 7th century, glass makers were producing small pieces of window glass, and by the arrival of the Gothic style in the 12th century windows were elaborately colored and decorated. These glass panels are attributed to Hans Wertinger alone, or to Wertinger and his workshop.

Virgin and Christ Child, with Anna Von Trenbach and Family (1524) by Hans WertingerReading Public Museum

They were commissioned by Peter Baumgartner (c. 1450 - after 1523), a doctor in both canon and civil law, and his wife, Anna von Trenbach, to adorn the family burial chapel at the parish church in Mining, Austria.

Stiegel-type Flask or Pocket Bottle (1770) by attributed to Henry William Stiegel Glassworks, Manheim, Lancaster Co., PAReading Public Museum

Henry William Stiegel arrived in Philadelphia around 1750, and within a decade became a very prosperous ironmaster. He built furnaces in Berks and Lancaster County, PA, and following a boycott of British glass, began producing the product himself. 

In 1768 he built a glassworks in Manheim, PA where he made utilitarian glass vessels, sometimes with enamel decoration. Less than ten years after his incredible success, tastes changed to prefer imported tableware and Stiegel's business collapsed.

Pair of Covered Urns (1775/1825)Reading Public Museum

In the 18th century, Irish glass makers combined techniques learned from Venetian glass artisans with a unique recipe involving calcinated flints and pebbles, and lead oxide as a flux. The result was a glass that, when cut, refracted more light than ever before. 

From 1780-1825, British tariffs were temporarily lifted and Irish manufacturers exported their glass in great quantities. Americans purchased the imported glass for its reputation and beauty, using it in parlors and dining rooms. 

Plate (1840) by Boston and Sandwich Glass Company, Sandwich, MAReading Public Museum

  In the late 18th and early 19th century, American glass artisans sought opportunities to create products inspired by the popularity of Irish cut glass. By the 1820s, glass makers were experimenting with machine pressed glass as a cheaper way of emulating the look of cut glass.

Cheaply producing glass with a cut appearance made beautiful tableware available to middle-class citizens at a reasonable price.  One of the most successful factories in pioneering the pressed glass technique was the Boston and Sandwich Glass Company in Sandwich, MA.

Christmas Light (1830/1850)Reading Public Museum

By the mid 19th century and throughout the Victorian era, tastes changed from a preference for cut glass to colored and ornately decorated glass. Production became faster and cheaper with advances in machinery to meet the growing American population's demand for household goods.

These glasses, called "Christmas Lights" or "lanterns" were suspended and illuminated by a wick attached to a piece of wood that floated in oil atop water to decorate for Christmas and other celebrations.

Favrile Dish (1900) by studio of Louis Comfort Tiffany (American, 1848 - 1933)Reading Public Museum

In the mid 1890s, Louis Comfort Tiffany patented the process to manufacture 'favrile' (from the old French word for handmade) art glass, inspired by the Roman and Syrian iridescent glass he saw on display at the Victoria and Albert Museum during a trip to London years prior.

 In comparison to other iridescent glass, favrile color and iridescence is part of the glass itself rather than a coating.

D'Orsay - 19, Le Lys Scent Bottle (1922) by René Jules LaliqueReading Public Museum

Best known for his work in art glass, René Lalique's life and career spanned the Art Nouveau and Art Deco movements. His jewelry and glass designs at the turn of the 20th century included flowing lines and vegetal forms, popular motifs associated with the Art Nouveau aesthetic.

St. Christopher (sujet religieux) (1928) by René Jules LaliqueReading Public Museum

In the decades that followed, Lalique's designs became more geometric, symmetrical, and streamlined as the Art Deco style took hold.

Dappled Chalk Violet Ikebana with Fuchsia Frog Foot (2002) by Dale ChihulyReading Public Museum

Contemporary artist Dale Chihuly combines the art of glass blowing with large scale sculpture. Active since the 1960s, his most significant contributions to the discipline have been to emphasize the natural forces of heat, gravity, and centrifugal force in the creation of glass.

His art strikes a balance between conscious intention and chance occurrence.  While much of his work is inspired by the natural world, Chihuly seeks to emulate the process of nature, rather than nature itself.

Credits: Story

To view more glass from the permanent collection of the Reading Public Museum, please visit

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
Google apps