Utility and Art

Marking moments in N.H. history with glass.

It wasn't easy making glass back in the late 1700s in New Hampshire. Wood for the fire - hundreds of cords of it - had to be cut. Stone and sand for the glass had to be quarried. All of it was done by hand in primitive conditions.

And that was just the start. It took the glassmaker days to get the right amount of heat and mixture of materials.

"Despite those hardships, they produced beautiful glass," says Michael George, curator of an upcoming exhibit of early glass made in five Monadnock Region towns - Temple, Stoddard, Keene, Suncook and Lyndeborough - in the century from the Revolutionary War through the Industrial Revolution. The exhibit, "New Hampshire Glassmakers, 1780-1886," runs from Nov. 13-Feb. 19 at the Peterborough Historical Society.

Nearly 300 rare examples from private collections, including that of the Currier Museum of Art, the N.H. Historical Society and Historic New England, will be on display, much of it never before exhibited in public.

With the glass - some of it utilitarian, some of it elegant art like the lily pad creamer from the 1850s below, some historical like the Masonic glass flasks above - one may trace the times.

Five eminent glass historians and scholars will present lectures on early New Hampshire glassmaking and its impact on the economy of the state in a two-day symposium that begins the exhibition. George says it's a great way to learn about the history of the area as well as the skill and artistry of New Hampshire craftsmen during a significant century: "It provides a basis for understanding where we are today."

Showcased in the exhibit is an archeological dig done by Boston University scientists from 1975-1978 at the New England Glassworks in Temple, said to be a site of prime importance in American industrial history.

Dr. David Starbuck, who led the excavation, has written that the then-200-year-old factory was the first to produce glass in the newly formed United States. The dig exposed the main glasshouse, dumps, ovens and kilns, and workers' cabins with artifacts that indicated a very spartan life.

The site was, as Starbuck put it, "pristine" because the factory was in business only two years, probably because of its great distance from markets and the difficulty of getting skilled labor. Not good for business, but great for archaeologists.

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