THE NEW WORLD dissolving of distinctions touched the intimacies of daily life. Of this, there is no more vivid or more neglected example than the story of glass. For glass gave a new, uncertain meaning to the wall, which now became something it had never been before; this in turn made something quite new of glass. The consequence for everyday experience was to give a new ambiguity to where people were and to confuse the boundaries of place.
The century after the Civil War vastly expanded the uses of iron and steel, and found widespread new uses for a fluid masonry, at least as old as the Romans, called concrete. These opaque materials made possible new forms that soared and reached, and so the shapes of buildings were extended and freed. But because glass was transparent it transformed the very meaning of indoors and outdoors, and the relations between them. Glass was a miracle material, which made it possible to be outdoors when you were indoors, to enjoy the flood of sun and daylight while you were sheltered. It would allow Americans to protect themselves against wind and weather, against heat and cold, while it liberated their vision.
The story of glass in the United States is all the more dramatic because glass was so ancient a material, whose meaning was so recently and so quickly transformed. In the history of technology the oldest arts are those which change most slowly. The ancient Egyptians used glass for the glazing of soapstone beads and to make imitation precious stones; glass-blown vessels were widely known in the Mediterranean before the birth of Jesus. During the Middle Ages, techniques were elaborated to make fancy containers, chandeliers, and small mirrors. By the thirteenth century, when Venice was the glassmaking center of Europe, the glassmaker’s secrets were counted among the city’s treasures. Venetians found a way to make a pure, colorless, and transparent glass, which was then fashioned into fragile objects to be prized in palaces. Glass, a raw material of filigreed luxury, was treated as a kind of transparent silver.
Only gradually did glass come to be used for windows. In buildings of the early Middle Ages, windows were few and small, for glass was expensive and flat glass could be made only with difficulty and in small sizes. The vivid stained-glass windows of the medieval Gothic cathedrals of France and England displayed the limitations as well as the powers of the glassmakers. It was easy to make colored glass (the color came from the quantity of different “impurities”), but hard to make perfectly clear glass. These small pieces of colored flat glass offered the architects an opportunity to use lead and to arrange them into elegant compositions. Around the sun-drenched Mediterranean, where stained-glass windows first flourished, stained glass appealed for its ability to keep out the hot sunshine while it transformed sunlight into ornamental images. Leaded windows of small panes, imitated in the twentieth century by neoromantic architects, were originally made that way not for ornamental reasons, but because larger panes were not available. Even into the nineteenth century, tax laws in the Old World found it convenient to tax household property not by square footage or the total construction cost, but by the number of its windows. The English window tax (1696 to 1851) became a model for the French door and window tax (1798 to 1917). And the connection between the number of your windows and your ability to pay was not entirely fanciful. Glass windows were not for the common people.
IN MODERN AMERICA, just as ice was changed from an item of personal luxury consumption into a commodity for everybody, so too was glass. Democratizing glass in the United States meant making it another way of removing spatial distinctions, and a means for conquering the seasons. From being the precious substance of the decorative arts, prized for its colorful, reflective brilliance, glass became a basic building material and a universal medium of vision. Again, the great theoretical discoveries and many of the basic new techniques came from abroad, mostly from Europe. But by the twentieth century the American genius for organization and diffusion had made glass into an unprecedented necessity for unprecedented numbers of people and for unprecedented purposes. Before this could happen, more economical techniques of glassmaking were required.
The commonest way of making sheet glass throughout the eighteenth century was the “crown” window-glass process, so called because the product bore a “crown,” or bull’s eye. This was an elaborate process commonly requiring a team of ten men and boys. The globe of glass already blown by the pipe was rolled on an iron table until it had a conical shape. Then a solid iron rod was attached to the flat base of the cone (opposite the blowpipe) and the blowpipe was removed, leaving the hot glass cone open at the small end. The most skilled member of the team then spun the cone rapidly in a reheating furnace until centrifugal force caused it to flash out into a flat disk, still adhering to the iron rod at the center (or “crown”). At that instant the glassmaker removed the disk from the furnace, and to retain its flat shape, kept whirling it until it became cooler and stiffer. An assistant then cut the glass disk free from the rod so it could be taken to a kiln for annealing. The circular sheets that could be made by this process were relatively small and became still smaller if they were cut square. And of course they always bore the tell-tale bull’s-eye or “crown” in the middle. Because the glass was blown, it was uneven in thickness and thin at the edges.
