Monday, March 18, 2019

Béguines of Malines

A Béguine of Antwerp,
from Pierre Hélyot,
L'Histoire des ordres monastiques… 1719 (v.8)
Five years into his stay in Antwerp, on 21 February 1608, glassmaker Antonio Neri posted a letter to a friend in Florence. The letter was addressed to the house of Zanobi Bartolini—likely the son of Neri’s late former landlord Alamano, also the nephew of Emmanuel Ximenes, Neri’s host in Antwerp. The letter provides strong evidence that however much time Neri devoted to making glass, he also devoted considerable attention to his interest in medicine. 

In this letter, the priest describes his success with medicinal cures. He also references experiments he carried out in Brussels and at the Hospital of Malines, in Mechelen. In particular, he praised Paracelsus’ recipe for ‘theriac of mummy,’ and its superiority to Galen’s ‘theriac magna’. Theriac was an ancient medicinal remedy, often taking the form of a thick honey based syrup. It often contained numerous herbal ingredients. It was thought to be a cure for any poison and used as a way to stave off the plague. Mummy or mumia was a compound composed of just what one might think: the ground up flesh of ancient Egyptian bodies. 

The Hospital of Malines was an ancient one, started in the thirteenth century by a society of lay Catholic women called Béguines. In their 1907 book A History of Nursing, Dock and Nutting note:
Through the whole time of the active career of the Béguines, nursing remained an important branch of their work. One of their most beautiful settlements was at Malines, where there were over 1500 Sisters, not including their dependents. This would appear to have been a nursing center of importance, for Helyot says that the nursing in many hospitals was provided for by orders arising from the Béguines of Malines. […] The building were surrounded with extensive gardens and trees, and had an ample water supply. ‘The sick were nursed there’ he [Helyot] wrote ‘with all the skill, refinement and sweetness that might be expected from the appearance of the place. [1]
The Béguines were not nuns. They did live in communal housing, and did devote themselves to a pious lifestyle, but without formal cloister, without renouncing their possessions, and taking only a temporary vow of chastity, able to leave at any time, for instance to get married. They formed corporations throughout the Low Lands and into France and Germany that were self sustaining and largely independent of local control. These were huge organizations of women, working for themselves, under their own roofs and by their own rules. They produced crafts and textiles, they schooled nurses and they ran hospitals. Because they existed on the fringes of Church control, they were downplayed or even resented within the hierarchy. One result is that their achievements have largely been forgotten by history. When Mathias Hovius, the Archbishop of Mechelen, toured the facilities in 1601 he took the petty action of requiring Béguines who chose to keep lap-dogs to pay a fine to the Church. In 1630, Bishop Malderus of Antwerp defended the women in an extraordinary letter. He wrote,
The Order of the Béguines is truly not a religious order, but a pious society, and compared with the former complete consecration is as a preparatory school in which the piously inclined women of Belgium live after a pattern highly characteristic of the temper and mind and the character of the people. For this people is jealous of its liberty and will be led rather than driven. Although it is beyond a doubt more meritorious to devote one’s self to the service of heaven by vows of perpetual chastity, obedience, and poverty, and though there are many pious women in Belgium who are so disposed, yet most of them shrink from this irrevocable vow. They prefer to remain inviolably chaste rather than to promise to be so; they are willing to obey, but without formally binding themselves to obedience; to rather use their poverty in reasonable outlays for the poor than to give it at once up for good to all; rather voluntarily renounce daily the world than immure themselves once and forever.[2]
At the beginning of the seventeenth century, the hospital was used to treat wounded Spanish and Italian soldiers fighting in the war against the Dutch. By 1607, just before Antonio Neri wrote his letter, the staff at the hospital numbered fifty, “including seven doctors, eight surgeons, and three surgeon’s mates.”[3]

As the son of a grand duke’s personal physician and grandson of a surgeon, there can be little doubt that Neri had ample familiarity with medical procedure. It seems likely, given the circumstances, that in Mechelen he was lending his expertise to ease the ravages of war, helping to heal wounded soldiers.

[1] Lavinia L. Dock, Mary Adelaide Nutting, A History of Nursing (Putnam, 1907) v. 1, p. 268.
[2] Ibid, p. 269.[3] Geoffrey Parker, The Army of Flanders and the Spanish Road, 1567-1659 (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2004), p.141
[3] Ibid, Dock, Nutting 1907.
* This post first appeared here on 26 Mar 2014.

