All About Glass

You are here

Curious and Curiouser: Surprising Finds from the Rakow Library

All About Glass

When glass artist Mel George teaches a class, she takes her surroundings into account. She tries “to give the students special experiences that the individual places can offer.” So, soon after George and her students arrived at The Studio of The Corning Museum of Glass, they set off to explore the Rakow Research Library.

During a tour of the special collections, the class had a chance to see the Library’s oldest item, the nearly 900-year-old Mappae clavicula (loosely translated, a little key to the world of medieval techniques). George was delighted with the manuscript, and assigned her students the task of creating contemporary interpretations of books, or “visual poems.” They visited again to examine books in the collection with glass covers and insets, then set to work. Their final pieces, inspired by the Library’s collection and their own identities as artists, demonstrate how libraries can inspire people in unexpected ways.

The Rakow Library collects information on glass and glassmaking. A cornerstone of the Museum’s campus, the Library is open to everyone, and offers guests a chance to learn more about all aspects of glass, including history, art, and science. The shelves are full of the expected as well as the surprising, often leading visitors like Mel George and her students in new directions.

Curious and Curiouser: Surprising Finds from the Rakow Library offers visitors a taste of what they can find if they venture up the Library’s glass staircase to the reading room. From a patent for preserving the dead in glass to a trilogy of romance novels chronicling the generations of a fictional glassmaking family, the exhibition unites many disparate materials from the Library and glass collections through themes of curiosity and inspiration.

Curiosities from the Collection

Une verriere / Eine Glassmacherin, Martin Engelbrecht, Augsburg, Germany, 1730, CMGL 129856Glass has been used for many purposes throughout history, some more surprising than others. In the early encyclopedia De proprietatibus rerum (On the properties of things), author Bartholomaeus Anglicus recommends crushing glass to a fine powder to clean teeth. Those with kidney stones could also mix the powder with their wine for relief. However, if the powder was not crushed finely enough, it would “sunder the guts” and kill them instead.

Glass was also the primary material used to make artificial eyes for hundreds of years. Skilled glassworkers could make a living making and selling eyes for taxidermy and as prosthetics. Catalogs and advertisements offered a wide variety of human, animal, and doll eyes for sale. Human eyes came in every color imaginable with optional red veins. Customers could even select “daytime” and “nighttime” eyes, with different dilations, for a more realistic look. Animal eyes were also for sale, and customers could buy anything from eyes for fish and insects to eyes for tigers or sheep.

During the 1600s and 1700s, artists like Martin Engelbrecht and Nicolas de Larmessin printed engravings of tradespeople wearing the tools and products of their trade. The Rakow Library’s prints collection includes a number of these images, which illustrate male and female glassmakers and peddlers clothed in bottles, leaded glass windows, molds, bellows, and more. These fanciful designs showed people the items associated with glassmaking.

Inspired by the Collection

Notebooks from the Arthur J. Nash and Leslie H. Nash collection on Tiffany StudiosLike all libraries, the Rakow Library is an incubator where all types of creativity can flourish. Mel George and her students found their inspiration in the rare books collection; glass artist Josh Simpson found his in the archives. Simpson was looking for information on iridescent glass, and came across a series of notebooks written by Arthur and Leslie Nash in the late 1800s and early 1900s. A father and son team who worked for Louis Comfort Tiffany, the Nashes chronicled their projects, the glass recipes they created, and the glassmaking equipment they invented or improved. Beyond the bare details, they wrote of their triumphs and struggles, documenting what it was like to work at Tiffany Studios in Corona, New York.

Simpson soaked in the stories, finding similarities with his own frustrations and victories as an artist. He felt an emotional connection with the Nashes, realizing that he was part of a long chain of creators navigating their way through the artistic process. He hasn’t attempted to recreate their recipe for iridescent glass or make an object inspired by their work. But he does carry their stories with him, forming a bond with a duo whose legacy lives on in Tiffany glass. Simpson chronicles his recipes and experiments in his own series of notebooks. Perhaps someday their pages will speak to another artist in the same way the Nashes’ spoke to him.

Celadon Vase, Frederick Carder, Corning, N.Y., 1920-1929. Gift of Steuben Glass. 75.4.440.Greg Merkel, a scientist and glass collector, was inspired by a similar set of notebooks in a different way. He collects pieces designed by artist Frederick Carder for Steuben Glass in Corning, New York. Carder was a prolific designer who left behind many notebooks filled with recipes for colors and types of glass. However, it can be difficult to pair a written recipe with a finished piece of glass.

Merkel, who is interested in both the beauty and chemical composition of Carder’s glass, decided to research the creation and development of each color, and definitively match pieces of glass to their corresponding recipes. As part of this work, he created a database of the recipes from the notebooks in the Rakow Library. He then used XRF (X-ray fluorescence) technology to scan pieces of glass for their composition. By doing so, he is able to connect the glass to a particular recipe. His work has led to the correct identification of many pieces of Carder’s glass, and benefits those who study and collect them.

Page from a black notebook of loose-leaf data sheets with glass recipes, Frederick Carder, 1926 – 1931, Frederick Carder notebook collection, CMGL 112169
XRF (X-Ray Fluorescence) Results of Celadon Glass, Gregory Merkel, United States, New York, Corning, 2016, Courtesy of Gregory Merkel

These are just a few of the stories in Curious and Curiouser: Surprising Finds from the Rakow Library. Come see the rest, and find your own inspiration on the Library’s shelves.

Published on May 17, 2017

Rebecca Hopman
Outreach Librarian
Rebecca Hopman joined the Rakow Research Library in 2013 as the Outreach Librarian. In this role, she leads and shapes the Library's outreach and oral history programs. Hopman provides leadership and expertise for library outreach to internal, local...
more