Until about 1830 the bull’s-eye process was the usual way to make glass for windows. It was occasionally supplemented by another, equally complicated and difficult technique, the hand-cylinder process. By this method, globes of hot glass, which had been produced by the glass blowers, were elongated into cylinders by being swung in a deep trench (sometimes reaching a depth of ten feet). The cylinder was then slit lengthwise, flattened out, and allowed to cool. This required special skill in the blower, who had to make a cylinder of uniform thickness.
Until the mid-nineteenth century, too, the glassmaker, like the alchemist or the physician, possessed a prestige and mystique. Glass-making was a world of traditional formulae and secret processes, and unlike other men who worked with their hands, the glassmaker held the status of “gentleman” While the noble and the wealthy remained the customers for glassware, glassmaking itself remained a monopoly, and was perhaps the most aristocratic of the crafts.
The American situation from the beginning offered opportunities for the glassmaker. A whole glass plant could be built on the personal knowledge of a single glassmaker. And the main raw materials required—sand, and wood for the furnace—were abundant on the eastern seaboard. As a result, glassmaking was probably the first industry established in British America. Polish and German glass-makers were brought to Virginia in 1608, followed by Italian glass-makers a few years later, and before the mid-seventeenth century, Massachusetts Bay was offering land to attract its own glassmakers. These craftsmen made bottles, lamps, tableware, a few pieces of window glass, and incidentally provided some glass beads for the Indian trade. By 1740 a German immigrant, Caspar Wistar, was operating a glassworks with four experienced Belgian glass blowers, to whom he soon added glass blowers from Germany and Portugal. His son Richard carried on the works, and in the tax-troubled year 1769 advertised in Franklin’s Pennsylvania Gazette that “our glass is of American manufacture—and it is of interest to America to encourage her own manufactures, more especially those upon which duties have been imposed solely to raise revenue.” Richard Wistar actually used the slogan “Buy American Manufactured Goods.”
About the same time another German immigrant, the flamboyant Henry William Stiegel, who had imported English and German glass-makers, was producing his own elegant glassware. Drinking glasses, lenses, measures, perfume bottles, and other luxury items came from his large glass factory in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. His grand manner of living earned him the apocryphal title of “Baron von Stiegel,” and the beauty of his product made Stiegel glassware precious collector’s items in later centuries. But since his glassware was still made to satisfy the expensive tastes of an Old World aristocracy, Stiegel had trouble marketing his product here. He went bankrupt, languished in a debtors’ prison, and finally died in poverty. In the age of the American Revolution, a new society on the edge of a continental wilderness had needs more urgent than for the rich blues and purples of Stiegelware. When a prosperous American glass industry came into being, it was for a much wider and more characteristically American market.
SO LONG AS the making of sheets of glass was tied to the ancient, skilled arts of the glass blower, so long as the preparation of flat glass depended on human lung power, the reshaping of the material from a luxury-treasure into a democratic medium for transforming space was impossible. By the mid-nineteenth century some new mechanical methods of making flat glass had been developed in Europe, and these were beginning to displace the glass blower. In the twentieth century, American techniques and machines would open a new age for one of the world’s most ancient crafts.
As early as the seventeenth century, a revolutionary new way of making flat glass was in use in France. A lump of molten glass was poured onto a “casting table,” and while still molten, was pressed out by a roller which forced it between guides, fixed so as to insure an even surface and uniform thickness. The glass was left to anneal or cool for about ten days, then both surfaces were ground down by a smaller plate of glass, and finally polished with felt-covered boards and rollers. This technique had been imported to England before the end of the eighteenth century, but did not displace the hand-cylinder process. As a result of improvements in the hand-cylinder process, by the mid-nineteenth century it had become possible to make sheets of glass eight times the size of those known before. But the processes remained tricky and laborious, partly because of the difficulty of making durable casting tables that would not crack under extreme heat. It was still hard to conceive that glass could ever become a universal building material.
