Development of Etched Glass in the United States

Intro by Mark Nye 
Issue No. 272 - December 1995

On Friday, July 14, 1905, the twenty-ninth annual meeting of the Association of Flint and Lime Glass Manufacturers was held at Haddon Hall, Atlantic City, NJ. From an account of that meeting published in the July 20, 1905 edition of China, Glass and Lamps it appears that the Cambridge Glass Co. was not represented. Listed among the attendees was W. A. B. Dalzell from Fostoria and A. H. Heisey from Heisey. Following the usual routine business and election of officers and board members, at least two papers were presented. One of these was presented by M. W. Gleason of the Gleason-Tiebout Co. and was titled "Etching of Glass and its Development in the United States."

While not directly related to operations at the Cambridge Glass Co., it does give insight into the history of etching and the processes used by most, if not all, glass companies during the last years of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century. As space permits this paper will be reprinted in its entirety. The first portion follows and as you read, do not forget this was written ninety years ago. - Mark Nye

Etching of glass and its Development in the United States

"In dealing with this subject it is not my purpose to refer at length to the achievements of the art in the Old World, but to follow the progress and improvements that have been made in our own country in the last quarter of a century, and more particular in glass for illumination purposes.

Etching glass by placing it over a bath of fluorspar and sulphuric acid was known in Nuremberg in 1670. Panes of glass are in existence dating from that year showing writing and ornamentation raised, the background being etched away. The earliest method of applying the design was undoubtedly painting it by hand. Improvements on this method date back to the middle of last century, when hydrofluoric acid began to be manufactured as a commercial article; the composition of substances resisting its action was studied, and methods of applying them were developed in many ways. The chief use of hydrofluoric acid until 1853 was for etching off ground laying in glass painting or in removing the ruby or yellow coating of flashed glass. Owing to the harmful action of the acid on the skin, Berzelius, the Swedish chemist, recommended the use of ammonium fluoride (modern white acid) as a harmless substitute. A mixture of wax and turpentine or gutta percha was used to protect the surface not to etched.

The printing process in etching was not known till the middle of last century. In 1853 C. Breese, of London, patented a process of printing a negative on paper with printing ink and transferring this to the glass surface to be etched. Specimens of this work were exhibited at the Paris Exposition in 1855. In 1857, a patent was granted to Benjamin Richardson, of the Wordsley Flint Glass Works, near Stourbridge, England "for the invention of improvements in manufacturing and improving of flints articles of flint glass." His process consisted in coating the articles to be etched with a composition of gutta percha or india rubber dissolved in turpentine, and to this solution was added beeswax and tallow. The articles were then dipped into a bath composed of fluoric and sulphuric acids.

The first printing in the Stourbridge district was done by Henry G. Richardson, the son of Benjamin Richardson, in the year 1855. The pattern was etched on sheet glass, the glass cemented on to stone and the prints taken from the pattern on the glass. Soon after this it was found that lithographers' stones and copper and steel plates were more suitable.

The St. Louis Glass Co., of France, were undoubtedly the first to develop the commercial side of this art. They were engaged in etching in 1850, and in 1870 employed a considerable force making etched goods for the home and foreign markets. The plates used were first made on stone, but these were eventually replaced by those of copper and steel.

The methods employed were crude and slow. From two to three weeks were required to make a plate, and from twenty-four to forty-eight hours to etch it. Patterns etched on clear glass remained in the acid bath from three to four hours; those etched on ground glass about half an hour.

The well known Baccarat Glass Company of France in the early 1870s exported etched globes to [this] country in considerable numbers. The shapes were on simple lines, limited principally to the round globe, shallow bowl and the deep scalloped cut top tulip, all having 2-1/2 inch holders for gas, and the "Moehring" globe, with two inch opening top and bottom, for oil lamps. The etched designs were remarkable for their excellence, consisting of Roman and Greek allegorical figures, examples of Renaissance, and realistic landscape designs of such artistic merit that many of them were later reproduced by the American manufacturers, and a few are still popular in the trade. The style of work was what we term deep or bright etched, the figures in clear on a roughed background.

The method was to etch the pattern deep on the clear glass, afterwards grinding or roughing with sand on a lathe with a wire brush or flat, hard metal. In this way the sharpness of the etched lines was reduced, giving a roundness to the figures, which stood out in bold relief. Many of the patterns were rendered more pronounced by being in colors, the figures in some instances being filled in with an amber enamel and in others raised, as the blue, green and pink flash hand (sic) been etched away, leaving the colored figures in relief.

Up to 1870 or 1871 no etching had been attempted in this country, but about this time one Wm. George Webb, of Wordsley, England, assigned to Wm. Landon Libbey, of New Bedford, Mass., a patent for the new and useful improvement in the mode of ornamenting and etching glass. Mr. Libbey in turn assigned the patent to the Mt. Washington Glass Co., that company subsequently disposing of its rights to Samuel R. Bowie, also of New Bedford.

In 1876 James Corbett, who had been in the employ of the Mt. Washington Glass Co., interested the E. P. Gleason Mfg. Co. in the etching of glass, and together with the writer of this article <M. W. Gleason> established an etching department in the company's brass factory at Mercer and Houston Streets, New York City. Mr. Corbett remained with the company for only a short period but Mr. E. P. Gleason, foreseeing great possibilities in the business, decided to continue it.

The company started with steel plates, reproducing many of the Baccarat patterns. It attempted to follow the Baccarat method of etching the pattern on clear glass, but finding the process slow and expensive decided to rough the glass first and then etch through the ground surface.

The business rapidly increased and Mr. Bowie, on account of the competition, threatened suit for infringement of the Webb patent. The writer is frequently reminded of the argument advanced by Mr. Bowie, that two concerns could not exist, as the trade could not use more globes than this factory alone could produce, which was about fifty dozen per week. The E. P. Gleason Mfg. Co. eventually purchased the patent and business from Bowie and for a few years enjoyed a monopoly of the product.

About this time a change took place in the size of globe holders, the regulation 2-1/2 inch being superseded by the 4 inch and 5 inch. This change gave a great impetus to the shade and globe business. The large gas fixture houses were then located in New York and Philadelphia. All their new fixtures were designed to take the large holders, and the etched globe, being the most popular on the market, was in great demand. What is known as the "squat" shape was introduced, also the "pan" or "bowl" and the "cone."

Just prior to the purchase of the Bowie concern by the Gleason Company, Mr. Bowie designed what is known as the "crown" globe, which was a radical departure from and an improvement on all previous shapes. In this connection I will ask the indulgence of the members by referring to an early pattern of etched design on the crown shape which was conceived and produced by the narrator in 1881 and patented by him. It was the popular basket pattern which had a large sale in this company and was copied by France.

M. W. Gleason
Gleason-Tiebout Company

[We will publish more of this article in future issues as space permits. M. Nye]