The history behind American Brilliant Cut Glass

COURTESY PHOTO
This piece of American Brilliant Glass has an estimated value of just $50, but you could call the history behind it priceless.

It all began with a rich dinner party hostess in 1876 who viewed the Centennial Exhibition in Pennsylvania, where American glass blowers and cutters exhibited exquisite American Brilliant Cut Glass. 

She bought the creation, and the fad ensued.

Having absorbed a wave of immigrants, American glass companies employed European glass workers educated in techniques in wheel-faceting of glass designed and cut in Ireland and France. U.S.-cut glass could be just as clear and just a diamond-y brilliant as the more expensive European cut glass, and by 1877, all the high-end hostesses in Newport, R.I., had a large piece of American Brilliant Glass for the dining room table. Pieces like a huge punch bowl with matching underplate and little handled cups and those tall showy cake stands in selective areas down the center of a dessert table appeared as a marker of good taste.

By 1889, emulating the rich, the middle class of America had, in its dining rooms, a few choice pieces of cut glass, such as a water pitcher (always on the table) or a lemonade pitcher with matching tumblers.

By the end of the trend or taste for American Brilliant Cut Glass, all new brides owned a piece of American Brilliant Cut Glass, such as a nut dish or a handled compote dish, like the one which I inherited from my grandmother Ruth Sophia.

Making this glass involved many artisans. American companies Hawkes and Libbey at the forefront employed glass blowers who made the shapes, then employed designers, who figured out the geometry. Then the companies employed wheel cutters who pressed the glass vessels into large and dangerous rotating iron or stone wheels.

The glass process involved chemistry as well with formulas with high lead oxide for the “sparkle.” Hand polishers polished the glass to eliminate razor shape edges. 

Later in the first part of the 20th century, acid baths were invented for this purpose of eliminating sharp edges. But a tell-tale sign of this is that these pieces have less sparkle — and are less valuable.

The sign of an early and more valuable piece is extremely complex geometrical designs. How to tell? On a cut glass piece, you will feel the sharp edges. If you feel a piece that has been blown into a mold. you will not feel those sharp edges.

Commensurate with clear and bright American Brilliant Cut Glass, the industry made “cut to clear” glass, which means that the glass blower blew a “gather” of glass into a shape. Then the glass blower quickly “redipped” the glass into molten colored glass.

When the glass was put against the wheel and cut into facets, the design would show from the layer of color into the layer of clear. 

Both American and European factories made this type of glass. Bohemian glass was a stand out.

When introduced in 1876, the glass entered the market in a big way and caught the attention of America. In the last years of the 19th century, one thousand glass cutting shops existed.

By 1908, only 100 such shops produced glass called American Brilliant.

American ingenuity along the way had fueled the industry. Instead of using a coal fired furnace, Americans developed natural gas furnaces to control the heat level.

American factories accepted the new fad of electricity early on. They replaced steam-driven cutting and polishing machines with electric machines. As a desire for more intricate cutting grew, American factories added silica to make the glass heavier and stronger. 

Famous patterns emerged such as those by T G Hawkes, in Corning, N.Y.  These were Grecian and Chrysanthemum patterns.

King Edward VII of England ordered American Brilliant Cut Glass in a complete service for his palace, as did the White House, which also ordered a complete set of tableware. (This was a bit of a problem because nothing hot could be served in such a vessel, but heck, it did not matter.) The presidents of Cuba and Mexico followed suit.

In the first quarter of the 20th century, the great artisans of this style added engraving and etching to the grid of intricate patterns faceted into the glass. This is called the Flower Period and features insects, birds and flowers, set in cartouches into the faceting.

Unfortunately, the value of such pieces is at an all-time low. No one wants anything elaborate on a dining table now, and the value of the piece pictured is $50. Sorry to say, but it might have cost that much in 1900.

Dr. Elizabeth Stewart’s “Ask the Gold Digger” column appears Mondays in the News-Press.

Written after her father’s COVID-19 diagnosis, Dr. Stewart’s book “My Darlin’ Quarantine: Intimate Connections Created in Chaos” is a humorous collection of five “what-if” short stories that end in personal triumphs over present-day constrictions. It’s available at Chaucer’s in Santa Barbara.

The history behind American Brilliant Cut Glass