Dear Readers,

As you may have seen elsewhere, in mid February my wife and I suffered the loss of our home in a fire, in the hills of central Massachusetts. The good news is that we got out safely and had no animals in our care at the time. The fire crews were able to contain the fire from spreading, in what turned into a 3-alarm, 5-hour-long ordeal in subzero temperatures; they did amazing work, and no one was injured. The bad news is that all of my physical historical materials and research of 30 years have gone up in smoke. As a result I have decided to suspend this blog for the time being. It will remain online as a resource for those interested in the history of glass and glassmaking in the seventeenth century and beyond. I do intend to resume writing when I can, but for now my time and energy are required in getting us back on our feet.

Friends are providing temporary shelter for us nearby and our intention is to rebuild as soon as possible. To those who have reached out with a steady hand, to those who have opened their wallets, and offered advice in our time of need, we thank you from the bottom of our hearts. In what are already difficult times for all of us, you have made a huge difference in our lives.

Paul Engle
6 March, 2021

Monday, March 30, 2020

Sisters of an Alchemist

Pharmacy, apothecary and assistant 
cooking medicine, woodcut, from: 
Hieronymus Brunschwig
 (circa 1450 - circa 1512)
Among the ten children born to glassmaker Antonio Neri’s parents, three of them were girls; Lessandra, Maria, and Lucrezia. Because women were not allowed to legally own property, or sign contracts many of the usual sources of information are silent. Most of what we can learn about them is through their relationships with the men around them.

The Neri's were a patrician family, and the children enjoyed a very comfortable existence for the late sixteenth century. There is evidence that all three sisters survived into adulthood. Lessandra was the first-born, nine years older than Maria, and twelve years older than Lucrezia.

When Lessandra was around age seventeen, her famous father, Neri Neri, was appointed as personal physician to the newly crowned Grand Duke Ferdinando de’ Medici. However, only a few short years later their mother Dianora died at age 42, of causes that are unknown, perhaps childbirth. The girls were 22, 13 and 10. A few short years later they lost both their father, and a brother.

Two information sources for the Neri sisters are their birth records kept at the Opera del Duomo and genealogy records for the family which are filed at the National Archives, both in Florence. The baptism records hold a wealth of indirect material through the names of their godparents. While these do not tell us anything specific about them, it does tell us who their influences were; who they looked to for strength and spiritual guidance, under the circumstances, this is the best we can do.

Lessandra (b. 1572) claimed Baccio Valori as her godfather. The Valori family had a long, tragic history with the ruling Medici family. His father, grandfather and great-grandfather were all close Medici supporters, yet each ended up exiled, imprisoned, or executed after relationships soured. On one hand he was faithfully employed by the Medici, yet he reportedly spent a good deal of his time collecting letters and papers documenting his family’s close support of Girolamo Savonarola, the firebrand Dominican priest who lead Florence in the late 1490s, after the Medici had been temporarily expelled from the city.

Lessandra’s godmother was Marietta Gaetani, also from a noble family, which included dukes, cardinals and popes. They played prominent roles in the politics of Pisa, Rome and Naples for several centuries. Marietta’s father owned the house from whose tower Galileo showed the moons of Jupiter to Grand Duke Cosimo II in 1610.

The genealogical records imply that Lessandra later took vows with the S. Agata monastery on the North end of Florence and took the name suor Emilia.

Maria’s (b. 1581) godfather was Monsignor Giovanni Alberti. Giovanni was the son of a Florentine senator. He served as protonotary apostolic for Pope Gregory XIII and as bishop of Cortona under Pope Clement VIII. A godfather serving in the papal inner chambers was a good family contact indeed. Also appearing for Maria was Pierfilippo Perini, a physician and lawyer. The Registri lists Maria Neri's godmother as Alessandra di Girolamo Pepi. Among the prominent Florentine republicans was Alessandra's father, Girolamo. He was tortured by Alessandro de' Medici in the 1530s, upon the family's regaining control of Florence after the siege.The genealogy indicates that she married into the Boscoli family, but further work is needed to identify a specific individual.