Friday, March 15, 2019

Caterina Sforza

Caterina Sforza, by Lorenzo di Credi
(now in the Museum of Forlì.)
We remember Antonio Neri mostly for his book on glassmaking, L'Arte Vetraria. However, he thought about himself a bit differently; he considered himself first and foremost an alchemist. This interest can be traced to at least two generations before him; his father, Neri Neri, was an acclaimed physician – in fact, the personal physician to Grand Duke of Tuscany, Ferdinando I de’ Medici. Antonio's grandfather, Jacopo Neri, was a barber-surgeon. Both of these professions required an extensive knowledge of herbal distillation and other techniques which are shared by alchemists.

Antonio's benefactor, Don Antonio de' Medici, also followed a family passion for the chemical arts, in his case, traceable through an unbroken chain, to a female alchemist, his great-great-grandmother, Caterina Sforza, (c.1463–1509). After her death, over four hundred of her formulas were passed down to her son, Giovanni dalle Bande Nere, then to his son Grand Duke Cosimo I de' Medici, Grand Duke Francesco I, and finally to Don Antonio. 

Caterina was the illegitimate daughter of the Duke of Milan, Galeazzo Maria Sforza, but was still educated at court, and apparently 'apprenticed' apothecary Ludovico Albertini. At age fifteen, she was married to a nephew of Pope Sixtus. The pope granted her title of Countess of Forlì and Imola. After her territory was later taken and her husband murdered (by a faction of their own people), she escaped prison and retook the two cities. In 1495, when her second husband was assassinated, she launched a campaign which gutted the families of the murderers. Her third husband was Giovanni de' Medici, and their son, named after his father would become a brilliant military strategist, like his mother. His own son, Cosimo, would later become the first "Grand Duke" of Tuscany. 

Her chemical recipes were transcribed in 1525 by a captain in her son's army, Count Lucantonio Cuppano da Montefalco, and ultimately published as a book in 1893 (Pasolini). Included are an assortment of formulas which range from cosmetics, to medical remedies, poisons and alchemical concoctions.
Researcher Jacqueline Spicer writes:
Lost among the romanticized military conquests is a thorough account [of] the project that occupied several years of her life—the manuscript of her alchemical and medical experiments and recipes titled Gli Experimenti de la Ex.ma S.r Caterina da Furlj Matre de lo inllux.mo S.r Giouanni de Medici, or Gli Experimenti. The text is an early example of what would later become the popular medical genre of "Books of Secrets", but is so early that it does not appear in most modern writing on such books. Furthermore, Gli Experimenti is unusual because it was written by a woman in an otherwise male dominated genre, and unique in that we know a great deal about the life of its author.[1]

Among the alchemical entries are "to convert pewter into silver of the finest quality and of standard alloy," a method "for giving to bars of brass a fine golden color" and another for "for multiplying silver." Also, there are ways described  to "make iron hard," "to dissolve pearls" and "to dissolve all metals." In the medicinal category, we find "for infirm lungs, an ointment is to be made of the blood of a hen, a duck, a pig, a goose, mixed with fresh butter and white wax." This was to be applied to the chest with a fox's skin.
Sandro Botticelli, Primavera (1498)
(detail - rightmost of the three graces)

Caterina Sforza was painted many times and often depicted as the Virgin Mary, a typical trope for the nobility at the time. She may have been immortalized  by Sandro Botticelli as the rightmost of the three graces in his Primavera and as the main subject in The Birth of Venus.[2] Reportedly, she was the subject of ballads and sonnets, although most have been lost. She is a topic of discussion in Niccolò Machiavelli's famous treatise The Prince

In the end, our alchemist's territories were confiscated by yet another pope, Alexander VI, and her story does not end well. She was captured, raped and imprisoned. Alexander justified her incarceration, in the Vatican's Sant'Angelo Castle, by claiming she tried to poison him. She survived the ordeal, but after release entered the convent of the Murate nuns in Florence, and died, in 1509, at the age of forty-seven. She was buried at the convent, in the same city where her future great-great-grandson, Don Antonio, along with Antonio Neri, would perform their own alchemical experiments and help usher in the age of  modern science.

[1]https://sites.eca.ed.ac.uk/renaissancecosmetics/cosmetics-recipes/caterina-sforzas-experimenti/ also see  http://edinburgh.academia.edu/JacquelineSpicer.
[2] Another possibility for the model of Venus was Simonetta Vespucci.
*This post first appeared here on 27 January 2014.

