The History of Cranberry Glass

Written by sharon l. cohen
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The History of Cranberry Glass
(Le Petit Poulailler/Flickr.com)

The bright reds of "cranberry" glass add a beautiful dimension to glassware collections. How the glass received its name is still debated. Some collectors believe the glass was first named by New England craftsmen, who were producing glass amid America's first cranberry farms, where the native fruit was cultivated. Other antique specialists argue that Americans, visiting England during the Victorian age, saw the red-coloured glass and called it "cranberry" after one of their favourite fruits. Regardless of how the name came about, the glass has become an integral part of both American and English history.

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First Example

You can find examples of red glass as far back as 2,000 years ago in ancient Rome. The well-known Lycurgus Cup, from the fourth century AD, is made of a very unique type of glass called dichroic. It changes from green to a vibrant red when held up to the light. The cup is also decorated with small amounts of silver and gold, which adds to its brightness. The cup depicts the story of the mythical King Lycurgus, as he is forced into the underworld. Antique dealer and author Tony Shaman reports that this rare piece is the earliest form of cranberry glass presently known.

17th Century Re-creation

It was not until the 1600s that this red glass would be produced again, this time in Bohemia. Some historians believe that artisans had been unsuccessfully trying to re-create this brightly coloured glass for centuries, precisely because of its difficulty. At last in the early 1600s, Johann Knuckel in Bohemia and/or Antonio Neri in Italy discovered the secret of adding small amounts of gold chloride to the melted glass. It was not until 1925, however, that the chemical reaction was explained by Nobel Prize winner Richard Adolf Zsigmondy. The higher the amount of gold, the darker the glass's hue. The glass ranges from a very light pink to a very deep red.

Victorian Age

The glass became very popular in the Victorian Age of the late 1800s and early 1900s. By this time, craftsmen understood the craft of making cranberry glass and were able to create an entire range of products, such as pitchers, vases, drinking glasses, decanters and decorative items, in addition to lamps and lighting fixtures. These glassblowers also found that even the slightest mistake in the formula would ruin the colour and could not be used. It was a painstaking process.

1851 World's Fair

In 1851, Queen Victoria's husband, Prince Albert, organised the World's Fair in London called the "The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations." It was later referred to as "The Crystal Palace Exhibition" because the 20 acres of exhibition space needed almost one million square feet of windowpanes. These were all hand made, since the automated process of making glass had still not been invented. At the exhibit, many examples of cranberry glass were either displayed or used as lighting fixtures for illumination. Many visitors from around the world, especially Americans, returned with an even greater interest in cranberry glass.

Manufactured Cranberry Glass

Glass was not produced in factories until about 50 years later, or the early 1900s. There are several different ways that different forms of the glass are made. In the process called "casing," cranberry glass is fused on clear glass. Then the exterior layer of the red glass is cut away in some areas to show the interior glass. This gives a special decorative look. In the technique called "flashing," the clear glass is dipped into the melted cranberry glass, so there is a thinner layer of red glass than with casing. Such methods also reduce the cost of production, making such fine pieces of glassware affordable by more people.

Present-Day Manufacture and Collection

Although cranberry glass is still produced today in large quantities in England and the United States, the antique glassware is most prized. It is very difficult to date the glass, however, because there were so many different pieces made and very little differences between the decades. This does not lower its value, however. Dealers continue to look for unique cranberry items to add to their collection or to sell to other collectors.

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