The German Glassmakers
by Gary C. Grassl, President The German Heritage Society of Greater Washington, D.C.
Captain John Smith, the President of the Jamestown
Colony, complained that most of the settlers were unaccustomed to hard labor. They "never did know what a day's work was, except the Dutchmen [Germans] and Poles, and some dozen other." Many were unused to
hard labor, because they were gentlemen. The German glassmen and carpenters and Polish pitch, tar and soap-ash makers, who were recruited from their particular countries because of their skills, went right to work
producing commodities, including clapboard and wainscot plus "a trial of glass" to send back with Newport's ship around 1 December 1608. This first sample of glass was made at James Fort where Hessian
crucibles with adhering glass were discovered by archaeologists.
After their initial experimenting with glass production within the Fort, the German glassmakers built a Glasshouse probably with the help of
the German carpenters and others. Like James Fort, it faced the James River, which provided a ready supply of sand for glassmaking. The Glasshouse was located on the mainland, however, just beyond the narrow strip of
land that connected it to the peninsula on which stood James Fort. It was described in a contemporaneous account as situated "in the woodsnear a mile from James Town." Its distance from the Fort exposed it to
Indian attack, but its bordering forest provided the fuel for firing its glass furnaces and kiln. In fact, the reason the English wanted to establish a glasshouse in distant Virginia in the first place was because
firewood was as abundant there as it was scarce at home. The colonists' secretary William Strachey described it in 1610 as "a goodly house ... with all offices and furnaces thereto belonging."
The Glasshouse accommodated three ovens made of river boulders cemented together with clay: A fritting furnace for preheating the glass ingredients, a working furnace for melting the glass and for keeping it at working
temperature, and an annealing furnace for slowly cooling the finished pieces. The Glasshouse, which measured about 37 by 50 feet, also included a kiln to fire pots or crucibles used in melting the glass.
The foundations of the furnaces and the kiln have been uncovered by archeologist Jean Carl Harrington. They may be viewed behind a glass enclosure constructed by the National Park Service. An historical marker erected
by the U.S. Department of Commerce at the entrance to the enclosure reads:
GLASSMAKING - 1608
HERE ON GLASSHOUSE POINT THE
JAMESTOWN SETTLERS, IN 1608, BUILT
FURNACES, MADE GLASS, AND SHIPPED A
"TRIAL" OF IT TO ENGLAND. THIS MARKED THE
BEGINNINGS OF OUR AMERICAN GLASS
MANUFACTURE, ONE OF THE NATION'S FIRST
"INDUSTRIAL" ENTERPRISES ....
Next to the remains of
the original glass furnaces a replica of the original Glasshouse has been erected where visitors may watch costumed glassblowers making glass products in the 17th century manner.
It must be pointed out
that the glassmakers of 1608 were more than that term connotes today. When they arrived in the wilderness, they had to first build their four ovens and find the raw materials before they could produce any glass objects.
The modern glassblowers at the replica glasshouse--dressed though they are in 17th century costumes--had the glass ovens all ready made for them by people we would call engineers today. The German glassmakers of 1608
built their own factory, small though it was.
In 1609, the Glasshouse went into full production. According to Harrington, "Archeological evidence [shows] that considerable glass was melted and
fabricated. It shows also that all of it was 'common green' glass." This was known as Waldglas in Germany. There is no documentation of glass production after 1609. "In any event , glassmaking most certainly
would not have continued during the terrible period of starvation and sickness" during the winter of 1609-10 when "all but 60 of the 500 inhabitants of Jamestown died," writes Harrington. "Relief
came to the Colony in the spring of 1610, but there is no evidence that the glass factory was revived at the time." We don't know if the operation ceased because of the poor quality of the sand from the James River
(the replica glasshouse uses sand from Pennsylvania), the difficulty and cost of transporting such a breakable product such a long distance, or if the German glassmakers died during the winter of 1609--10 along with the
majority of settlers.
After investigating the remains of the Glasshouse, Harrington concludes that "the colonists made a sincere attempt to start a manufacturing enterprise, and that even though
the time was not ripe for success in their glass ventures, they were able to, and did, produce a workable glass comparable to that made in English glass houses."