Lucrezia (b. 1584), the youngest Neri girl, has a single godparent listed in the register, Montiglio degli Albizi. The Albizi family boasted powerful bankers and politicians. This was another case where deep divisions over Medici rule drove a family apart. Perhaps the best-recognized member of the Albizzi family was Eleonora degli Albizi. She was the young consort of grand duke Cosimo I. Folklore has it that in 1566, Cosimo intended to retire from public life and marry Albizi quietly, after the birth of a girl, but his regent son, Francesco I, forbade it to due to the inheritance complications that would ensue. The story is that Cosimo's long-time personal secretary, Sforza Almeni, leaked word of the clandestine marriage to the family. For his betrayal, an enraged Cosimo murdered Almeni in cold blood. Eleonora later gave birth to Don Giovanni de’ Medici, the uncle and friend of Don Antonio, Neri's sponsor. The specific Albizi family member we are interested in, Lucrezia's godfather, Montiglio degli Albizi, seems to have eluded history. Lucretia married into the Talenti family, but no further details are known.

Friday, March 27, 2020

Dianora Parenti

Agnolo di Cosimo 'Bronzino',
"Portrait of Florentine Noblewoman"
(subject unknown , circa. 1540).
The mother of Antonio Neri, the 17th century glassmaker and alchemist,  was named Dianora Parenti. She was the oldest of six children: three girls and three boys. She was born in Florence, on 11 February 1552, with the given name of Dora listed in the city's baptistery register. In all probability by the age of eighteen she was quite accustomed to helping her mother with the other children; Caterina, the youngest, was born less than a year before Dianora's wedding.

Her father and grandfather were prominent lawyers; together they handled much of the personal business of famed artist Michelangelo. On the 20th day of August 1570, Francesco Parenti walked his eldest child down the aisle to be joined, in holy matrimony, to physician Neri Neri. Two years later, their first child Lessandra was born. 

Historians Luigi Zecchin and Enzo Settesoldi identified four of Antonio's brothers, two older and two younger. They were Jacopo (1573), Francesco (1575), a second Jacopo (1577) and Vincenzio (1579). In addition to these five boys, there were at least two more brothers born later, Emilio (1583) and Alessandro (1587). And there were at least three girls, the first-born child Lessandra (1572) and two younger sisters: Maria (1581) and Lucretia (1584). 

In all, there were ten births by Dianora recorded in Florence, occurring almost like clockwork on a fifteen-month schedule. As did many women of the period, she spent a significant portion of her adult life pregnant. In her case, it was a span of sixteen years, carrying one child after another with minimal interruption.

The birth of a child in Renaissance Florence was no small occasion. Patrician families went to considerable expense on decorations, on food and drink for guests and on gifts for the mother and godparents. "The woman who gave birth, like a bride at her wedding, occupied for a passing moment a position of unparalleled honor,"* more than that, while a wedding signaled the transition from daughter to wife, the birth celebration was a rare social recognition of a woman as an individual.

A genealogical record of the eighteenth century, held at the State Archives in Florence (ASF), confirms most of the Neri children's births. It also sets the date of death for their mother Dianora at 1594 when she would have been forty-two years old. This means Antonio lost his mother when he was eighteen and his youngest brother Alessandro was a mere seven.

* Margaret L. King, Women of the Renaissance (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991), p. 4.

This post first appeared on 11 September 2013.

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Bianca Capello and Francesco de Medici

19th century romantic depiction of
Bianca Cappello, Francesco de' Medici 
(with Don Antoni as a child.)
The story of 17th century glassmaker Antonio Neri weaves together closely with that of a Medici prince also named Antonio. The prince was six months younger, living quite a different life, yet holding many of the same interests. Don Antonio de' Medici was the eldest and only surviving son of the second grand duke of Tuscany. He became both Neri's employer and his benefactor. Don Antonio's own fascination with nature's secrets ran in his blood, a fascination that preceded him by at least four generations. His father Francesco and his grandfather Cosimo, both grand dukes of Tuscany, avidly pursued the vagaries of natural secrets. Cosimo had picked up the interest of alchemy from the notebooks of his own paternal grandmother, Caterina Sforza, as preserved by his father, Giovanni dalle Bande Nere. Don Antonio would carry on the family passion working in the laboratory built by his father on the north side of Florence, called the Casino di San Marco. Shortly after the prince settled in, priest Antonio Neri came to work in the Casino laboratory and there learned the craft of glass formulation. 

