Cut Victorian Glass

In England during the second half of the 18th Century cut glass/lead crystal decanters and wine glasses were becoming increasingly popular. The desire to have lead crystal on one’s dining table projected a sign affluence and was also an opportunity to exhibit your latest acquisitions to your dinner guests. With candelabras on the table the crystal glasses looked amazing. They sparkled like diamonds against a backdrop of candlelight and this really exhibited the crystal off to their best advantage.

The English lead flint glass was introduced by George Ravenscroft in the late 17th Century. At the early stage of their development the glasses would often bristle with jagged points meaning they couldn’t be handled how they were intended to be. Export in glass grew and buyers from further afield wanted to share in the profits from the market.

Waterford Crystal Glasshouse was set up in 1783. George Gatchell who took over Waterford in 1848 decided to exhibit his wares in an exhibition. The ostentatious centre stand was a banqueting table with forty cut dishes and elaborate pieces. However, before the exhibition closed its doors for the last time George Gatchell had been declared bankrupt and the glasshouse sadly closed down.

Glassware was tax-free between the years 1780 and 1825 enabling a large proportion to be sold competitively on the far side of the Atlantic and other countries. Around 1676, Ravenscroft found a way to make the glass more brilliant in appearance by adding lead oxide (red lead). Glass containing lead oxide is noticeably heavier in the hand than other varieties. Unfortunately, those that worked in these glasshouses before the advent of health and safety were handling materials such as red lead and tin oxide. These were detrimental to their health and the average life expectancy was no more than 55 years.

During the Mid-19th Century the pressed-glass process was used to manufacture glassware. This resembled cut glass but at a fraction of the cost leading to a decline in the demand for the original glass. Today much of the cut glass is partially moulded and then finished at the wheel. This eliminates the expensive work of marking out the design and making the rough cut. I am pleased to say that cut glass is making its come back and we are seeing more people polishing their cut glass for dinner parties.

There are few ways you can tell if you have lead glass. These are the age and weight of the glass. A little trick of the trade is to get a spoon and tap the rim of the glass. If it rings like a bell then it has lead crystal content. However, if the sound is dull then it does not contain any crystal.

The inclusion of at least 24% lead oxide in the composition is required by law for crystal to be called full lead crystal. The lead lends brilliance and weight to the product.

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Joy Cowley-Smith March 15, 2017

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