Come one, come all, to see amazing feats of glassworking! For more than 300 years, talented, traveling 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. Add in a dancing competition or a beauty pageant and the event was a guaranteed hit. Intrigued? Here are six weird and wonderful things you might have seen at an itinerant glassworker’s show.
1. Working glass steam engines
Functional steam engines made of glass were the stars of the 19th-century itinerant glassworker’s show. Made of hundreds of small pieces, these dazzling engines fascinated audiences. They were both a feat of glassmaking and a method of demonstrating how steam power functioned during a time when real steam engines powered machinery and many modes of transportation. Soon after the first engines became popular, every traveling glassworking troupe had at least one of their own.
Glass Exhibition Featuring Spinning Wheel and Glass Steam Engine, 1904. Collection of the Rakow Research Library, The Corning Museum of Glass, CMGL 131372.
The Great Double Working Glass Steam Engine Fairy Queen!, 1861. Collection of the Rakow Research Library, The Corning Museum of Glass, CMGL 45696.
This is the earliest-known photographic image of a glass steam engine. The engine may be the Fairy Queen, and the man may be a member of one of the many Bohemian Troupes traveling the United States. Glass steam engine on display, 1861. Collection of the Rakow Research Library, The Corning Museum of Glass, CMGL 137821.
These glass engines were not simple models, but colorful, inventive delights. Their names alone conjure a sense of whimsy: the Fairy Queen, Excelsior, Queen of Beauty, the Australasia, the Crystal Gem. Troupes gave prizes to those who composed the best poems about their engines, and fans did not disappoint. Here are a few lines from a poem by William Somers:
When will wonders cease, we may justly enquire,
When we see a Glass Engine, complete and entire…
Incredulity starts, in most utter surprise,
We can hardly believe the plain sight of our eyes…
The steam from the boilers sends life to the heart,
And life it goes bounding throughout every part.
Several contemporary artists have been inspired by the glass steam engines and their makers, including Bandhu Dunham. His kinetic sculptures series includes The Crystal Gem, seen in motion here. Collection of The Corning Museum of Glass.
2. Glass thread spun at thousands of yards per minute
Today the word “fiberglass” brings to mind insulation, boats, and bathtubs. It’s manufactured in large quantities and used in all sorts of practical applications. But for many hundreds of years glass fibers were an integral part of itinerant glassworkers’ shows. As early as the 1600s, one glassworker advertised that he could spin “10,000 yards of glass in less than half an hour.” A century or two later, glassworkers were claiming they could spin a pound of glass into millions of yards of thread at the rate of thousands of yards a minute. The end result was “infinitely finer than silk and equally as elastic and flexible.”
Mr. Hermann demonstrates flameworking. The wheel on the left is for spinning glass fibers. Curiosity Highly Gratified Mr. Hermann, Artist in Glass. Hull, England: T. Topping, 1814. Collection of the Rakow Research Library, The Corning Museum of Glass, CMGL 112177.
A glassworker, possibly Mrs. F.A. Owen, holds up spun glass. You can see the wheel used to make the fibers to the left. Glass Exhibition Featuring Spinning Wheel and Glass Steam Engine, 1904. Collection of the Rakow Research Library, The Corning Museum of Glass, CMGL 131372.
F.A. Owen spins glass on a much larger wheel. Behind him is a dress and other items made from spun glass fibers. Pamphlet Advertising Glass Blowing Exhibition, 1904. Collection of the Rakow Research Library, The Corning Museum of Glass, CMGL 131361.
Itinerant glassworkers made this glass thread using a special spinning wheel. Some went a step farther and wove the threads into neckties, bonnets, shawls, and dresses. One bonnet was so famous it went on its own tour of post offices across the United States.
This spun glass bonnet, made by F.A. Owen, was exhibited in U.S. post offices for all to see. Spun Glass Bonnet!, 1884. Collection of the Rakow Research Library, The Corning Museum of Glass, CMGL 131369.
Spun glass was also used to make this dress for Princess Eulalia of Spain. Glassmakers at Libbey Glass Co. wove the spun glass with silk to form the fabric of this nearly 14 lb dress. The Famous Glass Dress Royal Robe of Princess Eulalia, 1893. Collection of the Rakow Research Library, The Corning Museum of Glass, CMGL 134150.
3. Scientific experiments
The earliest known itinerant glassworkers incorporated scientific experiments like Cartesian divers into their demonstrations. Often, they would describe the movement of the “divers” as magical – the glass figures would supposedly respond to the commands of the glassworker (rather than to the pressure applied to the top of the glass tube). One glassworker claimed the figures in his glass container would obey commands in four different languages!
This early itinerant glassworker claimed the figures in his Cartesian diver bottle responded to his commands, rather than to the pressure he is applying to the top of the container. Dieser Hollaendische porcellain-glass-blaser, 1670? Collection of the Rakow Research Library, The Corning Museum of Glass, CMGL 112252.
John Backman flameworks a ship with a steam engine on one side and a Cartesian diver on the other. John T. Backman Flameworking Glass Ship, McCroskey Studio, 1930s. Collection of the Rakow Research Library, The Corning Museum of Glass, CMGL 152150.
