Tradition: A History of Glass Blowing
We take a lot of pride in what we make and the beauty these pieces add to the world. Glass blowing adds an artistic value and a form of expression that is a lot more than the sum of its parts. But we’re also proud of our work carrying on the tradition of glass blowing started by ingenious artisans thousands of years ago.
The world needs beautiful things. The history of our craft goes back to the first century BCE, and in spite of the myriad advances in technology and materials, the basics of glass blowing remain largely unchanged from the earliest days of innovation. We love the idea of thinking about the birth of this art form as more than art; while it seems elemental now, these types of advances were technological revelations, akin to improving processor speeds today or developing electric vehicles.
Glass blowing got its start along the Syro-Palestinian coast and quickly spread across the Mediterranean and across the northern coast of Africa, with workshops popping up in Egypt within just a few decades. That accelerated spread of technology, likely pushed by the seafaring Phoencians and implemented by the Romans as well, highlights a few things. First, it really underscores the need for a more flexible, expressive, and accessible form of making glass; artisans were quick to use the technology to create both practical, everyday items like drinkware, as well as more expressive and decorative pieces. Second, it shows how closely these regions and indeed empires were connected through trade, no different than the world is today.
As is often the case, the center of the technology shifted to locations with a strong industrial and trade base, and in just a few hundred years, the Venetians had really claimed glass blowing as their own. Centered on the small island of Murano, the Venetians specialized in fine glass drinkware, crafting the wide array of vessels we might now associate with drinking wines, sparkling wines, liquors, and more. Over the years, glass blowing remained a fixture in Europe, but through trade, reached nearly every part of the globe over the ensuing decades. The technique survived the Silk Road to China and Japan and remained a treasured art form in the growing courts and empires in what is now the Middle East. In a sense, the technique was ubiquitous, creating practical pieces for drinkware and other needs even in locations that, prior to its introduction, may not have put much emphasis on those types of items.
Glass remained a fixture of the rich, who most likely drank primarily from pewter, porcelain or ceramics, silver or golden goblets. As a vessel, glass is a far superior vessel to these materials, most of which would have been either coated or plated with another material to even be useful. Metals are especially poor materials as the dinner table; silver and untreated steel react terribly to any type of acid, turning black and imparting plenty of bitter flavors. Glass is easier to clean, lighter, and less expensive in most locations.
The Industrial Revolution also impacted the focus of glass blowing. At the turn of the century, a man named Michael Owen invented an automated glass blowing machine to mass-produce a vital new product that played a vital role in the electrification of the world and brought illumination to the masses: the light bulb. The contraption was capable of producing over a million bulbs a day! His patent in 1904 was a huge step forward in the push to bring electric lights to city streets and urban centers, lowering the endemic levels of coal dust and pollution from countless candles and fires in big cities.
Today, both industrial, automated glass blowing and our artisan techniques continue to create valuable and prized pieces that balance function with beauty. Just as important, small centers like Glass Academy are carrying on the tradition of passing down these techniques and stories from generation to generation; for centuries, these secrets have traveled across time from father to son, and now mother to daughter, as a sort of connective tissue that links us back thousands of years.
Ready to learn these techniques yourself? Join a class, bring a friend, or book a private session with your friends!