But in 1851 for the international exhibition in London, Joseph Paxton, a gardener and horticulturist, designed a structure like a greenhouse. As an observer noted at the time, it was “the first great building which was not of solid masonry construction.” Paxton had become famous in 1849 when he succeeded in bringing the exotic equatorial South American water lily to bloom indoors. In the exhibition building, which he had designed following the example of earlier greenhouses in France and his own conservatories in England, Paxton gave a new prominence to glass. The whole construction was planned around the largest standard sheet of glass, then four feet long. This “Crystal Palace,” as it came to be called, housed the first great international exhibit to show, in the words of Prince Albert, how modern industry was leading toward “the union of the human race.” The exhibition structure itself, enclosing a ground area about four times that of St. Peter’s in Rome, was by far the most extensive single building the world had seen. It foreshadowed how technology would remove the barriers of space. The whole vast building, a dazzled spectator exclaimed, “dissolves into a distant background where all materiality is blended into the atmosphere…. I call the spectacle incomparable and fairylike. It is a Midsummer Night’s Dream seen in the clear light of midday.”
Glass was now revealed on a grand scale as a medium that could erase old barriers. But before glass could shape the experience of the bulk of the American people, there had to be new mechanized techniques for making glass cheaply and in large quantities. Even before the Crystal Palace was up, Sir Henry Bessemer, later of steelmaking fame, had experimented with a revolutionary process for producing sheets of glass by passing the molten glass through rollers. The purpose was to find a continuous process, a flow technology for glass, which would avoid the need to make glass batch by batch and sheet by sheet. New tank furnaces were designed to produce a steady flow of molten glass which could be somehow flattened into long broad ribbons of uniform thickness. Sir William Siemens, the German-born inventor who emigrated to England, devised new regenerative gas-fired furnaces which reused the gases emitted by the heated glass to provide a continuous flow of large quantities of molten glass. Such gas-fired furnaces came only slowly to the United States, partly because wood was cheaper here and the glassworks had been smaller. By the 1880’s, Chance Brothers, the pioneer British glass manufacturers, were passing molten glass between pairs of rollers to produce sheets, which were then ground and polished.
About the same time an ingenious method was devised to draw a flat sheet of glass direct from the furnace. A “bait,” or sheet of metal, was dipped into the molten glass, and as the glass adhered to the bait, the bait was drawn upward to pull the glass out into a sheet. But as the molten glass was drawn upward the sheet tended to narrow and thicken into a thread, which made it hard to keep the withdrawing sheet of glass uniform in width or thickness. An elaborate cooling system was required to solidify the glass into the proper shape. The French were producing glass commercially in this way before World War I.
By the end of the nineteenth century, Americans were beginning to take the lead in organizing glass production and in developing new machinery. The rise of canning had increased the demand for jars, and there were numerous American improvements—for example, Mason’s screw-top jar, which was patented in 1858. But the first important American contribution was in devising semi-automatic machines for making bottles. These were the most important new machines since the ancient invention of the glass-blowing iron for the making of glass containers. At the age of ten Michael J. Owens, son of a poor West Virginia miner, was shoveling coal into the furnace of a Wheeling glass factory. At the age of fifteen he was a skilled glass blower. Then, while working as manager of Edward Drummond Libbey’s glass factory in Toledo, Ohio, Owens developed his pioneer bottle-blowing machine. Owens’ essential idea was beautifully simple. From the surface of a pot of molten glass, a piston pump sucked a heated lump into a mold, and then the pump was reversed to blow the glass into the shape of a bottle. Owens patented this process by 1895, and within a decade had devised a completely automatic machine. On the perfected Owens machine (which was made of more than nine thousand parts), two men could produce twenty-five hundred bottles an hour. It was this machine, too, that would help light up the nation by making possible the quantity production of electric-light bulbs.