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Anna J Agnew, Champion Glassblower

Anna J. Agnew,
Chicago Tribune, 9 March 1902, p. 43
In the spring of 1902, newspapers around the United States reported that eighteen-year-old Anna Agnew, of Norwood Pennsylvania had been proclaimed a “champion glass blower.” Stories in New York, Pennsylvania, Alabama, Virginia, Florida, Chicago and Arizona described how she was able to blow several thousand pieces of medical glassware per day. Speaking to the rigors of her profession, she stated that in the past two years her lungs had become stronger and that she had “increased in weight from 110 to 130 pounds since taking up men’s work.” When asked if she was a member of the glass workers’ union, she replied “No, as the hateful men would not take women in as active members.” [1]

Agnew worked for the glass house of the H. K. Mulford Company, a pioneering pharmaceutical outfit that grew out of the first apothecary in Philadelphia, founded in 1823. The facility was located just outside the city in idyllic Glenolden. The owners had made a strategic decision to attract a female labor force for their line of torch-made scientific glassware and sterile containers. The women “have a delicacy of touch and a deftness which make them specially fitted for expertness.” [2] Their superintendent said, “I’ve been in this business from boyhood up, and I know what I am talking about when I say that no men can turn out such good work as these girls do. [Male] glass blowers would be astonished if they looked in on this factory. The girls are infinitely more careful and painstaking than men have ever thought of being, and they are achieving results never before known in the trade.” [3]

In the not-so-distant history of American glass work, women played a strong but understated and now all but forgotten role. Anna Agnew fabricated antitoxin bulbs, goose-necks, and did ‘fancy’ glass work besides. Her female co-workers were experts at producing capillary tubes, hermetically sealed ampules and homeopathic vials. But the appreciation of female glass workers was not by any means confined to the Mulford company. Elsewhere, women around the country were specifically recruited as glass workers in other fields. From the tiny Moore Pushpin (thumb-tack) company [4] to the burgeoning incandescent light bulb industry. As Agnew and her co-workers honed their skills in the east, the Houston Electrical Supply Company in Texas advertised for “Lady Glass Blowers” experienced with incandescent lamps. Even earlier, In the 1890’s Edison’s General Electric company was running help wanted ads for “Female Glass Tubulators and Stem Makers” for his incandescent light bulb factory in Harrison, New Jersey. [5] There, women composed the vast majority of blowers making glass bases and envelopes for light bulbs. By 1918 General Electric maintained 36 lamp factories around the world, and the women at the Harrison plant met to discuss forming a union of their own. [6] Still later women became vital to the manufacture of vacuum tubes for electronics, and by the 1940’s they were working side by side with their male counterparts at the hot-glass furnaces of the Libbey glass company in Toledo, Ohio. [7]

The appreciation of female glass workers by industry in the late 1800s did not materialize out of thin air; far from it. In fact, it is not an exaggeration to say that every man, woman and child in America had heard of, read about, or seen a lady glassblower ply her craft in person. They were a widely popular attraction at county fairs, circus sideshows and dime museums. In an era when traveling performers were the premier form of entertainment in the country, glass blowers working over a torch were especially popular with women and children. Audience members could expect to walk away with a small glass toy; a model ship, an animal or a flower made entirely of glass. To see a woman making such objects was icing on the cake, a fact not lost on show managers and promoters. By the last decade of the 19th century, there were troupes entirely composed of “lady glass blowers” traveling the country, headlining their own exhibitions.

Anna Agnew was the daughter of a Philadelphia sewing machine salesman. After her stint with Mulford, she married trolley car conductor Harry Stewart and as far as can be determined, retired from the fire-arts to raise a family. She died at age 74 in Philadelphia in 1957. Other women continued their career in glass throughout their lives. There is a strong and proud tradition of women glass workers in the arts and industry that carries over from Europe and runs like a golden thread right through the entire history of the United States since its earliest days.




[1] “Girl Champion Glassblower” Chicago Tribune: Chicago, Illinois, 9 March 1902, p. 43.
[2] “Glass-Blower Girls” The Buffalo Enquirer: Buffalo, New York, 29 July 1904, p. 5.
[3] Day, Mary Edith, “Girls Who Blow Glass” Reading Times: Reading, Pennsylvania, 14 May 1902, p. 3.
[4] “Help Wanted” The Philadelphia Enquirer: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, p. 40.
[5] “Female Help Wanted” The Boston Globe: Boston, Massachusetts, p. 9.
[6] “Have Mass Meeting of Lamp Works Employees” The Fort Wayne Sentinel: Fort Wayne, Indiana,  31 December, 1918, p. 3.
[7] Rosellen Callahan, "Lady Glassblowers Wend Their Way Into 'For Men Only' Trade", Fort Lauderdale News: Fort Lauderdale, Florida, 5 August, 1943, p. 6.

