Glassblowing and the Art of Carrying on a Tradition

The glassblower holds the iron rod up to his lips while somehow balancing a hefty bundle of glowing hot liquid glass on the other end. His breath fills the molten ball as it begins to take on a life of its own. A living, breathing piece of glass, it is constantly moving, shaped and formed by the glassblower’s movements.

At the Pairpoint Glass Works studio in Sagamore, with four furnaces roaring in the background and the room temperature climbing up to 110 degrees, master glassblowers cheer on apprentices as they work.

Glass is made from a mixture of silicates, found in sand, and lead oxide. Furnace temperatures must reach up to 2,300 degrees to bring the mixture to a malleable state. No matter what the glassblower intends to make, it all starts with a gathering of glass. This is when the glassblower twirls the iron rod in the pot of molten glass, skimming it off so that it gathers at the end. The maneuver looks like twirling cotton candy on a paper tube, collecting it in a great glowing bulge.

From the moment the liquid fire is taken out of the furnace, it begins to cool. The glassblower must keep the iron rod spinning to maintain the uniformity of the piece, while making sure that the temperature never dips below a certain level. If it cools too quickly, it will crack or even explode. To avoid this requires lots of trips back to the fire for reheating while constantly spinning the object.

At times glassblowers will hold the rods out and twirl them like batons to use centrifugal force for further shaping. When the rods are held up over their heads, gravity forces the edges of the molten ball down, creating a bowl shape. As the object continues to spin, the glassblower will carefully touch it here and there with wooden tools dipped in water, creating a bottleneck or design within the glass. To form the rim of a bowl or vase, pieces of the red-hot glass are cut away while it’s spinning. By the time these chunks hit the floor they clink with the sound of hardened glass.

The Sandwich Glass Museum tells the story of how a small factory founded by Deming Jarves in 1825 grew to employ more than 400 people by mid-century. Since glass is made from sand, it might make sense to think that the Cape Cod sand added to the quality of Sandwich glass. Ironically, that’s not the case. Cape Cod sand contained too many impurities to be made into fine glass. Jarves initially imported sand by boat from southern New Jersey, and by 1847 began bringing large quantities of sand from the Berkshire Mountains in western Massachusetts to Sandwich.

One of the reasons for locating the factory in Sandwich was the promise of the Cape Cod Canal. Although it hadn’t been dug yet, at the time it seemed as if it would be soon. Politics being politics, the canal wasn’t created until years later, in 1914, after the factory had closed. The Sandwich Glass Factory operated for 62 years before competition from Midwest factories closed its doors in 1888.

Since the factory is no longer in existence, true Sandwich glass cannot be created, but its classic designs are reproduced. Glassblowing demonstrations are shown continuously at the museum so that visitors may witness techniques used by Egyptians, Romans, and Venetians, culminating with Sandwich and the innovation of pressed glass.

The glassblower tells the crowd, “I like the whole idea that what I learned is passed down from hundreds and hundreds of years and that basically with every generation it gets a little more refined. We’re still learning so it’s endless. You’re never going to get bored when there’s always something more to learn.”