An itinerant glassworker was a lampworker (or flameworker) who traveled from town to town performing for audiences, much like a member of a circus or a traveling theater troupe.
For more than 300 years, itinerant glassworkers entertained and educated crowds on the art, science, and skill of glassmaking, and the dizzying array of wonders that could be made of glass. These artisans contributed to a tradition that lives on today in flameworking demonstrations at museums, studios, and other attractions.
A typical itinerant glassworker show included three main elements:
- Demonstrations of lampworking techniques such as glassblowing, spinning, and working.
- Showpieces such as elaborate glass models and scientific experiments.
- Displays of glass objects that audiences could purchase or were given with the price of admission.
Here is a rough timeline of the history of itinerant glassworkers:
1670s-1800s: Earliest known performers
As early as the 1670s, itinerant glassworkers performed in Europe. There are few records for this period; most are from the United Kingdom. These early artisans established the blueprint for itinerant glassworker shows going forward. They performed for royalty and tavern-goers alike, and positioned themselves as entertainment suitable for all audiences. Most demonstrated solo, and they typically offered practical items for sale alongside more fanciful objects. They did not list admission prices on their handbills or in newspaper advertisements, so it is unclear whether onlookers had to pay to watch their demonstrations.
1800s-1830s: Glassworkers demonstrate in Europe
Based on surviving evidence, the number of itinerant performers and the popularity of their shows increased, especially in the United Kingdom. Glassworkers demonstrated in large towns like London, Glasgow, and Bath. They also traveled through the countryside visiting small towns and villages. Several first-hand accounts from audience members survive from this period, documenting the public’s fascination with the art of glass. These glassworkers created models based on famous landmarks and scenes that their audiences would have recognized. Some offered custom gifts such as the likeness of any dog in glass.
1810s-1850s: Glassworkers come to North America
Eighteenth-century Americans, influenced by their Puritan backgrounds, often shunned traveling entertainers and educators of any sort, some going so far as to outlaw circuses, traveling menageries, and acting troupes. Once those restrictions were lifted, entertainers found success touring cities along the East Coast. The earliest known performance in the United States by an itinerant glassworker was in New York City in 1819. More European and American-born glassworkers followed, touring large cities like Washington, D.C., Boston, and New Orleans, as well as small villages and towns. Glassworkers continued to tour in Europe as well.
1840s-1890s: The rise of troupes and the glass steam engine
The Woodroffe brothers, three of the best-known glassworkers of this period, helped to establish new traditions in the trade with the formation of glassworking troupes and the popularization of glass steam engines. This was the heyday for itinerant glassworkers all over the world. Their shows were well-attended attractions in towns, at world’s fairs, in circuses, and in museums, and they traveled to places like South Africa, Indonesia, and Tasmania. This was also the time in which women-led troupes traveled in their highest numbers, including those of Madam Nora, Madam Anderson, and Madam J. Reith.
1900s-1930s: The advent of mass entertainment
With the increased availability of entertainment technology such as phonographs, radio, movies, and later, television, as well as faster and cheaper transportation, potential audiences had more options for how to spend their leisure time. Because of this, itinerant performers of all types were forced to adapt. Many still went on tour, but others began to rely more heavily on appearances alongside other attractions. Some formed troupes with other types of entertainers or created dime museums. This was the beginning of the end for those lampworkers who could survive by leading a truly itinerant lifestyle.
1940s-1970s: From performers to artists
Most of the remaining performers grew roots, and the itinerant lifestyle all but died out. Families of flameworkers opened shops or contracted with attractions like Disney World. Other glassworkers demonstrated at museums like the Corning Museum of Glass or stayed close to home. With the advent of the Studio glass movement, many flameworkers distanced themselves from the itinerant tradition. They began to establish themselves as members of the fine arts/crafts world and didn’t want to be associated with glassworkers who demonstrated flameworking at state fairs and shopping malls, making what they saw as kitsch or low-quality glasswork.
1950s-today: New performers
The tradition of glass demonstrations continues in museums, at studios, and with mobile hotshop programs like GlassLab and GlassBarge (both projects of the Corning Museum of Glass). Flameworkers are eager to learn more about the history of their craft, and a new generation of flameworkers are inspired by their itinerant predecessors. Some create models inspired by glass steam engines, while others find innovative ways to make flameworking more mobile. Still others recognize the value of this part of lampworking history and document it through articles, exhibitions, book chapters, and websites. A new awareness of itinerant glassworkers and their legacy is emerging.
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