Monday, March 11, 2019

Sara Vincx, Glass Maker

Still life with façon de Venise wineglass,
Alexander Adriaenssen (1587-1661)
Antwerp.
In the 1590s, after the death of her husband, Sara Vincx ran a successful glassmaking business in the city of Antwerp. In the midst of a major war, she presided over a furnace where craftsmen from Murano, Italy, made fine cristallo glassware for the elite families in Flanders. Vinx is the first documented female owner of a glass furnace anywhere.

The Dutch Eighty Years' War for independence from Spain was heating up in Flanders; towns were being pillaged and burned to the ground throughout the Low Countries. Even so, Vincx ably managed a crew of expert glass artists and brought her company's wares to market. When competitors tried to duplicate her products, she successfully defended her shop in court. Later, she remarried to Filippo Gridolfi, one of her foremen at the furnace. The two went on to open a show-room on the Meir, the most prestigious sales district of the city. They also welcomed glassmaker Antonio Neri to work at their facility. Neri was living in the city on an extended seven year visit to his friend and fellow alchemical experimenter Emmanuel Ximenes. 

The seven years that Antonio Neri spent in Antwerp were arguably the most formative for his knowledge of glassmaking. While his first exposure to the art was in Italy, a large portion of the skills and recipes exhibited in his book, L'Arte Vetraria, trace to his activities in the Low Countries. Neri writes "This will make a beautiful aquamarine so nice and marvelous, that you will be astonished, as I have done many times in Flanders in the city of Antwerp to the marvel of all those that saw it." On tinting rock crystal: "In Antwerp, I made quite a bit of this, some ranged in tint from an opal color that looked very beautiful, to a girasol, similarly nice." On equipment: "In Antwerp, I built a furnace that held twenty glass-pots of various colors and when fired for twenty-four hours everything fused and purified." He also speaks of chalcedony glass, paste gems  and ultramarine paint all crafted in Antwerp.

Neri was apparently on good terms with Vincx and Gridolfi, perhaps he was introduced through Ximenes, one of the wealthiest men in the city. In his book Neri describes Gridolfi as "a most courteous gentleman." Vincx and Gridolfi possessed exclusive rights in the region to produce cristallo glass in the Venetian style (façon de Venice) a type of glass that Neri was already quite familiar with from his time making glass in Florence. The license, or patent as it was called, passed down from previous owners, was quite a valuable part of the operation. Employed in their shop was a steady stream of craftsmen from Murano. They made the finest glassware for the upper classes of Antwerp and surrounding areas. Because these craftsmen were bringing the secret techniques with them, they worked outside of the guild system, which would have otherwise required them to share their techniques with other artisans. Through special arrangements with the local authorities, the Venetians were exempt from joining. 


Sara Vincx (or Vincks) was the widow of the former owner, Ambrogio de Mongarda. Gridolfi had previously worked in the shop under Mongarda, who had been in the business for twenty years. Vincx was pressed into service by unhappy circumstances. In 1594, Ambrogio returned alone to Venice to recuperate from gout, but by the following year he was dead, leaving Sara to both run the glass shop and care for at least eight young children. Sara Vincx carries a distinction as the first documented female owner of a glass furnace anywhere. She took an active role in the business as attested by lawsuits she filed, and won, against rival shops that violated her patent. Records show she also expanded the furnace and hired two new artisans to increase production.

Despite the war and the Spanish blockade of the Scheldt River, which shut down trade by sea for a number of years in Antwerp, the glass furnace there thrived and reached its zenith under Vincx and Gridolfi. Soon after their marriage, seventeen employees were counted working at the shop. They established their own retail presence on the Meir, selling high-end cristallo within steps of the Ximenes palace. Their glass operation enjoyed top-rung status, and no doubt, Antonio Neri's involvement must have bolstered the reputation of the firm even further.

*This post first appeared here in a shorter form on 4 October 2013.

Friday, March 8, 2019

Thomas Edison's Lady Glassblowers

Fig. 1. 
Sealing the Glass Socket and
Carbon Filament into the Flask of an Incandescent Lamp.
"We will next turn to the glass-blowing department, where
hundreds of girls are employed in all the delicate and skillful 
manipulations involved in the glasswork of these lamps"
-Henry Morton, Scribner's Magazine, Vol. 6, 1889
On a cold Monday afternoon in December of 1888, Thomas Edison, his wife Mina and their children arrived in Akron, Ohio, on the 12:17 train. They had traveled from their estate ‘Glenmont’ in West Orange, New Jersey, to visit Mina’s parents for the holidays. That same evening, after dinner, Edison and his father-in-law, Lewis Miller, donned winter coats and walked to a nearby station of the Akron Electric Light Co. where they inspected one of Edison’s dynamo generators that had recently been installed. The dynamo was wired by dedicated copper lines to ‘Oak Place’, Miller’s residence. Upon returning to the house, the family assembled on the third floor, along with a newspaper reporter, where a “mammoth Christmas tree” stood. That year, the tree was adorned with ornaments, tinsel, and also a special addition: forty incandescent lamps that, with a flick of a switch, blazed to life.[1] There is every chance that each of those forty lamps was crafted by female hands at Edison’s Harrison, New Jersey, factory.


