Old glass for old wine
August 26, 2009 | Raising a glass of wine in a toast is among the oldest of dining traditions, and antique wineglasses are among the most appealing objects upon which to build a glass collection. One of the first things you discover, when investigating this field, is that antique wineglasses were often much smaller than the oversized goblets we have become accustomed to. Paintings and illustrations of drinking scenes right through the mid-nineteenth century attest to this. For one thing, servants were supposed to keep a sharp eye out for the guest who needed a refill, a frequent occurrence during the course of an eighteenth-century meal. Furthermore, when toasting one another gentlemen were often expected to drain their glasses, which would have been a far greater challenge with today's capacious vessels. According to the venerable English glass historian Sydney Lewis, whose 1916 volume Old Glass and How to Collect It is still worth reading, at the beginning of the eighteenth century "the use of different glasses for different kinds of wine had not yet arisen....A bowl of water was placed on the table in which the drinkers rinsed their glasses when a new vintage made its appearance."
The beautiful early eighteenth-century German wineglass illustrated here is an elegant survivor of those convivial days. Standing a diminutive 5 ¾ inches high, its funnel-shaped bowl---characteristic of the time-is mold-blown with a series of graceful, slightly concave panels, and further enhanced with a delicate wheel-engraved pattern of arches, balls, and swags.
Eighteenth-century wineglasses normally represent the skill of three glassworkers working as a team, or "chair." First the "footmaker" placed a small lump (or "gather") of molten glass (called "metal" in glassmaking terminology) at the end of his blowpipe and blew a disk for the foot. Next, the "servitor" shaped the foot-in this case a folded foot, in which the rim was folded under to form a more durable edge. He then fashioned the stem from another molten lump of metal. Finally, the "gaffer," the most masterful of the three, fashioned the vessel itself and attached it to the stem. For this glass, the gaffer would have blown his lump of metal into a tapered mold to form the paneled bowl.
The inverted baluster stem on this glass encloses a red twist device, which was made by arranging thin rods of opaque red glass around the circumference of a tubular stem mold. The mold was then heated and molten clear metal poured into the hollow center, thereby forming a solid mass with the rods. After the stem was cooled and released from the mold, it was reheated to soften it enough to manipulate it with hand tools into a baluster shape, while twisting the entire mass to achieve the internal design of colored threads like interwoven corkscrews.
Opaque twists, using the method above, were also executed in white and other colors, while clear "air twists" and so-called "mercury" twists were achieved by blowing a bubble (or "tear") within the body of the molten glass and then pulling and twisting it to achieve the desired shape and pattern.
Most likely the finished glass was not engraved in the glasshouse, but was sent out to an engraving shop, where a skilled engraver working at a treadle-powered copper engraving wheel added the frosted design around the lip.
A striking piece around which to gather a collection, this glass (see above image) is currently available for $975.00 at Mark and Marjorie Allen Antiques of Manchester, New Hampshire (www.antiquedelft.com).
Given the fragile nature of glass, single wineglasses have usually survived in greater abundance than sets. The graceful tulip-shaped example in the second picture is happily one of a set of six Dutch wineglasses from about 1770. Here the simplicity and clarity of the bowl and sloping foot are set off by the stem, with its knop at the middle and its internal opaque white twist pattern. As is expected in any set of handblown glasses, each glass varies slightly in height, these from 6 ½ to 6 3⁄8 inches, and displays minute variations in texture and thickness, all of which contribute to the pleasure of early glasswares. They are priced at $3,750 for the set and are "in excellent condition," according to Mark Allen.
• “Because the beauty of glass is inherent in its clarity, protecting your collection from dust is a primary concern,” says Florian Knothe, curator of European glass at the Corning Museum of Glass, in Corning, New York. He also observes that, “excessive humidity can cause ‘glass disease,’ which looks like surface frosting. Although it can be washed off the surface to a degree, glass disease actually affects the body of the metal—especially in seventeenth-century and earlier glass. And it cannot be reversed. A humidity level of 42 or 43 percent, which we maintain at Corning, is ideal.”
• Antique glass should be washed by hand in lukewarm water with mild soap, and dried with a lint-free cloth.
• Museums are the best places to see excellent examples of glass. Apart from the Corning Museum, which has extensive exhibition galleries including glass from antiquity to the present, most major art museums have important glass collections.
• Christie’s, Sotheby’s, Bonham’s, Skinner, and other major and regional auction houses hold regular glass sales. Their pre-sale shows offer the opportunity to hold and examine a wide variety of pieces and give you the chance to ask questions of specialists in the field. Needless to say, dealers specializing in the field are always happy to cultivate new collectors, and to suggest good and reasonably priced pieces for those starting out.
Standard references for antique glass drinking vessels
L. M. Bickerton, Eighteenth Century English Drinking Glasses: An
Illustrated Guide with a Bibliography of English Glass by D. Robert Elleray (Antique Collectors’ Club, Woodbridge, Suffolk, 1986).
Albert Hartshorne, Antique Drinking Glasses: A Pictorial History of Glass Drinking Vessels (Brussel and Brussel, New York, 1967).
Joseph Bles, Rare English Glasses of the 17th and 18th Centuries (G. Bles, London, 1924).
Stephen P. Koob, Conservation and Care of Glass Objects (Archetype in association with the Corning Museum of glass, London, 2006).
Images from above: Wineglass, German, c. 1720. Blown, pattern-molded, engraved glass with a red twist baluster stem; height 5 ¾ inches. Photographs by Samantha Allen by courtesy of Mark and Marjorie Allen Antiques, Manchester, New Hampshire. Wineglass (one of a set of six), Dutch, c. 1770. Handblown and etched glass with a white twist stem; height 6 3⁄8 inches.