Talk: 14 March 2017

New in form and ornament:
How the American machine-press changed glass tableware, 1825-45

by Ian Simmonds

The Westchester Glass Club
Dobbs Ferry, New York.

A burst of invention and production in the American glass industry from the mid-1820s onward saw the rapid development then mastery of machine pressed glass. Glass scholars Jim Rose, Kenneth Wilson and others traced these technical innovations, constructing a narrative in which machine pressed glass is acknowledged as a prime example of mass production in the decorative arts. From this point of view, technology’s role was to reduce manufacturing costs and dependence on skilled labor, and creating standardized products.

However, machine pressing also brought new possibilities for glass design. Both new forms and new ornament were created as responsibility for design was transferred from glass blowers, cutters and engravers to the makers of molds. As early as 1835, American designs were copied in porcelain by the great Meissen of Dresden.

In this talk, Ian will present early findings from his ongoing research into early pressed glass design. He will start by reviewing innovations in molded glassware in America, starting in the late 18th Century. He will then share his experiences in trying to better-classify early machine pressed glass to answer questions such as which molds were used together in the same factory at roughly the same time, and which objects date earlier and which later. Unlike other categories of early American glass, there is still no comprehensive check list of varieties of early machine pressed glass. Ian will conclude with observations about the design of this glass. For example, it appears to have been common practice for the designer of a set of molds of different sizes to use naturalistic motifs—such as sheaves of wheat—on some sizes, and abstract or stylized motifs on others.