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The Berkshire Glass Works

by William J. Patriquin & Julie L. Sloan
The History Press, Charleston and London, 2011
128 pp.  Illus. 80 b/w. N/A $21.99
ISBN:  978-1-60949-282-3.

Reviewed by Giovanna L. Costantini

Referred to as lithos chyte or ‘cast stone’ by the Greeks, glass was from the first made in imitation of precious stones.  Known to date from at least the Third Millennium BCE when it was produced in Egypt and Babylon as tiny pieces of jewel-like inlay found in ceremonial beakers, pectorals, Ushabti figures, scepters and crowns, glass in antiquity was associated with royalty, sacred functions, and burials.  Paraded as booty in triumphal processions and collected among the Romans, glass was more prized than precious metals, worked in techniques that ranged from gilding and faceting to engraving and beveling.  It was valued extraordinarily high, in part due to its delicacy and fragility.  One legend has it that when a glassmaker offered the Emperor Nero an object of unbreakable glass, Nero, who considered the loss of glass’ fragility a threat to the value of silver and gold, had the craftsman exiled and his workshop destroyed.

William Patriquin and Julie Sloan’s book, The Berkshire Glass Works, presents a history of one of the dozens of Massachusett glasshouses that sprang up during the course of the nineteenth century in America, the Berkshire Glass Works factory located in Lanesborough, MA, a small town just north of Pittsfield in a section of the Housatonic valley that affords a prospect on the Berkshire hills.  During the 1870’s this factory was the first to produce colored cathedral glass and one of the earliest in America to blow antique glass to be used in the creation of stained glass windows.  Reflecting a renewed appreciation of window glass that originated in France and England earlier in the century where windows were deemed to be an integral part of architecture, stained glass was appreciated for its radiance and spiritual significance.  This led to Gothic revivals of medieval prototypes, pictorial subjects and painterly styles found among Romantic artists such as members of the Nazarene Movement.  During the Gilded Age, at the height of American industrial expansion, numerous studios and workshops sprang up throughout New England where larger establishments employed as many as three hundred glass workers at a time, each specializing in a particular process.  Art glass production as a decorative art peaked in the Aesthetic Movement during the 1870’s and 1880’s following trends that had originated in Europe a decade earlier.  By the turn of the century, colored glass came also to be used by followers of William Morris and the Arts and Crafts Movement, first in Britain, then in America among such figures as John La Farge and Louis Comfort Tiffany.

In its broadest contours, the Patriquin-Sloan book presents the history of a significant American glassworks establishment integral to the production of stained glass in nineteenth century America and the formidable attributes of character, ingenuity, entrepreneurship, and craftsmanship that contributed to its rise.  Part I opens with a geological survey of the unique natural resources of the area, the white sand beds of Northern Berkshire County formed along the shores of the Iapetus Ocean during the Cambrian Age whose sands were of such incomparable purity that manufactories as far as Liverpool and Le Havre considered its “dazzling whiteness” the finest ever used in the production of glass.  The first half of the book describes the stages and operations of antique glass production that included the melting of mineral batch to molten glass (referred to as metal) in furnaces within clay pots before being gathered into cylinders, blown, capped, and flattened, then rolled into panes of plate glass.  It chronicles the passage of ownership from the company’s co-founders through the partnerships of Page & Robbins (1858-1863) and Page & Harding (1863-1883) with detailed, often fascinating biographies of its principals and affiliates.  Drawing on transcripts, minutes, advertisements, reports, newspaper articles, ledger extracts, journals, and many other critical sources, the evolution of technologies applied, modified and invented is described with exacting precision and measurement, including the composition of compounds, firing temperatures, thicknesses of glass, shipping weights, costs to produce, wages, income, discounts, currencies and sales figures.  One of the more absorbing sections examines life in Berkshire Village among groups of workers and their families, immigrants, journeymen and farmers based on information culled from census reports.  This includes the racial composition of the glassworks’ community in a state that was home to abolitionism and the social life, religious practices, and education of workers employed in the factory.  In certain respects it is a history that traces the growth and expansion of a company and its constituent society from elemental foundations to a material and social fabric in an arching movement from industrial fundaments to post-industrialization.  If the story ended here, the Berkshire Glass Works would be a tale of progress and eventual downturn characteristic of many industries.  But it does not. Through admixtures of ambition and competition, personality, and public values, Part I chronicles a modern saga of hardship, struggle, flux, economic shifts, periodic renewal, and vigor sustained through a legacy of aesthetic value.

Part II is devoted to reflections on the exquisite quality and variety of art glass produced at the BGW, with summaries of notable artists, their careers and studios, and brief histories of many of America’s most treasured landmarks and artifacts.  This section categorizes and defines each type of antique blown and cathedral (rolled) glass made by the company with illustrations and explanations of each specimen that permit matching and identification by collectors and conservators.  Assortments include blown, rolled, enameled, flashed, streaked, textured and crackled glass in colors ranging from celadon green to “beefsteak” red, cobalt blue, opalescent “milky” white, brilliant turquoise and canary yellow.  Mazarine blue, a color distinct to the BGW, was held to have curative properties so that invalids were recommended to take an air bath in rooms having sunlight coming through this blue glass.  Created through the introduction of pot metals shades such as these received awards in international exhibitions that led to a skyrocketing demand for windows in residential buildings throughout the Boston area during the 1870’s and 1880’s.  Surviving windows made with Berkshire glass during this period include such works as Charity and Devotion, paired lancet windows in S. Anne’s Episcopal Church in Lowell, Massachusetts designed by Donald MacDonald (1841-1916); residential windows in the Walter Hunnewell house in Wellesley, MA based on Japanese Manga models; stained glass panels made by the Tiffany Studios for S. Stephen Episcopal Church in Lynn, MA and Christ Episcopal Church in Pomfret, Connecticut; and Frederic Crowninshield’s Pericles & Leonardo in the Harvard University Memorial Hall.

The authors William J. Patriquin and Julie L. Sloan are experts in the field of stained glass and lifelong residents of Berkshire County.  William Patriquin, a former biomedical technician, navy diver, and chief petty officer has worked as a professional stained glass restorer since 1997.  Julie L. Sloan is a Conservator and stained glass consultant with an MS in Historic Preservation from Columbia University.  She is the author of Conservation of Stained Glass in America among many other publications on stained glass and its restoration.

As a technical and historical resource, this meticulously researched, straightforward text serves as a handbook of techniques and processes involved in the production of stained or colored glass, an illustrated catalogue, a bibliographic reference and a sourcebook for windows made with Berkshire Glass, the buildings that contain them, Berkshire Village demographics from 1850 to 1900, and the structures, appliances and operations that may be indicative of other glasswork factories of this period.  Closely focused on a single glass works manufactory, it would benefit from further contextual background on the revival of colored glass and its commerce in America and Europe during the course of the nineteenth century that might include a chronological table.  Yet crafted as carefully as the lancet windows that it describes, with original full color illustrations, many period photographs, a purposeful index and abundant references, this small yet artful publication contributes significantly to our appreciation of a timeless craft and cherished aspect of American architectural heritage.  It provides a luminous testimony to the enduring beauty of American colored glass.

Last Updated 3 June, 2012

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