Science, art, skill, and beauty! All were on display in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, in April 1880. Woodroffe’s Original Bohemian Glass Blowers enticed potential customers inside with a window display of glass objects then dazzled them with lampworking demonstrations and their working glass steam engine, Fairy Queen.
The Woodroffe brothers – George, Charles, and William – had a major impact on the itinerant glassworker trade. Among other things, they were some of the first to travel with troupes of glassworkers rather than alone or in pairs. Their many groups traveled around the United States and the world during the 50+ years they were active, making them some of the best-known glassworkers of the period. This particular troupe was led by William Woodroffe, the youngest brother.
Harrisburg, the capital of Pennsylvania, was dominated by the steel and railroad industries in the late 19th century. In 1880, census takers recorded more than 30,000 people living in the city.1 Woodroffe and his troupe set up their lampworking exhibition near the Susquehanna River at 109 Market Street, in a building previously used by Patterson’s Carpet Store. Today, the spot holds Dauphin County buildings, but 140 years ago it was close to the intersection of two street cars – likely a location where many people came and went.
After they closed their exhibition in mid-April, they traveled to Lebanon, Pennsylvania, and then on to Reading, Pennsylvania.
For 15 cents, spectators received an “elegant present” and the chance to see Woodroffe’s troupe in action. Once again, the advertisement is short on details, but articles about the troupe from the period provide some insights. An article in The Daily Union-Leader describes watching a troupe member “twist, blow, contract, expand, and otherwise put [glass] into ingenious shape.”2 Another article from the Harrisburg Telegraph states, “The wonderful manner in which these skilled glass blowers can manipulate the brittle substance is well worth a visit to see.”3
Of course, a major draw would have likely been the glass steam engine, Fairy Queen. The troupe claimed this engine was the largest steam-powered glass model in existence, and that it had been on display at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The Woodroffe brothers did have at least three steam engines on display at that particular world’s fair, although surviving advertisements identify those models as the Crystal Gem, the Australasia, and Excelsior. It is possible they added the Fairy Queen at a later date, although – considering that any number of other troupes claimed the same history for their glass engines – it is equally possible that Woodroffe’s troupe is stretching the truth to bolster interest in their show.
- Campbell Gibson, “Population of the 100 Largest Cities and Other Urban Places In The United States: 1790 to 1990.” United States Census Bureau. June 1998, accessed 13 May 2019.
- “Artists in Glass.” The Daily Union-Leader. October 4, 1879. Source: Newspapers.com
- “The Bohemian Glass Blowers.” Harrisburg Telegraph. April 14, 1880. Source: Newspapers.com