S. Owen styled himself as a professor and featured many scientific experiments and displays in his exhibition. He also gave lectures on natural philosophy. Science and Art Prof. Owen, O. Dickinson, 1850. Collection of the Rakow Research Library, The Corning Museum of Glass, CMGL 142780.
By the mid-1800s, audiences were hungry for scientific knowledge, and some glassworkers centered their entire shows around science and natural philosophy. Professor S. Owen gave a lecture on natural philosophy, all while demonstrating the “action of water in vacuum” with a philosopher’s hammer, the “principle on which thunder is produced” using vacuum bulbs, and the “elasticity of the air” with balloons. Other popular experiments included pulse glass circulators, cryophorus deception glasses, and hydro-pneumatic fountains.
Glass Cartesian diver. Source: Kathryn Wieczorek.
4. The celebrated Glassoblowoprestitwistidigitator
He’s positively supercalifragilisticexpialidocious! Actually, this title was used by at least two different glassworkers in the 1800s: William Woodroffe and W. Jerome Earl. It’s uncertain what these men did to merit this mouthful of a title, but it certainly sounds exciting.
William Woodroffe, one of the Woodroffe brothers, used this title while a member of Madam Nora’s troupe. The Glass Blower, Alfred Seabury, vol XXI, no. 6894. New York: 1889. Collection of the Rakow Research Library, The Corning Museum of Glass, CMGL 112113.
W. Jerome Earl was another glassworker who claimed the Glassoblowoprestitwistigitator title. He was a member of Madam Reith’s troupe. Second and Positively Last Week of Madam J. Reith’s Troupe of Bohemian and American Glass Blowers. Jeremy S. Clark, 1881. Collection of the Rakow Research Library, The Corning Museum of Glass, CMGL 45698.
5. Ships, trains, fire engines, and … skeletons?
Beyond glass steam engines, itinerant glassworkers built all sorts of models and machines from glass. Just a few examples include: models of famous ships, well-known monuments and bridges, and carriages pulled by teams of horses.
A glassworker, likely William Allen, adds details to a flameworked ship. Madame Nora’s Original Troupe of Glassblowers, 1876? Collection of the Rakow Research Library, The Corning Museum of Glass, CMGL 132079.
Charles Mapel flameworking before onlookers, 1940. Collection of the Rakow Research Library, The Corning Museum of Glass, CMGL 152161.
Scott, a British glassworker, displayed a “beautiful Hydraulic Skeleton, in Glass, which is kept in continual motion by itself, showing how the blood passes through the different channels of the human frame.” It was so spectacular that it was “patronized by the Royal Family, and every Family of distinction in England.”
The Columbia, a hand fire engine, could shoot water 15 feet into the distance. CMGL 112113.
The Woodroffe brothers displayed a steam-powered glass train that ran around a track “eight feet in diameter.” The train carried two cars and a coal car and was able to move at a speed of six miles per hour. The Woodroffes called it “one of the wonders of the nineteenth century.”
Madam Nora’s Original Troupe of Glass Blowers, Glass Spinners, and Glass Workers promoted the Columbia, a glass hand fire engine that reportedly spouted a stream of water 15 feet into the distance. It’s one of the few models and machines that has survived until today — you can see Columbia (and the glass steam engine Excelsior) in the Lightner Museum.
6. Beautiful babies, homely men, and talented dancers
During the 1800s, many glassworking troupes added other entertainments to their shows. These included everything from lectures and dances to competitions with glass prizes. The homeliest man and the best male dancer won Turkish pipes at one show in Massachusetts, and troupes led by the Woodroffe brothers gave prizes to the “best comic singer,” “best jig dancer,” “best lady dancer,” and the “handsomest lady,” among others.
Glassworkers gave prizes to audience members who were particularly homely, handsome, good dancers, and good singers. Last Night of the Glass Blowers! Taunton, Massachusetts: Gazette Press, 1860. Collection of the Rakow Research Library, The Corning Museum of Glass, CMGL 112187.
Dances were a popular way to engage audience members after the glassworking show. Great Bohemian Troupe of Fancy Glass Blowers, A. M. Lunt. Boston: A. M. Lunt, 1869. Collection of the Rakow Research Library, The Corning Museum of Glass, CMGL 61257.
Bizarrely enough, baby beauty shows were another popular event associated with several glassworking acts. Second and Positively Last Week of Woodroffe’s Original Bohemian Glass Blowers! Utica, New York: Grove & Bailey, 1881. Collection of the Rakow Research Library, The Corning Museum of Glass, CMGL 151258.
Perhaps the oddest add-on was the baby beauty pageant or, as one advertisement put it, the “Grand Carnival of Croesus and Contest of Infantile Beauty.” Both the Woodroffes and Madam Nora’s troupe held these competitions at their shows and gave cases of their best glass to the winners and runners up.
These are only a few of the curiosities audiences could see when they attended an itinerant glassworker show. Learn more about their shows, their lives, and the world around them on this site. Keep up with new posts by subscribing to my monthly newsletter.
A version of this post was originally published on the Corning Museum of Glass blog on September 15, 2017.