A Glimpse into the History of Glassblowing

Denver glassblower Chris Bearden using blowtorch to create heady glass at 710 Studios in Northglenn, CO

We tend to take our custom glass pipes in Denver for granted, but we shouldn’t. The craft used to create them – glassblowing – is an ancient one that takes years to master, and the story of glassblowing is, in some ways, the story of civilization.

Baby Steps

Humans were aware of glass long before they learned how to make it. Stone Age man fashioned crude cutting tools from obsidian (a type of glass created when volcanic lava contacts sand) because it produced much sharper edges than could be achieved with stone. Later, the Aztecs (who had no knowledge of glassmaking) used obsidian, which they called Itzli, to create ultra-sharp spearheads.

Curiously, though, the complex art of glassblowing seems to precede the making of simple glass panes by something like a thousand years. This is counterintuitive since most crafts start with the simple and then proceed to the more complex. With glassmaking, there is evidence of glass-blown bottles in the Khuzestan province of what is now Iran dating back some 3,000 years. While the first glass panes did not appear in Rome until the first century AD, 1,000 years later.

Mastering the Art

Perhaps it’s not surprising that it was the Romans who also took the still obscure craft of glassblowing and turned it into what folks in Northglenn might recognize today when they go shopping for glass pipes.

Exactly when the Romans first engaged in glassblowing is unknown, but there is some evidence that suggests they learned the technique by watching craftsmen in what is now Syria around 10 AD. This makes a certain kind of sense since the ancient glassblowers of Khuzestan we mentioned above were just a few hundred miles down the Euphrates River from Syria.

Wherever they learned it though, the Romans took glassblowing to new heights. They used long metal tubes to blow the glass, in a process that any contemporary maker of custom glass pipes would recognize. Today, the world’s museums contain thousands of intact examples of the Roman glassblowers’ craft.

The Medieval Period and Beyond

The 5th century saw the beginning of the end of the Western Roman Empire. Following its slow, steady decline much of the knowledge that powered its rise and sustained its greatness was lost. (Concrete for instance, which the Romans invented, wasn’t rediscovered for over a thousand years.)

One thing that was not lost was the art of glassblowing. It had spread far and wide during the height of the empire and was well-established throughout Europe by the time Alaric and his Visigoths stormed the walls of Rome in 410 AD.

One of the reasons it’s believed the craft of glassblowing survived was because it did not require hordes of labor like marble quarrying, or sophisticated construction techniques like those used on imperial buildings.

On the Italian peninsula, glassblowing became a major source of income for the Venetians who would trade beautifully crafted glass items for spices and other commodities. Legend has it that, during the 12th century, there were more than 8,000 artisans in Venice engaged in glassblowing.

At some point, the Venetians became concerned that the number of glassblowers in their tiny island state posed a massive fire risk. As a result, they imposed restrictions on new glassblowers moving to the city, and all glassblowing activity was consolidated on the island of Murano where it was strictly controlled and the secrets of the craft jealously guarded.

Establishing Roots in the New World

Jamestown, established in 1607 in what is now Virginia, was the first permanent English settlement in the Americas, (although it ceased to exist by the start of the 18th century). Jamestown was established by English merchants who joined forces under the banner of the London Company.

These merchants were eager to see a return on their investment, and in order to jump-start economic activity, established a glasshouse in Jamestown tasked with creating jars, bottles and other glass blown items that could be sold and traded. In the long run, the glasshouse was no more successful than Jamestown as a whole, but the craft of glassblowing had gained a foothold in North America it would never relinquish.

The Birth of Modern Glassblowing

In the 18th and 19th centuries, glassblowing spread throughout the US. Much of the work produced during that time was utilitarian in style and reflected austere Protestant values. That all changed, however, in the late 19th century. That’s when a number of glassblowing artisans banded together and created what would become known as Art Nouveau glass.

Examples of this incredible stylistic breakthrough were exhibited at the Paris Exhibition of 1878 where they would influence Louis Comfort Tiffany (he of “Tiffany Lamps”) and send shockwaves through the art world that can still be felt today.

One of the areas where the influence of Art Nouveau glass can be felt most profoundly today is in what has become known as “heady glass”. The term heady glass typically refers to high-quality, intricately crafted glass objects, such as custom glass pipes, that are made in the US and express the imaginative and practical mastery of the glassblowers that create them. The name is used to distinguish this type of glass from scientific glass, which leaves little room for individual expression.

Into the Future

The craft of glassblowing is stronger than ever with a new generation of talented young artisans poised to carry the banner of their Venetian, Roman and Mesopotamian forebears in the days ahead.