Evidence suggests that Don Antonio's mother. Bianca, was also fascinated by alchemy. Although specifics are hazy, she apparently cultivated relationships with women in the city's Jewish quarter who were well steeped in the concoction of various remedies and potions. Furthermore her family was involved in the glassmaking industry in Venice, another craft with close connections to chemistry.

By the time Don Antonio dusted off the cobwebs at the Casino and restarted the laboratory there in his early twenties, he had already experienced more than his share of misfortune. At the age of eleven, his life was suddenly changed forever when he lost both parents. Among many other implications, it meant relinquishing his future as grand duke of Tuscany to his uncle Ferdinando. Cardinal Ferdinando de' Medici had been visiting his brother, Grand Duke Francesco and his wife Bianca when they both became violently ill and died within days of each other in the fall of 1587. It was no secret that the brothers had running quarrels on a variety of matters from the cardinal's allowance to the way Francesco was running Tuscany. It was also no secret that Cardinal Ferdinando strongly disapproved of his older brother's wife, Bianca Cappello. She had earlier been the duke's mistress; they married in secret shortly after Grand Duchess Giovanna died in pregnancy. 

As soon as Francesco and Bianca's deaths were made public, rumors began to fly that the cause was poison in their food and not pernicious malaria, as pronounced by Ferdinando's own two doctors, Cini and Da Barga. Related rumors claimed that Don Antonio was an illegitimate child, or adopted, or even the product of witchcraft, none of which hurt Ferdinando's case for succeeding his brother as grand duke. The narrative was that Ferdinando had made a ruthless power grab, assassinating his brother and sister-in-law; it was a narrative that spread and gained momentum over the years, fueled by careless researchers and Victorian era romanticism. In some nineteenth and twentieth century history books, it was reported as all but fact. The poisoning of Ferdinando and Bianca has been the subject of theatrical productions, novels, poetry, paintings and a musical composition. Admittedly, it does have all the elements of a great story: Marriage for love in the aristocracy, sex, murder, intrigue, politics and religion. Truth be told, given the Medici family’s actual history, the story is not all that far-fetched, but it turns out not to be true, at least as far as modern forensics technology can determine.

 Controversy erupted in 2007 when a team from the University of Florence reported that they had unearthed what they presumed to be the long-lost (but partial) remains of Grand Duchess Bianca. Testing revealed a significant level of arsenic, leading some to give assassination another look. Others pointed out that arsenic was commonly used as an embalming preservative in this period. Meanwhile, a team at the University of Pisa confirmed that there are malaria pathogens in what are not disputed to be Francesco's remains, interred at the Chapel of Princes in Florence. 

Ferdinando's two physicians, Giulio Cini and Giulio Angeli da Barga, who were on the scene in October of 1587, reported that symptoms were identical in both patients. Modern forensics pathologists agree that those symptoms are entirely consistent with pernicious malaria. Furthermore, it was recorded that a few days earlier, Francesco and Bianca had ventured into a swampy area on a walk near the estate where they met their end. In fact, Francesco had lost two younger brothers and his mother to malaria, and I can personally vouch that Tuscan mosquitoes are nasty little creatures. If not for an insect bite, Don Antonio might well have become the third grand duke. As it was, Ferdinando took the reigns of power and Antonio Neri's father was appointed to be the new grand duke's royal physician, with Cini and da Barga his assistants.

Monday, March 23, 2020

Rise and Fall

"Merry Company," (1623)
Gerard van Honthorst
The first decade of the seventeenth century was a golden era for glass in Tuscany. The Venetian techniques brought to the region by Grand Duke Cosimo de' Medici in the 1570s had been assimilated. The pioneering work of his son, Francesco, in cross pollinating different crafts under one roof, was by now bearing fruit in unique items that included the handiwork of glass artisans. Grand Duke Ferdinando understood the value of glass as a source of prestige and was willing to invest in it. This was the environment in which Antonio Neri first learned to make glass. Delicate drinking glasses were the toast of the aristocracy throughout Europe. The material was critical to the advancement of chemistry, medicine and by the end of the decade astronomy. 

In 1602, Antonio Neri came to work in the shop of Niccolò Sisti in Pisa. While Sisti was making fancy glassware for the Medici court, the nearby Coscetti firm was supplying Pisa with everyday items. Coscetti made glassware for private homes, but also innkeepers, spice and perfume sellers, winemakers and a baker among others. Their wares included cruets for oil, saltcellars, carafes, drinking glasses, containers for holy water, reliquaries, gilded Venetian style cups and English style flasks. 