Early on, Edison decided on a female crew of flamework glass artisans to perform the delicate manipulations of assembling and finishing the incandescent lamp bulbs, (fig. 1). These specialists crafted the glass parts of the lamps in a complex series of steps. The ‘stem’ makers formed a glass seal around the electrical wires that held the delicate filament in place. The ‘tubulators’ put a small hole in the top of the bulb and attached the glass tubing used to pump the air out of the bulb. Mating the stem to the bulb in an air-tight seal without cracking or damaging either was an art unto itself. All the while, workers needed to adapt on-the-fly to continual changes in materials, procedures and tools as the bulbs evolved and improved. What is known, is that in the early days,  production took place at the laboratory in Menlo Park. As demand for the lamps started to explode, a “shed” for the glass work was built and then expanded. Because of the rural location of the laboratory, there was a continual problem of recruiting qualified workers. Around 1880, Edison turned to the employment of school-aged girls and boys to fill the labor shortage. Here he got a first hand look at what they were capable of. The use of women and girls for this glass work was a tradition that continued for nearly five decades, through the transition into General Electric Co., right up until the work was fully automated.


It was a year earlier, in the spring of 1879 that Edison first made the announcement that he was ready to begin producing electric lamps. Newspapers at the time gave great credit to a German glassblower working for Edison, for bringing the inventor’s research to fruition. This was Ludwig Boehm. He previously worked for Heinrich Geissler in Bonn, Germany, producing electrical discharge tubes and vacuum pumps.[2]  Boehm possessed the glassblowing skills to quickly whip out one test lamp after another, but he also knew how to make the coveted vacuum pumps invented by Geissler. These were the leading edge of vacuum pump technology, far faster and more efficient at evacuating the air out of the lamps than other methods of the time. Edison’s achievement would have been impossible without Geissler’s work and it was Ludwig Boehm, the glassblower, who was the conduit.

By 1882, a new ‘Lamp Works’ factory was ready in Harrison, near metropolitan Newark. It had more floor space than they could possibly ever use, or so they thought. By 1889, Henry Morton, the president of Stevens Institute of technology wrote, “Hundreds of girls are employed in all the delicate and skillful manipulations involved in the glasswork of these lamps.”[3]


Fig. 2.
Laboratory notebook entry
signed solely by Mina Edison.
Edison kept a series of laboratory notebooks documenting experiments and potential solutions to problems, and for the lamps there were many problems. The entries are often signed by Edison himself or his assistants. It is interesting to note that for a period, his wife Mina co-signed some of Edison’s entries and several pages appear in her name alone. This shows her active participation at some level in events of the laboratory.[4] Fig. 2 shows an example of a page signed by Mina Edison, Dated 23 March 1886 with three diagrams of lamps. The top diagram is accompanied by text reading “Make lamps of all kinds of glass and list conductivity.” The next diagram shows a bulb with a special electrode off to the side. The text reads “polished silver. Also one of polished hard rubber.” The third diagram shows a lamp with two filaments and appears to read “copper filament to take out curr[ent] 10-” While the intent of these experimental setups may be lost, what is clear is that she possessed a working understanding of how the lamps functioned and she was proficient at circuit diagrams. Whether she influenced the decision to use female glass workers is an open question.


To become one of Edison’s glass technicians meant steady work in a booming industry, it also meant a first-hand introduction to divisive labor problems common to factories at the end of the 19th century. In the summer of 1889, the general manager of the lamp works took a trip to Europe and, based on British glass blowing practices, he ordered his superintendent in Harrison to immediately cut pay and institute a list of new work rules. The superintendent procrastinated, knowing a disaster in the making when he saw one. Upon the manager’s return in October, the superintendent was fired and the new rules and wages were posted. “The workmen immediately commenced to walk out, and it is likely that the entire force of two hundred will strike” wrote one reporter.[5] Four weeks later, the papers announced that “The girls employed in Edison’s lamp works at Harrison, N J, will go on strike today because of a reduction in wages.”[6] Four years later, an unrelated incident at the lampworks made the papers. It illustrates that even with a good work record and no problems with management, simply getting in through the front door unscathed was not a given. “There was a small riot at the Edison Lamp Works in Harrison, this morning, between several hundred men who were waiting about the gates of the establishment for work. Some objected to the presence of a number of Polish Jews and a free fight ensued, which resulted in a number being badly bruised. The police dispersed the crowd.”[7]


