Monday, July 11, 2016

Glass Headhunters

Berkshire Glass Works cane from 1878 – Charles Flint
(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 played a significant role in the 18th and 19th century for the nascent American glass industry. A principle well understood by one intrepid recruiter; if you are going to successfully evade detection and also woo skilled artisans across an ocean to practice their craft, you need to give them something more than money; you need to give them a story they could tell their grandchildren. If that involved and eye patch and bagpipes then so be it, but more on that later.


In the era of Egyptian pharaohs, glassmaking was a costly endeavor and probably the exclusive domain of royalty. Glass was then considered to be artificially produced precious stone and finished products are thought to have been given as coveted gifts to favored officials and important visiting dignitaries.


In the Middle Ages, at the turn of the 10th century, a Benedictine monk going by the name of Theophilus Presbyter expressed compelling thoughts on the subject. Working as an artisan in a Benedictine monastery in the region around Cologne Germany, he wrote a treatise on painting, glassmaking and metal work, called De diversis artibus. He wrote, "Do not hide His [God's] gifts in the purse of envy, nor conceal them in the storeroom of a selfish heart" and "Do not hide away the talent given to you by God, but, working and teaching openly and with humility, … faithfully reveal it to those who desire to learn." [2]


Many who posses only a passing knowledge of glass history have, nevertheless, 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 the legend is quite true, and the statutes do list possible penalties as severe as death, the reality is not so black and white.  In fact, glass workers did leave Venice and sometimes as part of state brokered deals to exchange technology. The records do not show a glass worker ever being executed for leaving. 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. A privilege enshrined in law and unique in history. [3]


Even if the legend has been blown somewhat out of proportion, industrial espionage in the realm of glass work was a real problem.  Even while Cosimo I, the grand duke of Tuscany was negotiating a deal with the Doge of Venice to bring glass masters to Florence,  the duke’s own son, prince Francesco de’ Medici had spies on Murano working to pry secrets loose. But far more valuable than technical recipes were the practitioners of the art; those who had the actual experience of production under their belts. The travel prohibition imposed by Venice on its glass artisans turns out to be not so unusual. In Florence, a city famous for attracting painters and sculptors, the more acclaimed among them were routinely denied permission to leave Tuscany, for fear that a better offer would be made by a rival patron. Sculptor Giambologna is a notable example.


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; working 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 come and work in 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…” [4]


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.” [5]


Given the current state of affairs in the world it does not go without saying; danke, and thank ye.

[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’Illvst.mo et eccell.mo Sig., Il Sig, Don Antonio Medici (Florence: Giunti 1612).
[2]  For modern English translation see Theophilus 1979.
[3] 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.
[4] Collections of the Berkshire Historical and Scientific Society, (Pittsfield: Sun Printing, 1894),  p. 37-39

[5] op cit. p. 39-40.

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