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History of Nailsea Glass History

Bristol Glass History

    The village or town of Nailsea is located in North Summerset, England, about 10 miles southwest of Bristol, England.  Bristol was one of the historical centers of glass production in England.  Thus, we must discuss a bit of Bristol’s history since it impacts and precedes the Nailsea glass history. 

In 1760, Bristol had no fewer than 15 glasshouses.  The Bristol area had no rivals in England in regards to quantity or quality of glass production at that time.  The exact year glass production first began in Bristol is unknown but we know from tax records, the taxes paid on glass in 1695 amounted to £17,642.  This would indicate a well- developed, large glass business. 

Bristol’s historical glass is supposed to be the most beautiful of all of the old English glass both colored and clear.  The coloring of Bristol glass is exceptionally brilliant, especially its deep blues.  Bristol’s opaque milky-white ware is most often found “ribbed” with white streaks or ornamented with flowers in color and gilt or daubed with red, blue and yellow.  This opaque ware was produced about 1760.

Bristol glass is exceedingly brittle and easily broken as compared with other English and Irish glass.  Its characteristic features are reported to be “extraordinary fineness in color and texture, coupled with a delicate taste both in hue and form.”  The glass is again reported to have “a peculiar softness to the touch.”  Smaller pieces are often beautifully decorated with painted or enameled flowers, maidenhair fern and so on.  Bristol glass was influenced by Venetian and French pieces.  An example would be the white glass of Venice from Orleans and Barcelona.

Latticinio style of glass perfected by the Roman and by the Venetians consisted of white opaque or more rarely colored threads that were entwined and twisted throughout the mass of colorless glass to produce a charming lace-like or draped-festoon effect.       

This type of glass is made with a small amount of tin and a large amount of lead in the glass formula.  Much of the Bristol produced glass closely resembled the real Venetian glass, however, with an English flair.  Bristol glasshouses normally left an untouched 1° mark where the glass piece is nipped from the blow pipe.  The modern English reproductions, while faithfully reproducing the historical glass, normally have a finished, polished pontil area. 

Bristol glasshouses are said to have produced flasks, bells and walking sticks; however, most of these items were probably made at Nailsea not Bristol.  Historians are certain that oil, vinegar, pepper pots, candlesticks, salt-cellars and vases were produced at Bristol.  One must remember that the majority of glass produced in England at this time was for bottles or window (crown) glass.  The brilliance of colored Bristol glass was most likely due to their liberal use of lead in the glass formula (see below).

     Lead glass called "cristallo" was first produced during the 15th century in Venice.  It was heavily exported at that time.  George Ravenscroft invented leaded crystal glass in 1675 by adding lead oxide to Venetian glass.  His use of flint as the silica source has led to the term Flint Glass to describe these crystal glasses, despite his later switch to sand. 

Flint glass is a name used for leaded glass produced in the USA and United Kingdom up to the 1860s.  Flint glass was the finest glassware of its day.  The term flint is sometime use synonymously with the term clear or white as descriptors of clear glass.  When the "Flint" is use as a color term the glass may not contain lead. 

Most Flint Glass formulas called for 33% lead which is about the same percentage as used in Waterford Crystal today.  Most Modern crystal today contain between 24% to 28% lead.  Pressed Flint glass pieces are typically having superior light refraction (brilliance) a resonance when struck (bell sound) and are heavy as compared to standard glass.

Nailsea Glassworks History

The village of Nailsea lies in the center of a small coal field.  This area had been producing coal from late medieval times.  The area also provided stone, lime, sand and clay.  These raw materials would have been a contributing reason for the founding of a glassworks in Nailsea. 

It is uncertain when glass production first began in Nailsea, but the Nailsea Crown Glass and Bottle Manufacturers, i.e., The Nailsea Glassworks was established in 1788 by John Lucas.  He sold his beer and cider works and borrowed £4,000, at that time a huge amount of money. He then leased six acres of land and constructed a brick cone furnace for the production of window (crown) glass and a second furnace for the production of bottles. 

There were no trained glassworks in the area so Lucas hired whole families from other glassworks, the mostly likely source of skilled craftsman being from the Bristol area.  In 1792, Lucas had about 200 employees living in company-provided, newly built cottages.  Glass making was a highly skilled trade and workers received high wages.  Glassmakers earned double to triple the wages of the average manual worker.  By standards of the time, glassmakers lived well. 