By the second decade, momentum started to shift and before long, the glass industry in Tuscany fell on hard times. Apparently the demand for glass could not support the number of factories that had started and the rapid succession of leadership in the duchy added uncertainty to patronage of the arts in general. 

Another factory in Pisa was run by Giovanbattista Guerrazzi, who had acquired the exclusive right to make Venetian style cristallo from Neri's old employer Sisti. In 1623, Guerrazzi had problems of a different sort, not directly related to the sales of glass. He appealed to Pisa’s Office of Rivers and Ditches, pleading with them to modify a recent ruling. He explained that he owned three houses next to his furnace, one for his family and the others functioning as sales space and housing for his workers. Since he was the exclusive maker of cristallo, he had employed a number of girls and women to decorate the delicate glassware, and a constant stream of the nobility showed up to watch the work being done. Guerrazzi's problem was that the Magistrate of Public Decency had recently published a list of seven places where women of "ill repute" were allowed to stay. One of these was located next door to his glassmaking operation. He begged for a change in the ruling, to move his new neighbors elsewhere.

The outcome of his appeal is not known, but Guerrazzi was succeeding in the glass business, and at the same time accelerating the demise of his competitors. He bought-out and demolished the furnaces of a number of other glassblowers and planned the same fate for the Coscetti operation, putting all the craftsmen there out of work. In the mid 1620s, after a quarter century of operation, the fires under Coscetti furnace were allowed to go out forever. Furnaces at Leghorn, Pistoia and Prato had shuttered, leaving only the one furnace in Pisa, two in Florence and two at the castle of Montaione. 

*This post first appeared here on 12 Dec 2013.

Friday, March 20, 2020

Kitchen Alchemy

Tesoro del Mondo, "Ars Preparatio Animalium"
Antonio Neri 1598-1600, f. 10r (MS Ferguson 67).
Between 1598 and 1600, Antonio Neri wrote a manuscript filled with alchemical recipes. He entitled it Tesoro del Mondo or "Treasure of the World" and stated that it was a book in draft form, intended for publication. It never did see the ink of a printer's press, but Neri's original did survive intact and today occupies a place of pride in the Ferguson Collection of the University of Glasgow Library. [1]

Tesoro is an ambitious work, devoted to "all of alchemy," containing numerous hand-drawn ink and watercolor illustrations; some of the pictures are allegorical, many others document practitioners working with equipment. Only passing reference is made in this manuscript to Neri's later claim to fame: glass—its most notable appearance in Tesoro  is in illustrations of experimental vessels. 1598 was two or three years before Antonio's glassmaking career is thought to have started. His life was busy on other fronts. He had just been ordained as a Catholic Priest, undergoing the laying on of hands ceremony, probably by his neighbor on Borgo Pinti, the Florentine archbishop Alessandro Ottaviano de' Medici. 1598 was also a year of tragedy for the Neri family; by the summer, his father Neri Neri, personal physician to the grand duke, died of an unknown illness, but not before making arrangements for his family, which included a will. A court magistrate would oversee the now orphaned children's education, inheritance and dowries. They would soon suffer further tragedy in the unexpected death of a brother; sixteen year-old Emilio would leave them on Christmas day of the following year, in Castello outside Florence. 

The losses must have been devastating. In 1598, five of the nine children were still under the age of twenty. Without a mother or father, great responsibility must have fallen on the shoulders of the matriarch of the house, the children's elderly paternal grandmother Maddalena. [2] To outsiders, the Neri's were a wealthy and quite well respected family, but internally, the tragic events undoubtedly threw their lives into turmoil. It is in these circumstances that Antonio started his manuscript. The events allude to the reasoning behind a cryptic Latin quote scribbled at the top of a page above the first recipe of Tesoro: "fuimus troes." It means, "We are Trojans no more" From Virgil's Aeneid, referring to the fall of Troy. [3] 

Early in the manuscript there is a series of four illustrations, each showing a different activity, In order, they are titled The Art of Preparation of Stones, Metals, Plants and Animals. [4] Each is filled with multiple workers engaged in various activities pertinent to the specific art. Each highlights interactions between the Aristotelian elements: air, water, earth and fire. There is no specific indication of where any of the four scenes take place, although some educated guesses can be taken. For instance, the stone workers, or lapidaries, almost certainly are an early incarnation of the famed 'Opificio delle pietre dure' working in the Uffizi's Galleria dei Lavori. But we will leave that discussion for another time. 