Owens, who had no business experience, had the good luck to acquire his boss as collaborator. For Libbey, a New Englander who had inherited a glassworks from his father, was a businessman of energy, imagination, and organizing ability. In 1888 he had set up a new factory in Toledo, where he was attracted both by the large quantities of natural gas for firing the furnaces, and by the good glass sand found in the neighborhood. Libbey, though no inventor, knew a revolutionary invention when he saw one. He financed Owens’ efforts to perfect his machine and actually put it to work in his factories. He then made Owens his partner and organized a firm to manufacture Owens’ bottle-making machines for a world market. Libbey organized the Toledo Museum of Art in 1901, used his fortune to erect its first building in 1912, and helped make it a model for the dynamic role of museums in American education.
In contrast to bottle making, the machine making of flat glass, surprisingly enough, proved to be more complicated. The earnings of Owens’ new bottle machine financed a new plate-glass industry when, in 1912, Libbey bought the patents of Irving Wightman Colburn for manufacturing sheet glass and then supported him while he perfected his processes. Colburn, also a New Englander, came from a Fitchburg, Massachusetts, textile-manufacturing family and very early turned the inventive bent of his family toward the new world of electricity. At the age of twenty-two he had started the town’s first agency for the sale of electrical equipment, he installed its first electric-lighting and telephone systems, and then organized his own company for manufacturing electrical equipment. Moving west to Toledo, Colburn somehow became engrossed in glass manufacture, and gave the last nineteen years of his life to solving its problems.
The Colburn Window-Glass Machine was hailed by the Scientific American in 1908 as “the first machine for drawing window-glass continuously in any width.” Colburn had devised a way, while drawing upward a sheet of molten glass from a glass furnace, to control the width of the sheet as it was pulled. The obvious problem was still that molten glass, like all viscous substances, tended to narrow to a thread as it was elongated upward. Colburn’s clever device, which he spent years perfecting, was simply a set of rotating fire-clay cylinders on the surface of the molten-glass tank, one on each side of the emerging sheet. By rotating these in opposite directions and away from the middle of the emerging sheet, Colburn could keep the glass ribbon stretched as it emerged, and at the same time produce a glass free from wavy lines and blemishes. After the sheet was drawn vertically for a few feet it was reheated enough to be bent over a horizontal roller, and then it was pulled in a continuous process through an annealing oven. “The process is remarkable,” the Scientific American observed, “for the quality of its product. The surface of the glass has a beautiful mirror-like fire polish far superior to the blown window-glass which we see every day. Even plate glass has a surface no better…. the spheres in the working chamber can be adjusted to produce glass of any thickness. We have seen specimens of glass made by this machine almost as thin as fine porcelain and other specimens almost as thick as plate glass.” In 1916 Colburn’s machines in the vast new factory of the Libbey-Owens Sheet Glass Company at Charleston, West Virginia, were turning out hundreds of square yards of plate glass in a continuous flow. A new era had arrived for one of man’s oldest materials: a new means for opening windows to the world, for giving Americans a new kind of indoor-outdoor experience.
The next stages simply improved the technology of flow. The Corning ribbon machine, for example, used the same rollers which drew out the molten glass to impress on the ribbon the shape of glass bulbs, into which puffs of compressed air were injected. Then techniques were devised for drawing the plate horizontally between water-cooled rollers. When the assembly-line production of automobiles required vast, fast quantities of glass in a continuous stream, Henry Ford built a glass-making machine at River Rouge from which a 51-inch-wide ribbon of glass for automobiles emerged uninterruptedly at the rate of three and a half miles per day for two years, to a total length of nearly two thousand miles; and the Libbey-Owens Glass Company became Libbey-Owens-Ford. The needs of the automobile for anti-glare glass, and especially for safety glass of various curved shapes, stirred glassmakers to a new range of products. The needs to soundproof and interline the automobile, and the search for simpler ways of making automobile bodies, produced fiberglass. Some even imagined that one day glass might displace steel as the basic material for cars. Meanwhile, glass did allow motorists to enjoy parlor comforts and indoor security as the landscape raced past.