By the early Victorian era, Nailsea glassworks had become the fourth largest producer of glass in England.  They were exporting to Ireland, the West Indies and America.  Glass transportation was a problem.  The glass had to be packed in straw in barrels or crates then transported by wagon to a sailing ship first and steamship later.  As many as 10,000 crates of glass per year were transported to Bristol by wagon.  Other glass producing areas in England such as Stourbridge used canal boats and later steam trains to move their glass to ports or to their other customers.

Glass production continued at Nailsea until the coal fields began to fail, and in either 1873 or 1874, the Nailsea Glassworks closed.  Only a few buildings and a few of the worker cottages survive today.    

The Nailsea glass production moved to Birmingham and the North.  The trained glassworkers would have followed their trade to other English locations.  This could explain how other glassworks produced Nailsea like glass in the 1880s and 1890s, after the closure of the Nailsea Crown Glass and Bottle Glassworks.

Nailsea Glass

Production Glass:

The bulk of Nailsea glass production was for windows (crown) glass or bottles.  To understand the Nailsea fancy glass, we must understand their bulk product.

In 1688, a Frenchman named Louis Lucas de Nehou developed a manual process for making plate glass.  His process took 16 days from start to finish.  The glass he produced was so expensive that only the very rich could afford to purchase it.  Over the next two hundred years there were many improvements in power sources needed to melt the raw materials into glass as well as improvements in the glassmaking process itself.  However, the French plate glass method remained the basic technique until the 1900s.  During the 1900s, improvements in technology made possible large scale glass manufacturing as we now know today.

Irving W. Colburn patented the sheet glass drawing machine on March 25, 1904, making possible mass production of glass for windows.  On August 2, 1904, a patent for a "glass shaping machine" was granted to Michael Owen. His invention allowed for high volume production of bottles, jars, and other containers possible. 

Crown glass or window glass of the time was produced by taking molten glass called a gather that was next blown into a disk, which was then placed on a large table where it was cut and cooled.  This type of glass had what is known as a bull’s eye in the middle of the glass due to the blowing process.  Later glass was blown into cylinders, which were cut lengthwise with the top and bottom removed to provide sheet glass without the bull’s eye.  Crown glass had a greenish tint to it similar to old Coca-Cola bottles as a comparison.  Crown glass was not made as flint glass, i.e., it did not contain powder flint or high levels of lead oxide. 

Bottle glass was not made with flint glass formals.  It was a crude product lacking the finish of the better Bristol pieces.  It was usually yellowish or dark green with blotches of white.  Bottles were also made in amber with and without white blotches.

Fancy Glass:

There was a heavy excises duty on Flint Glass, thus it was a common practice for Crown and Bottle Glassworks to produce lower end tableware out of their normal production  formula glass.  These items were usually decorated in a very simple style such as the application of white dots or line.  These decorative items were not the bulk of the Nailsea production.  Many of the Nailsea tableware items were either apprentice pieces or “friggers” that were made by workman at the end of the day with the leftover glass.  The workmanship of these limited produced items was usually of a very high quality.  Specialty items produced included flasks, jugs, mugs, vases, bowls, paperweights, twisted canes, rolling pins, pipes, hats and jars. 

The small flasks are often found from 3.5 to 10.5 inches in length. They usually lay on their side with a clear glass body and a colored festoon with white opaque loops or blue or pink bodies with white opaque loops or pink loops.  Rarely found are yellow body flasks with dark red loops.

There is no empirical evidence to support the attribution of the Nailsea style glass to the Nailsea Glassworks.  Simply, the Nailsea name stuck as a glass style.  There is evidence that similar glass was made in Scotland.

Nailsea style glass production:

Many companies produced the Nailsea style of glass after and perhaps before the Nailsea Glassworks closed its doors in 1873 or 1874.  Much if not most of what the collector will encounter today was made in the 1880s and 1890s.  Some of this glass was produced in Stourbridge, located in the English West Midlands.  Stourbridge is home to such famous firms as Thomas Webb, Stevens and Williams, Richardson Brothers, Stuart and Sons and many more.  We have seen documented examples of Nailsea style glass produced by Stuart and Sons.

Nailsea style glass was also produced in the U.S. by the Phoenix Glass Company.  Phoenix collectors call the Nailsea style glass pattern, Venetian Thread.  Phoenix produced fairy lamps, rose bowls and other items in the Venetian Thread pattern. 

To date, the writer is aware of three books written on Nailsea Glass and as of this date there is no one comprehensive guide to Nailsea Glass.  To properly identify and attribute Nailsea Glass rose bowls, is extremely difficult to impossible.  Nailsea glass was even produced in the 1970s by Murano Glass. Why should the Venetians not reproduce their own glass style.

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