Of the four illustrations, "Preparing Animals" focuses on activity within a kitchen. (See above, click to enlarge). The scene is intriguing in that it appears to take place in a domestic setting. Labels call out the four Aristotelian elements; birds hanging from the rafters represent air, fish on a grilling rack represent water, a whole carcass on the spit represents earth and fire appears as itself. The scene suggest that this setting is none other than the Neri family kitchen and that the practitioners of the art are three of Antonio's siblings. In the middle right, a young boy is engaged in turning the spit (in green). The best candidate would be then eleven year-old Allesandro, the eventual heir to the family, whose own son named Neri would carry on the family practice as a physician. Of the two young women pictured, the three family choices are fourteen year-old Lucretia, Sixteen year-old Maria and twenty-six year-old Lessandra.

In one sense, the methodology of alchemy lives-on today in kitchens around the world. The process of combining raw ingredients and cooking them together, of experimentation and of iteratively refining a recipe to perfection, this is not so different from what Antonio Neri and his siblings were doing four hundred years ago.


[1] Neri 1598-1600.
[2] Maddalena di Bartolomeo di Niccolò Bartoloz[z]i, married Jacopo Neri, and they gave birth to Antonio’s father Neri Neri. (ASF 599).
[3] Fuimus Troes, fuit Ilium, et ingens Gloria Teucrorum. [We Trojans are at an end, Illium has ended and the vast glory of the Trojans], The Aeneid: Book 2, Line 325.  See also the post in this blog (Conciatore.org) dated 13 June 2014.
[4] Neri 1598-1600, ff. 7r, 8r, 9r, 10r.
* This post first appeared here on 27 August 2014,

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Women in Alchemy

Antonio Neri, 1598-1600,
MS Ferguson 67, f. 25r.
It is certain that women have participated in the practice of alchemy since its beginnings, but hard documentation is scant. Maria Prophetissima, also known as Mary the Jewess, is perhaps the best known female alchemist. None of her writings have survived, but she is thought to have lived around the third century. Legend tells that the "bain-marie" (double boiler) is named after her.

In the seventeenth century, celebrated glassmaker and alchemist Antonio Neri provides us with further detail, even if raising more questions than answers. One of his manuscripts, entitled Tesoro del Mondo (Treasure of the World) depicts three women running chemical equipment. Unfortunately, we are left to guess who they were and what role they played in the larger Florentine technical arts community. It is possible that these were nuns, trained in the same Church sponsored educational system that produced Neri. Convents were often expected to be self-sufficient and many ran their own pharmacies. Neri had sisters as well as brothers and at least one sister entered a convent located on the north side of Florence, near the laboratory where Antonio practiced alchemy and made glass. The fact that specific names have not been associated with Neri’s three female co-workers should not deter us from celebrating their contribution to the birth of early modern science.

Within a year of his ordination in the Catholic Church, Neri began an ambitious treatise, illustrated in his own hand, devoted to "all of alchemy." Six of the illustrations in this manuscript, completed in 1600, show women tending equipment. It is not remarkable that some alchemists of the 16th century were women, what is remarkable is to find them in the historical record. Direct depiction of female participation in alchemy is otherwise extremely rare. 



Two pictures in the Neri manuscript show female alchemists at
Antonio Neri, 1598-1600, 
MS Ferguson 67, f. 35r.
work. In both cases, the technician stands behind a dedicated piece of apparatus, facing forward, giving the impression of propriety in an arranged portrait. In other words, Neri is drawing his co-workers at their stations, practicing their art. The first drawing depicts a furnace and vessels used to make liquid mercury from its ore. The other shows a different type of furnace with a 'tower,' used as an efficient way to cook ceruse (white lead oxide). These images are part of a larger set of two dozen similar drawings that each illustrate the equipment used to prepare a specific product, many include a furnace and glassware. Nine of these show a single individual, (or in one case two men) tending the equipment. Because the manuscript is a recipe book, it contains almost no personal information. However, the context of these illustrations indicated that like their male counterparts, the individuals depicted all have specific responsibilities and specializations within the workplace.