Fig. 3.
Wanted ad for Edison’s Harrison Lampworks factory.
The Boston Globe (Boston Massachusetts)
22 June 1894, Fri., p. 9.
Through it all, the business continued to expand by leaps and bounds. A continual stream of “wanted” advertisements ran in papers as far away as Boston (Fig. 3.) In 1896, Harper’s Magazine reported that  Edison’s lamp factory at Harrison employed “several hundred girls and men” turning out over six-million lamps per year.[8] Even with long hours and partial automation, the line would require at least a couple-hundred glass workers for the delicate hand-work necessary in order to produce what amounted to a new lamp finished every two seconds on the clock.[9]


In the early 1900s the processes for making the lamps was further automated, with women still running much of the equipment. By 1903 a single worker could turn out 600 completed bulbs per day.[10]  By 1912 the Harrison plant employed a total of 4000 workers. In 1918 the women glass workers at the plant met to discuss forming their own union in order to institute an apprentice system to ensure the trade remained healthy.[11] Ultimately the entire lamp factory was closed in 1929 and the work was distributed to more modern and fully automated facilities around the country.[12]


Fig. 4.
Finishing work by women on tungsten lamps, c.1927.
(Shortly before the manufacture of lamp bulbs was fully automated)
Notice the striking similarities to fig. 1. above, from
the same facility, 40 years earlier.
The individual women and girls who worked for the electric lamp factory in Harrison can be traced to some extent through census records. A survey of the 1900 US census found over a hundred female respondents listing the Edison Lamp Works as their place of employment [13] The oldest was Elizabeth Stultz aged 45, the youngest Tillie Glinik just 13. There were a number of sisters there working glass side-by-side. Mary and Carrie Wright were 26 and 16 respectively, while Barbara, Christina and Annie Etzel were 19, 18 and 17.[14]


There is also evidence that the use of female glassworkers for Edison carried overseas to his British lamp making operation. As an 18-year-old, Florence Small who lived in a suburb north of London, worked making glass ‘stems’ for the Edison and Swan Electric Light Company (Royal Ediswan). In 1911, she worked at their Ponders End facility in her hometown of Enfield. She thought enough of the experience to include that detail in her will, fifty years later.[15]

Those forty lamps on the Miller’s Christmas tree in 1888, along with millions of other lamps were created by the skilled female flameworkers of the Edison and later General Electric lamp works in Harrison. It is quite a legacy that from the time of the introduction of electric lamps in 1879, all the way to the invention of television in 1927, the delicate glasswork of the electric lighting industry was firmly entrusted to the competent hands of women.


[1] “A Talk With Edison”, The Summit County Beacon (Akron, Ohio), 2 Jan 1889, Wed, Page 7
[2] “A Very Skillful Glass-Blower” Chicago Tribune (Chicago, Illinois), 4 January 1880, Sun, p. 10. In US Census records and laboratory notebooks Boehm spells his own name “Ludwig K Böhm”. In later life, he reinvented himself as a patent attorney in New York.
[3] Henry Jackson Morton, “Electricity in Lighting” Scribner’s Magazine 1889 vol. VI, pp. 19-23 [compiled, pp. 176-200], (Charles Scribner’s Sons: New York) p. 192.
[4] 03/18/1886 Edison, Thomas Alva -- Technical Notes and Drawings (Edison, Mina Miller (Mrs Thomas A.)) Incandescent lamp [N314] Notebook Series -- Fort Myers Notebooks: N-86-03-18 (1886) [N314003; TAEM 42:815] Courtesy of Thomas Edison National Historical Park.
[5] The Nebraska State Journal (Lincoln, Nebraska), 12 October 1889, Sat. p. 4.
[6] The Brooklyn Daily Eagle (Brooklyn, New York), 11 November 1889, Mon. p. 4.
[7] “Edison Lamp Works Riot.” Reading Times (Reading, Pennsylvania), 5 Dec. 1893, Tue. p. 4.
[8] R. R. (Richard Rodgers) Bowker “Electricity, a Great American Industry”, Harper’s Magazine, Oct 1896, vol. 32, p. 710.
[9] In 1892 Edison began to automate the process of forming the outer bulbs, ultimately farming the work out to Corning Glassworks.
[10] John W. Howell And Henry Schroeder, “History of the Incandescent Lamp” (The Maqua Company: Schenectady, New York ,1927), pp. 165-172.
[11] “Have Mass Meeting of Lamp Works Employes” (sic.), The Fort Wayne Sentinel (Fort Wayne, Indiana) 31 December 1918, p. 3.
[12] In 1932 the Harrison factory was re-purposed for the Radiophone Corporation of America. RCA, which produced electronic tubes until 1976. The site was ultimately leveled and is now home to a shopping mall.
[13] Combinations of search terms targeted females working at the Harrison, New Jersey Edison/General Electric Lamp Works. Women found working there, but not listing a specific profession could have worked non glass blowing jobs. Conversely, many who were glass workers at the plant left the census field for 'employment' blank, or were not asked by the census taker and therefore not found in the search.
[14] No candidates could be found in the 1880 US census, and the 1890 census was largely destroyed in a fire at the Commerce Dept. in 1921.
[15] Probate details for Florence Small provided by https://www.terrys.org.uk/charts/c/crack301.htm


