Monday, July 11, 2016

Glass Headhunters

Berkshire Glass Works cane from 1878 – Charles Flint collection
These were novelty items made my glassworkers after hours.
(hollow, filled with the fine quality sand of the area)
Since early days, the technical aspects of making and manipulating hot glass have remained a closed and secretive business. Down through the ages, those with inside knowledge of this art have been highly valued and highly sought after. Even with the circulation of technical manuscripts and the ultimate publication of the technology in Antonio Neri’s 1612 book L’Arte Vetraria. The beating heart of the craft remained at the furnace among those with hands-on experience. [1] These artisans could and often did make the difference between success and failure in a business that was notorious for sending substantial fortunes up in smoke.  

In some places, strict laws forbade glass workers from leaving their employ and forbade outsiders from attempts to lure them away. Recruiting seasoned talent could be a delicate if not clandestine undertaking. This was as true in the ancient world as it was through the Renaissance and it also played a significant role in the 18th and 19th century for the nascent American glass industry.

Many have, heard of the legendary prohibition forbidding Renaissance Venetian glass workers from travel abroad. The fear was that they might divulge secrets of their craft to outsiders, thereby compromising the virtual monopoly on high quality luxury glassware made on the fabled island of Murano. Many also have heard that the penalty for violating these rules was death at the public gallows located between the columns at Saint Mark's square.  While there were laws on the books that listed possible penalties as severe as death, the records show that no glass worker was ever executed for leaving and many did leave. In fact, glass workers were sometimes part of state brokered deals to exchange technology.

These Venetian laws have also led many to the incorrect conclusion that the glassmakers were held captive and treated like prisoners. Nothing could be farther from the truth; glass workers were treated like rock-stars of their time. The daughters of glassmakers were allowed to marry into the nobility, a privilege granted to no other guild. [2]

Early American efforts to recruit experienced glass workers provide some amusing stories. In 1894, William G. Harding, a principal in the Berkshire Glass Works in Massachusetts wrote a detailed history of glassmaking in the region.  Harding’s research was meticulous, drawn from factory records, official legal filings and personal correspondence. Two stories in particular relate the great lengths pursued in recruiting experienced European glass workers to New England.

The first concerns Robert Hews, who despite repeated failures in starting a glassworks in the late 1700s, finally partnered in Boston with one Charles F. Kupfer newly arrived from the Duchy of Brunswick in Germany. Together they formed Boston Crown Works on Essex street.  Kupfer immediately returned to Germany to recruit workers, as harding records,
“Mr. Kupfer upon his arrival at his old home, found it no easy matter to get his blowers. The works belonged to the Duke of Brunswick, and it was a penal offense either for the men to leave, or for him to entice them away. He was obliged to conceal his designs and operate in the dark, but succeeded in escaping in the night with a set of workmen and sailed from a German port before being overtaken. After a long voyage they landed in Boston and met with a Royal reception. So much interest in the new enterprise had been awakened in the citizens of Boston, that they turned out en masse…” [3]

The other story of clandestine recruiting related by Harding concerns a venture started in Sand Lake, about 10 miles east of Albany, New York around 1806.
“They had to import their skilled workmen. Mr. William Richmond, a Scotchman, was the Superintendent of their works. He went abroad to procure workmen. Disguised as a mendicant [monk/priest], with a patch upon one eye and playing upon a bag-pipe, he wandered through the glass district of Dumbarton in Scotland and engaged his blowers to cross the Sea. With great difficulty they secreted their tools on Ship-board, for it was a penal offense for glass-workers to leave Scotland as well as Germany.” [4]

[1] Antonio Neri, L’Arte vetraria, distinta in libri sette, del R.[everendo] P.[rete/ padre] Antonio Neri fiorentino. Ne quali si scoprono, effetti maravigliosi, & insegnano segreti bellissimi, del vetro nel fuoco & altre cose curiose. All’ et Sig., Il Sig, Don Antonio Medici (Florence: Giunti 1612).
[2] A daugher of a glassmaker could marry into the nobility, which was a great honour for a family, but strategically, the son of a glassmaker had no such privilege, meaning that there were no inheritance rights for the family.
[3] Collections of the Berkshire Historical and Scientific Society, (Pittsfield: Sun Printing, 1894),  p. 37-39
[4] op cit. p. 39-40.

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