Three other illustrations in the manuscript are notable for their engagement of women. These pictures show details of kitchen and nursing work; what might be termed more traditional female roles in the sixteenth century. Two of these illustrations are devoted to the respective arts of preparing plants and animals. They show women working alongside men performing various tasks. A third illustration shows medicinal fogging tents tended by a woman. Inside one tent, a male patient sits naked on a bench, exposed and breathing fumes pumped in by a large vessel perched over a fire. Similar arrangements are known to have been used to treat skin lesions caused by leprosy and syphilis.
Antonio Neri, 1598-1600, 
MS Ferguson 67, f. 37r.
The circumstances in these images present other possibilities to Antonio Neri's work environment. One is that the scenes take place at the Neri household on Borgo Pinti in Florence. Antonio's father was the personal physician to Ferdinando de' Medici, the grand duke of Tuscany. He was also the head of the college of physicians in Florence, and presumably ran a thriving private practice. The women may be Neri's siblings or other family members. 

Another possibility is that we may be looking at operations inside the Casino di San Marco soon after prince Don Antonio de' Medici's occupation of the facility. This palace laboratory had a reputation for medical cures that extended throughout Europe. Don Antonio spent extravagant sums to learn alchemical and medicinal secrets. The glass furnace here, which had employed masters from Venice is where Neri began formulating glass. The presence of women among his colleagues indicates a social setting with a camaraderie not displayed in other alchemical works of the period. 

* This post first appeared here on 17 March 2013 in a slightly different form.

Monday, March 16, 2020

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.

Friday, March 13, 2020

The 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.

Wednesday, March 11, 2020

Anna J Agnew

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. 




H K Mulford advertising card showing vaccine being 
 made in an adjacent facility to the glassworks.

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 9, 2020

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 6, 2020

Sarah Worral Grazebrook

Guest Post

Conciatore is very pleased to present a guest post by Dr. Kate Round in which she acquaints us with the owner operator of the Audnam Glassworks in the mid 1700s.

Sarah Worral Grazebrook 1721-99
by Kate Round

After reading of Sara Vincx who in 1595, following the death of her husband, ran a successful glassmaking business in the City of Antwerp; I was reminded of a local successful businesswoman running a Glasshouse in Audnam, near Amblecote in Stourbridge, when the glass industry was flourishing in the 18th century.

Glassmaking was established in Amblecote after Lorrainer glassmakers arrived in the early 17th century. They were attracted by the best fire clay, cheap coal, sand and soda made from the burnt bracken on Pensnett Chase. De Houx built one of the early glasshouses in 1618 in Amblecote and glasshouses eventually spread over the parish making many and varied products.

Audnam Glasshouse was built in 1716 and was run by Henry Bradley. His business suffered due to the decline in the price paid for broad glass coupled with the introduction of the glass tax in 1745. He finally surrendered his business in 1747 to his landlord, Baron John Ward of Dudley.
Map of Stourbridge area canal system incl. Audnam Glassworks cone,
1774 map by Robert Whitworth.
(Click to enlarge map.)

Baron Ward immediately let the glasshouse to Michael Grazebrook I at an annual rent of £50. The association between the Dudley family and the Grazebrooks lasted 112years. Business flourished and his son Michael II (born 21st June 1723) learned the trade.


Michael II married Sarah Worral on 16th January 1753, Michael was 29yrs old and Sarah who was an only child and an heiress of Stourton in Staffordshire was aged 31. It was not uncommon for eligible businessman to seek a bride who would bring further prosperity to their allegiance. In 1640 Paul Tyzack, one of the original Huguenot glassmakers to settle in the area was sufficiently integrated into local society to see his son Paul II, marry Joyce Lyddiatt the daughter of his landlord, John Lyddiatt a scythesmith of Wollaston Hall. Joshua Henzey son of Huguenot Ananias Henzey, arrived in Stourbridge in 1618 aged just 22years, he wasted no time in marrying Joan Brettle a spinster from a substantial landowning family. Just six days after their marriage Joan gave birth to their son Ananias, baptised in Kingswinford on 5th October 1618.


The marriage between Michael Grazebrook II and Sarah Worral lasted just 15 years. Michael died in 1766 aged 42years. They had two sons, Thomas Worral Grazebrook (11/08/1756) and Michael Grazebrook III (7/03/1758). In Michael II’s will he was described as a master glassmaker and desired that trade be carried on by his widow Sarah and that stock in trade, book debts, personal estate and effects be equally divided between his only two sons, Thomas and Michael III aged 10years and 8years at the time of their fathers death.