Fig. 1: Sealing the Glass Socket and Carbon Filament into the Flask of an Incandescent Lamp. 1889
Fig. 2: Laboratory notebook entry signed solely by Mina Edison.
Fig. 3: Wanted ad for Edison’s Harrison Lampworks factory. The Boston Globe (Boston Massachusetts) 22 June 1894, Fri., p. 9.
Fig. 4: Finishing work on tungsten lamps, c.1927.

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Arminia Vivarini

Nef Ewer, Late 16th century, Murano Italy.
Courtesy Milwaukee Art Museum
On the afternoon of Friday, 22 March 1521, The Venetian Senate - then called the ‘Pregadi’ - reconvened after lunch. Senator Marino Sanuto (the Younger) recorded in his now famous diary that among the afternoon business was the granting of a ten year exclusive license to Arminia, the daughter of painter ‘Alvise da Muran’ (Luigi Vivarini). She was granted this privilege to produce the ornamental glass galley ships she had recently devised. [1,2] Once called 'Navicella' (little ships) these ewers, probably most used to serve wine, are now known as ‘nefs’. A pour spout was situated at the ship's bow, and often a handle astern. These objects soon became iconic symbols of the island-nation’s long dominance in trade, and regularly appeared on sideboards and elaborate dinner table settings, not only in the lagoon, but in Florence, Rome and far beyond.


In their Objects of Virtue: Art in Renaissance Italy, Syson and Thornton write,
“It was not only the use of coloured canes in complex patterns embedded into clear glass that typified Venetian glass from the 1520s, but also the manipulation of cristallo into ever more fantastic forms. Novelties were first displayed at the Ascension Day Fair, which, like visits to the glasshouses in Murano itself, was firmly on the tourist map by about 1500. The Venetian diarist Marino Sanuto mentions the work displayed at three booths at the fair in 1525, those of Barovier, Serena and Ballarin workshops ‘among other things, a galley and a very beautiful ship were to be seen.’”
Syson and Thornton continue, “Leandro Alberti singled out just this kind of glass in his famous description of the marvels of Murano in his Description of All Italy of 1550: ‘I saw there (among other things made of glass) a scaled-down model of a galley, one braccia long and with all its rigging and equipment, so perfectly in scale that it seemed impossible to model such things accurately in such a medium.” [3]


Scholar and science investigator, Georgius Agricola, described a vessel in the form of a ship in his De re metallica published in Basel in 1556,
“The glass-makers make diverse things, such as goblets, cups [...] and ships, all of which excellent and wonderful works I have seen when I spent two whole years in Venice some time ago. Especially at the time of the Feast of the Ascension they were on sale at M[u]rano, where are located the most celebrated glass-works. These I saw on other occasions, and when, for a certain reason, I visited Andrea Naugerio in his house which he had there, and conversed with him and Francisco Asulano.” [4]


Arminia Vivarini’s father was a painter of some renown, but her family is also among the earliest recorded glassmakers on Murano. Her third-great grandfather, named Vivarino, arrived from Padua, just ahead of the plague in 1346. [5] The family seems to have been involved in the craft on the island from then on. She clearly had access to a furnace, perhaps one owned by an uncle or a cousin. In any event, she exemplified the qualities of the very best glass artisans throughout history: a clear design sense coupled with technical expertise and the opportunity to put them both into practice.


