In Sparkling Company: A New Book Brings New Perspectives on Glass

The Corning Museum of Glass has a mission to “inspire people to see glass in a new light.” This is definitely what I needed when, in 2016, I arrived from London as the Museum’s new Curator of European Glass. Typical of most historians and curators of decorative arts and material culture, I had little previous experience of glass and, as I stood in the galleries, looking at the serried ranks of English drinking vessels, I confess I struggled to summon enthusiasm. With the exception of some brightly enameled pieces, it seemed these vessels were intended, by their very clarity and understated design, to be inconspicuous. However, I knew this was an important period in glassmaking; the 18th century was a golden age for the perfection and production of British lead glass or “crystal” (an innovation introduced in the late 1670s that used lead oxide to create a particularly bright and clear glass, with a notable heft). From histories of dining and drinking, I also knew that the contents many of these vessels were intended to hold were not available to everyone. The types of glass most frequently found in museums would have been present only in the wealthiest of households, alongside expensive and desirable materials like silver, porcelain, lacquer, and mahogany. What place, then, did glass hold within the rich material culture of the British elite during this period?

Image of the stems of 15 wine glasses stood in a row left to right. Each stem has an intricate twist pattern of various colors inside.
English Twist Stem Group. CMoG (51.2.154, 51.2.232, 51.2.235, 51.2.236, 55.2.16, 60.2.1, 79.2.210, 79.2.360, 79.2.364, 79.2.81, 79.2.84)

I began to read 18th-century diaries and accounts, scouring the pages for references to glass. Before long, I found myself immersed in the courtesy literature of the period and began to note the common usage and interchangeability of the terms “polite” and “polished” and comparisons between well-polished individuals and a variety of glossy surface finishes. This, in turn, led me away from the more obvious realm of tableware and lighting to technological developments in the production of polished plate glass, used for windows and mirrors, and the transformative effects this type of glass had on architecture, interiors, and sociability. Finally, I began to understand the latent significance of the material during this period and was amazed at how glassy the 18th century really was. Glass, it seemed, symbolized the modernity (for better or for worse) of the British nation.

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Women in Glasshouses: Life in the Factories

On March 25, 1911, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York City caught fire and claimed the lives of 145 workers. Nearly all of these workers were young women. One of the most catastrophic workplace incidents in American history, this tragedy prompted changes to working conditions in factories. Conveniently, in the same year, the United States Bureau of Labor released a report on working conditions in glass factories across the country. The terrible and unsafe conditions that factory workers faced were finally gaining national attention.

This report, which surveyed 190 establishments, indicated that working conditions varied not only from factory to factory but also from room to room. Conditions were very much dependent on where workers were stationed and the type of work they did. The worst factories lacked proper ventilation, washrooms, or temperature control. Most factories consisted of one or two stories only and didn’t require a fire escape, but of the 22 factories that were taller than two stories, only 10 had a fire escape. The report also documents 21 workplace accidents, including a woman who got caught on a grinding belt and died. All of these conditions would make any safety officer shudder today.

Workers in decorating room. 1907. Fenton Art Glass Company Records. CMGL 705025

The 1911 report also provides a peek into what it was like to be a woman working in a glass factory at the turn of the century. Out of the nearly 55,000 people employed in glass factories during this time, 4,000 were women.

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Fire, Fear, and Protection: Glass Eye Beads at The Corning Museum of Glass

The uncertain times we are living in can leave us feeling anxious because people generally prefer having a sense of control and predictability in our lives. Historically, people have comforted themselves during stressful times by carrying a protective amulet. An amulet is an apotropaic object, meaning that it is believed to turn away evil forces. Ancient glass protective eye beads from the collection of The Corning Museum of Glass are examples of this type of object. This kind of dotted glass bead can be made by melting glass in the flame of a torch, winding the molten glass around a wire, and then carefully dabbing various colors of molten glass onto the bead. We now refer to this process as flamework.

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And Now For Something Completely Different (or, Don’t Mention the Pythons)

If someone asked, “Hey, remember the time John Cleese visited the Museum and blew glass?” you could be excused for doing a double-take and thinking “What, when?!” Well, strap in, because we’ve got a story for you, and the person who tells it best is William Gudenrath, Resident Advisor at The Studio of The Corning Museum of Glass.

Over the 26 years that Gudenrath has worked at The Studio, many famous faces have come and gone, but one has always stood out. You might know him as the brave but foolish Black Knight from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, or the incompetent hotelier Basil Fawlty, or simply as the legendary English actor and comedian, John Cleese.

William Gudenrath assisting John Cleese at the bench as they shape a glass flower.
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From CMoG with Love: Five Feel-Good Stories

The Corning Museum of Glass may be closed temporarily to guests and staff alike while the COVID-19 pandemic affects our community, but that doesn’t mean the work stops. Our staff and their families have been hard at work in many wonderful ways to ensure that they are doing everything they can to protect our institution, our collections, our communities, and ourselves while maintaining our position as a world leader on glass.

Here are just a few of the things that we’ve been up to.

Masks and gloves boxed up and ready for donation.

1. When the Museum temporarily closed to the public on Monday, March 16, 2020, and asked its staff to work from home, an assessment was made of ways that we could continue to operate and send aid to the local community. Our Operations team searched the campus and located 2,000 masks, 1,000 gloves, and some safety glasses, that could all be donated.

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CMoG Keeps You Busy: Things You Can Do at Home

Are you at home and in need of new sources of inspiration? Have you already exhausted your to-do list of house projects, cleaned the kitchen multiple times, finished several books, and asked everyone you know what’s good on Netflix? Well, don’t worry, The Corning Museum of Glass has some fresh ideas for you and the whole family.

We’ve searched our blog archive for a selection of unique things you can do from the comfort of your own home while still practicing social distancing, so let’s see what’s on the agenda for today.

 

Perhaps it’s time you dusted off all the old Pyrex you have stored away in various cupboards and hidden in the attic and gave everything a thorough clean.

Read this blog about how to correctly clean your Pyrex collection and restore everything to its former glory. Maybe you’ll want to start baking afterward!

 
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Connect with The Corning Museum of Glass from your Couch: A Guide to our Digital Offerings

Dear blog readers,   

We are in the midst of an unprecedented moment for museums and cultural institutions across the country. With widespread closures due to COVID-19, our most direct way to reach the public is no longer a viable option. We are all doing what we can to make sure the visitors who would normally walk through our doors know that they can still engage with us from the comfort of their homes.  

The Corning Museum of Glass

Currently, The Corning Museum of Glass is closed, and all scheduled classes, events, and programs are canceled until further notice. It’s vital that we do our part to promote social distancing and limit the spread of COVID-19. And while you’re doing your part to stick close to home, we know you’ll be in need of some educational entertainment.   

With our vast and myriad collection of online resources, we’ve got you covered.  

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The Corning Museum of Glass Partners on Glass Competition Show Blown Away 

The Corning Museum of Glass is thrilled to share news of an exciting collaboration on the forthcoming Netflix series, Blown Away, which will bring the art and beauty of glassblowing to television screens around the world. A visually compelling process often described as “mesmerizing” and “captivating,” glassblowing has never been the subject of any major TV programming—until now.  

The art glass competition show created by Marblemedia, an award-winning entertainment company based in Toronto, Canada, Blown Away features a group of 10 highly skilled glassmakers from North America creating beautiful works of art that are assessed by a panel of expert judges. One artist is eliminated each episode until a winner is announced in the tenth and final episode. A co-production with Blue Ant Media of Toronto, Blown Away will air on the Makeful channel in Canada before coming to the Netflix platform worldwide later this year.

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