In 1760 Audnam Flint Glasshouse was listed as manufacturing Smooth Enamel Glass, Best and Ordinary Flint Glass and Phials. Sarah Grazebrook continued to manage her late husband’s glassmaking business for many years and although both of her sons were involved, they also developed other interests in coal and ironmaking.

The glasshouse at Audnam was shown on local maps when the land around it was enclosed in 1777 and the occupier was listed as Mrs Sarah Grazebrook. She was also recorded as running Dob Hill Glasshouse owned by Robert Honeybourne. Benjamin Richardson who we consider to be the patriarch of Stourbridge glass, wrote in his notebook in 1886 that Grazebrooks needed Dob Hill Glassworks to make bottles; worked by Madame Grazebrook they used to take the material from the glasshouse at Audnam to Dob Hill Glassworks, and vice-versa. It was reported that the glasshouse at Dob Hill ‘fell-down’ sometime around 1800 and a new canal-side glasshouse was built as a replacement.

In 1783 Sarah was listed as a Glass manufacturer in a local directory and in that year also she took out a further 21-year lease from the landlord Lord Dudley. Her lease was in the sum of £52 per annum with maintenance and repairs to be undertaken by the lessee at her own cost. Sarah also took out an insurance policy in both her and her sons names on 5 May 1783. In 1793 a local directory stated that about ten glasshouses in the district had an output so great that they each paid £20,000 per annum in duty (equivalent to £2.8m today). T&M Grazebrook was one of those listed.

Michael III married in 1785 and moved to the family home Audnam House attached to the glassworks. After his marriage both Michael and his brother Thomas took over the running of the business from their mother Sarah. Their business continued to prosper in glass, coal and as ironmasters; the eight-pot glassmaking furnace traded as T & M Grazebrook, yet in 1795 it was Sarah who paid the £53 rent to Lord Dudley. Their mother remained the head of the firm until she died in 1799 aged 78y. Her will divided her estate between her two sons Thomas and Michael III.

For nineteen years, between the death of her husband in 1766 and when her sons were registered as the business owners in 1785, Sarah maintained the business. She was solely responsible for the day to day running of the eight-pot Audnam furnace and a bottle making furnace at Dob Hill. She managed the workforce, maintained healthy order books, purchased raw materials and supplied quality products; thus ensuring a flourishing business to pass on to her sons. Tradition tells that as an old lady Sarah would sit in her bedroom window with an hourglass to time her workmen’s shifts.

Like Sara Vincx in Antwerp in 1595, running successful glassmaking businesses in a male dominated environment must have bought many challenges that went unrecorded. Did Sara marry Filippo Gridolfi, one of her foremen of the furnace, to validate her position. Did both formidable ladies contribute also to product design, were they hands-on with blowing irons despite the taboo of women working glass? Who knows! some things perhaps were best left unsaid?


References:
Buckley, Francis; Old English Glasshouses, Society of Glass Technology 2006
Ellis, Jason; Glassmakers of Stourbridge and Dudley 1612-2002, Xlibris Corporation, 2002
Guttery, D R; From Broad Glass to Cut Crystal, Leonard Hill Ltd, London 1956
Engle, Paul; Sara Vincx, Glass MakerConciatore Blog 2013



Dr Kate Round is an outreach presenter and tour guide for Dudley Museum Service, based at the iconic Red House Glass Cone in Wordsley; the home of Stuart Crystal.

In her previous life, she was a research chemist and lecturer so understands the chemistry of glass having worked on the synthesis of ‘zeolites’ (silica-based materials) with her work published in International Journals. "I have always lived in the Black Country and have a strong industrial family heritage; I am also proud to have served my community as a local Magistrate for the past nineteen years. In the glass industry, my areas of interest include the historical development of the industry in the Stourbridge district, how the geology and geography impacted on the wealth and sociology of the area, driven by the rivalry of our Glass Dynasties."


Dr Kate Round JP, PhD, MRSC CChem, BSc(Hons)

Twitter: @RoundKate

Wednesday, March 4, 2020

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 on the grounds 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, and apparently made his decision to go with all girls. 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 information conduit on the pumps.

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.