American Brilliant Cut Glass

In 2012, the FWMoA and the ACGA joined a collaborative partnership which named the FWMoA as the repository and managers of the ACGA Permanent Collection; highlights of which you see displayed at the Fort Wayne Museum of Art.

The American Cut Glass Association (ACGA) is a nonprofit, national organization devoted to the advancement of this unique American industrial art form.  Generated by an increased interest in this antique specialty, the ACGA was formed in the summer of 1978 in Indianapolis, Indiana, with a group of 39 charter members.  The ACGA has expanded throughout the U.S. into numerous regional chapters and to over 2000 members.

Cut Glass: A Short History

"Cut glass" is glass that has been decorated entirely by hand by use of rotating wheels. Cuts are made in an otherwise completely smooth surface of the glass by artisans holding and moving the piece against various sized metal or stone wheels, to produce a predetermined pleasing pattern. Cutting may be combined with other decorative techniques, but "cut glass" usually refers to a glass object that has been decorated entirely by cutting.

Although glass making was the first industry to be established in America at Jamestown, Virginia in 1608, no glass is known to have been cut in the New World until at least 160 years later. Henry William Stiegel, an immigrant from Cologne, Germany, founded the American Flint Glass Manufactory in Manheim, Pennsylvania, and it was there in about 1771 that the first cut glass was produced in America.

Several exciting events dramatically improved American's cut glass industry, and brought about a superiority that won world acclaim. Near the beginning of the Brilliant Period, deposits of high grade silica were discovered in this country, leading to glass-making formulas vastly better than those used in Europe. 

At the same time, many of Europe's finest glass makers and cutters were immigrating to this country to seek their fortunes, and they found ready markets for their talents when America moved into a very prosperous era in the closing quarter of the 19thcentury. Cut glass became a symbol of elegance and leisure, and demand for beautiful glass products spurred intense competition and creativity within the industry.

High labor cost inherent in the manufacture of cut glass has always made it a luxury item. Unfortunately, until late in the nineteenth century, American glass houses found it difficult to compete against a vogue that held European glass to be superior to the domestic product. The prejudice began to disappear when eight enterprising American companies showed their beautiful wares at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. A boom was sparked throughout the northeast, and the Brilliant Period had indeed begun.

But by 1908, less than 100 glass cutting shops remained, when at the period's peak, there existed over 1,000. Since true cut glass is entirely hand-decorated, high labor costs made it extremely expensive and out of reach to all but the affluent class. Intense competition, both domestic and from abroad, and the introduction of inexpensive pressed glass in patterns imitating cut glass, forced cost cutting short cuts on the dynamic, new American industry.

The outbreak of World War I dealt the final blow to the fascinatingly brief birth, growth and decline of a uniquely American achievement. Brilliant cut glass. Lead oxide – an essential ingredient in glass made for cutting was needed for more urgent uses, and by the time the war ended, the few factories that had managed to survive used their resources to produce less costly glass. Thus ended an era of Yankee ingenuity, never to return.

John C. Roesel, June 1983

American Brilliant Cut Glass Photo Gallery

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311 E Main Street
Fort Wayne, IN 46802
Gallery Hours Tuesday - Saturday: 10am-6pm
Thursday: 10am-8pm
Sunday: 12-5pm
Administrative Office Hours Monday - Friday: 8:30am-5pm
P: (260) 422-6467
F: (260) 422-1374