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Blown Glass

Martha Stewart Living, November 1996

In its heyday, from 1800 to 1860, blown glass was used to make millions of bottles, compotes, pitchers, and tumblers. A surprisingly large number of these items has survived; as a result, prices are still relatively moderate -- pieces can be found for less than $200 -- and there is an impressive variety from which to choose.

The Tradition of Blown Glass
Blown-glass shapes were achieved by "free blowing" a molten-glass bubble on the end of a pipe and then swinging or rolling the still-hot form. To create a slightly different look, a craftsman could also blow molten glass into a removable mold. When a piece was complete, a pontil rod would be inserted in the bottom, creating a "push up," or small protrusion, and the whole thing would be broken off the rod. The presence of the break, or pontil -- sometimes clearly visible, sometimes polished down to a vague circle -- is the surest sign you are looking at blown glass.

Decorative Features
Important features of blown glass include etching, decorative cutting, and -- most important -- color. Silica sand and other ingredients in the basic glass recipe naturally produced an amber or aqua tint, still used in today's beer and wine bottles. This was fine for everyday objects, but for fancy tabletop items, the glass was "cleared" by the addition of manganese or lead. By experimenting with other ingredients, makers also produced a rich palette from a deep amethyst to a gleaming canary yellow. These seductive hues are now the market's greatest passion. The more formal clear glass-- a luxury to our ancestors -- is today's bargain area.

What to Look For
Remember, a piece of blown glass should display the evidence of a pontil and exhibit no obvious seam marks. The reverse of a pattern should be palpable on the inside (whereas the inside of most pressed-glass pieces will feel absolutely smooth). Older blown-glass pieces will show wear on the bottom and edges, and wavy striations -- caused by the rolling of still-hot glass -- may be visible. Some also say glass mellows, becoming cloudier with age.

Do You Know?
Collectors of blown glass concentrate on the British, Bohemian, and American pieces used in early-19th-century U.S. households.