American Brilliant Cut Glass

When someone in your family dies, dealing with the emotions is one thing. Dealing with the “stuff” they leave behind is quite another. My mother left so much that I actually have material for a full-blown book. Stay tuned…..

Mother always had her grandmother’s WWI-era cut glass (which is really “crystal” because the lead content makes it such) on display in her contemporary-style home.  I always thought it was hideous and hoped I’d never have to own it myself.  That was, until I finally did come to own it.  After Mother died, I found a treasure trove of objects tucked away in the back of a closet.  These were things even she chose not to display,  Now I was faced with having to decide what to do with a sizable collection that I frankly didn’t have space for.  That’s when I decided to learn more about this lost art and the people who made it over 100 years ago.


Corset Shaped American Brilliant Cut Glass c. 1916

Many of my readers are doing genealogy research of their own, so I thought it might be useful to share some of the occupations I learned about in the course of my research.  (Census reports provide the job descriptions of people, often unrecognizable in today’s lingo.)

Leaded crystal was formed by melting silica, potash, lead oxide (and perhaps other ingredients) in a ‘monkey pot’, or furnace, until the temperature reached 2400 degrees Fahrenheit.  The red hot, molten glass (called “metal”) was then ready to be worked. Four workmen were required to work each glass pot.

  • the “gatherer”, who collected a ball of molten glass (called the “gather”) on the end of his blowpipe, a hollow tube about four feed long. He blew air into it, let it cool a few hundred degrees, and then rolled it on a metal slab called the ‘marver” to permit the glass to consolidate.
  •  the “gaffer”, who was seated in an armchair, blew the “gather” into the desired shape.
  •  the “servitor”, assistant to the gaffer, reheated the glass when it cooled too much, and helped the gaffer add stems, feet, handles, or other parts to the piece, as required to finish it.
  • an apprentice called the “carry in boy”, who lifted the finished item with pinchers and carried it to the “lehr”, or annealing oven, where the piece was gradually cooled to room temperature.

After as long as 9 days in the lehr, the “metal” or “blank” was nothing more than a smooth, shaped piece of leaded crystal, completely undecorated, which was now ready for the next team of craftsmen.

  • the designer, who marked the piece with outlines of the decoration.
  • the “rougher”, who began the cutting by holding the blank against a rapidly moving, beveled, metal wheel, which was constantly moistened and cooled by a fine stream of wet sand dripping from an overhanging funnel. He followed the designer’s marks, making incisions by pushing the glass down against the wheel. He was blind to the contact of the wheel with the glass, except for what he could see through the glass – looking from inside to outside. He learned to judge the dept of the cut simply by the sound of the wheel and the “feel” of the piece in his hand.
  • the “smoother”, who went back over all the rough cuts with stone wheels called “craighleiths.” He also initially cut some of the small lines on the motifs, as indicated by the design.
  • the “polisher”, who finished the piece by polishing each cut with wooden wheels made from willow, cherry or other softwoods. Rottenstone or pumice was used with the polishing wheels to give a lustrous appearance to the cut, leaving no imperfections on the gleaming surfaces.

Having learned all this gave me a new appreciation for this art form, which I will proudly treasure as family heirlooms to be displayed in my own home.

About Billie Tekel Elias

World traveler, Art Deco lover, knitter, avid genealogist, author, and tourist in my own town.
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