Her very existence also forces us to more closely examine the well worn narrative that hot-shops were exclusively male domains, from which women were strictly excluded. In such a highly competitive arena, it is perfectly reasonable that a family would promote its best talent, regardless of gender. In many ways, we owe homage to Vivarini for her success with this style of novelty glass object; it started the genre that continues in popularity today, five centuries later, with works of art prized by collectors and in museums around the world. [6]


[1] Arminia  (Armenia, Ermonia) Vivarini (1490-1569). See Luigi Zecchin: Vetro e Vetrai di Murano, 3 vols. (Venezia: Arsenale, 1987-9) v.3, p. 194.
[2] Marino Sanudo: I diarii di Marino Sanuto (1466-1536)  v.30. Eds., F. Stefani, G. Berchet, N. Barozzi (Venezia: Fratelli Visentini, 1891) col. 45. Also see Zecchin 1987-9, v.2, p.276.
[3] Luke Syson, Dora Thornton: Objects of Virtue: Art in Renaissance Italy (Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2001), p. 197.
[4]  Georgius Agricola (Georg Bauer): De Re Metallica: Tr. from the 1st Latin Ed. of 1556… trns: Herbert Hoover, Lou Henry Hoover. (Princeton: Mining Magazine, 1912), p. 592 (Book XII.)
[5] op. Cit. Zecchin 1987-9, v.3, p194-5.
[6] Thanks to Sophie Small‏ @sophieesmall for inspiring the subject of this post.

Monday, March 4, 2019

Encomium to a Female Glassblower

Woman flameworking glass
(Attribution Unknown, late 19th cent.)
In 1743, Britain was ruled by George II, although the Jacobites in Scotland were plotting to install Bonnie Prince Charlie to the throne. That year, Samuel Johnson was a 33 year old struggling writer and his still-to-be famed biographer James Boswell was just a toddler in Edinburgh. Also in Edinburgh, in 1743, exhibiting for a short time only, was Mrs. Johnston, an itinerant fancy glassblower.


‘Fancy' glassblowing refers to the process of working, not at a furnace, but at a table over an oil lamp with rods of glass. The artist formed the glass into small objects; rigged ships, animals, flowers, religious icons, beads and other ornaments. Glass spinning was a related process in which the heat of the lamp flame was used to draw an extremely fine continuous filament of glass that was collected on a large spinning wheel. The result was a mass of almost silk-like floss that was soft and flexible; nothing like the brittle glass of a cup or a window pane. Spinning demonstrations never failed to fascinate audiences and were a staple of fancy glass blowing acts well into the twentieth century.


Artists would often take suggestions from spectators on what to make and then form the piece on the spot. A common technique was to repeatedly touch a thin rod of glass, called a stringer, along the piece under construction forming a series of little loops in the flame. Rows of loops build up a surface that resembles knitting and a skilled artist can form finished pieces quickly. Eventually, both spinning and the knitting techniques became known generically as ‘spun glass’.


Although not well chronicled, this type of demonstration was performed at fairs and other shows as far back as the fifteenth century, and probably earlier. Because of their popularity with women and children, female fancy glass workers were not only well accepted, but commanded a premium at these events.


Below is a lovely correspondence appearing in the local Edinburgh newspaper in January of 1743. The writer is so taken by Mrs. Johnston’s demonstration that he or she was moved to compose a poem. In terms of documenting eighteenth century glass artists, it simply does not get any better:


“To The Publishers of the Caledonian Mercury. Reading a former letter of Leonora’s, curiosity inclined me to see Mrs Johnston the glass spinner, and was agreeably surprised to find the encomiums given her fall short of the character she justly deserves; so I hope the gentlemen, as well as the ladies, will solicit in the behalf of the celebrated artist, as is due her merit.  Therefore,


Let Britain quite enjoy its transport round,
Or Johnston’s praise to all the nation sound;
For me, to humble distance I’ll retire,
There gaze, and with secret joy admire:
My native Scotland such a one can boast,
On whom the praises of the world are lost,
For her own works do justly praise her most.


By giving this a place in your paper, you will oblige, yours, etcetera  -- Torisment. [1]


Two weeks later, appearing in the same paper is Mrs. Johnston’s reaction:


“When a person is obliged to persons unknown, the best way is to return them thanks in the most public manner: therefore Mrs. Johnston, the glass blower and spinner, returns thanks to all the gentlemen and ladies who have honored her with their presence; but more especially the gentleman and lady who did her that honour in the public paper: She cannot show her gratitude in any other way than by her best prayers for their felicity, which she shall always think herself to do both for them and all other her benefactors. Her stay being short in this kingdom, she performs now for the small price of sixpence per piece. [2]


[1] The Caledonian Mercury, Edinburgh, Scotland, 10 Jan 1743, p. 3.
[2] Op. cit., 24 Jan 1743, p. 3.