How Stained Glass Began in America

The exact origin of stained glass is not known, but we do know that the earliest stained glass window that is still intact is from St. Paul’s Monastery in Jarrow, England and dates back to approximately 680 AD. But evidence shows that ancient Egyptians and Romans also likely created stained glass.

The Egyptian village of Qantir shows evidence of an ancient glass-making factory. Ancient Egyptian materials that were uncovered show that these artisans would combine crushed quartz with the remains of burned plants. This was then heated in clay jars, ground into a powder, and then combined with chemicals to produce a red or blue color.

In the Medieval Period in Europe, stained glass window-making began to flourish and peaked during the Gothic Period. This trend remained strong across the countries of Europe well into the Renaissance Period, before its popularity began to decline.

During this period in America, stained glass was in its infancy. Glass-making was the first American industry, founded in 1608 in Jamestown, Virginia. However, early Christians in America would meet in houses instead of new church buildings to worship and any new church buildings were usually adorned with shutters instead of windows.

Evert Duyckingh opened a glass-window business in New Amsterdam (present-day New York City) in 1637 or 1638. One of his specialties was creating family coats of arms in windows. He eventually hired an apprentice named Cornelius Jansen who is on record requesting payment from a church in 1656 that had purchased his glass windows.

In 1654, Jan Smeedes had a glass business in Manhattan that began manufacturing roundels. A roundel is a circular glass window that often contains emblems. Several centuries passed before William Gibson opened a glass manufacturing operation in 1834 in New York City. This first attempt was not successful, but Gibson attempted the business once more later in the 19th century, during which he proclaimed himself to be the “father of glass painting”. It was at this time that Harry Horwood began to work for Gibson.

Horwood worked for Gibson during the 1870s and it was during this time that he restored the stained glass windows at the famous Vanderbilt Mansion in New York City. Shortly after, in 1876, he opened his own stained glass business in Ottawa. He eventually opened a second office in New York City, when he created the stained glass for the Ogdensburg Opera House in Ogdensburg, New York.

Robert Bolton came to New York from England and created the first known American-made figural window in 1843 for the Nativity for Christ Church in Pelham, New York. He returned to England and opened a stained-glass business. His brother, John, also made stained glass in America.

The trade was slow to get off the ground in the U.S. and struggled until the end of the 19th century. In 1880, John LaFarge, a famous American muralist, invented opalescent stained glass windows. He and Louis Tiffany, whose family started the famous Tiffany and Company, fought over who was the true inventor. Information on the subject is inconclusive, but apparently, both claim to be the first to utilize opalescent sheets in windows. Tiffany went on to start the Tiffany Glass Company, which produced thousands of windows. LaFarge and Tiffany also utilized the confetti, drapery, and ridged styles in stained glass windows.

Other major artists came onto the scene creating stained glass and incorporating it into larger projects. Well-known architect and interior designer, Frank Lloyd Wright, was also a creator of stained glass windows and used them in many of his major projects, including Robie House in Chicago.

Gothic-style stained glass windows were now gaining popularity in America and in Europe, renewing the styles from the Medieval Period. Stained glass in multiple styles was being seen across the country in several different church denominations. This revived interest ran strong until the depression hit in the 1930s and 1940s.

Today, stained glass is gaining in popularity again and is offered in many different styles. Options and looks are seemingly endless, especially when the manufacturer takes on custom orders. Stained glass is being incorporated into residential d├ęcor, businesses and churches across the country.


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