BUT EVEN BEFORE glass was bringing the outdoors indoors, and changing the architecture of life on the move, it was transforming the walls of buildings. The first great school of American skyscraper construction, the “Chicago School,” was marked not only by its new uses of steel, but just as much by its pioneer use of glass. Steel framing, in place of heavy masonry, provided a new open framework for windows, of which Daniel Burnham, John Root, Louis Sullivan, and others took advantage. Even while Chicago architects like William Le Baron Jenney were still using cast iron, they began to put plate glass to dramatic new uses; for example, by designing wide panels to be filled with plate-glass windows. Contemporaries hailed Jenney’s Leiter Building (1889) as “a giant structure … healthy to look at, lightsome and airy while substantial… a commercial pile in a style undreamed of when Buonarroti erected the greatest temple of Christianity.” Daniel Burnham’s Reliance Building (1894) was described as “a glass tower fifteen stories high.” Louis Sullivan’s classic Carson, Pirie, Scott Building (1899–1904) was distinguished by its “Chicago windows,” as regular in width as the columned exterior of a Venetian palazzo, in which the dominant wall feature now was flat, transparent glass.
Glass became the basis of a new international style. In Germany, Walter Gropius and Mies van der Rohe (who were both later to come to America) and Le Corbusier in France played with glass in new ways. They used it for curtain walls, they exploited its brilliance and reflectiveness. By the mid-twentieth century the rhythmic, geometric glass wall had become the most prominent feature of the American skyscraper, and it was the basic material for “enclosing” man now that he had begun living and working in the high air.
With the mass production of large sheets of transparent glass, unimagined new possibilities were found in the ancient material. For glass is nonyielding under pressure, it can be bent many times without showing the “fatigue” common in metals, it resists corrosion, and the raw materials of which glass is made are practically limitless in supply. By the mid-twentieth century the new technology had produced a vast and unprecedented array: variable transmission glass, electroluminescent glass, electrically conducting glass, microporous glass with variable resistance to air flow, solar-energy-collecting glass, malleable glass of steel-like strength, and countless other varieties. Glass was even used to produce white “blackboards” to brighten schoolrooms. There were “variable transmittance” windows which automatically became lighter or darker as the intensity of the sun’s rays varied, and “limited vision” glass especially designed for acoustical and visual privacy “without total visual isolation.”
Glass became a commonplace and a key to modern home design. A symbol of the modern American spirit was this removal of the sharp visual division between indoors and outdoors, with its new peril of walking through a glass door by mistake. “Sliding glass doors,” one glass manufacturer advertised, “add new dimension to living by uniting the indoor-outdoor environment…. Glass makes smaller homes look bigger. On exterior walls it creates the dramatic indoor-outdoor flow looked for by homemakers. As room dividers, glass creates walls that close off and yet allows an open feeling.”
In America, in the twentieth century, a window was almost as much to look into as to look out of or to receive light from. Glass became a symbol of the American ambivalence about all kinds of walls. By mid-century, “picture window” meant “a large window in a house usually dominating the room or wall in which it is located, and often designed or decorated to present an attractive view as seen from inside or outside the house.”
Glass, which brought together indoors and outdoors and leveled the environment, became a medium of display, to excite and titillate everybody’s desires for all the objects which one’s fellow citizens possessed and which comprised the American Standard of Living. As we have seen, the light cast-iron frames of the early department stores used large sheets of glass to offer ground-floor windows, making the merchandise its own vivid advertisement, and by the mid-nineteenth century “show window” had entered the language. The ambiguous expression “window dressing,” the concern of specialized artists and technicians, was on its way, and “window-shopping” became a new form of consumer onanism.
In these and countless other ways, glass expressed the magic of the new technology, the democratization of things. The fragile luxury material of the Older World became a sturdy medium for erasing the distinctions between places, between indoors and outdoors, and so, too, for blurring the distinctions among people.