American brilliance at the St. Louis World’s Fair: Libbey’s Punch Bowl

Libbey Glass Company, Punch Bowl and stand with 23 cups, 1904, thick colorless glass, 54.6 x 60.6 x 60.6 cm, 134 pounds (Toledo Museum of Art)

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This punch bowl in the Toledo Museum of Art


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[0:00] [music]

Beth Harris: [0:06] We’re in the Glass Pavilion, which is part of the Toledo Museum of Art, and we’re looking at a phenomenal punch bowl. Not only is this enormous, but it’s also drop-dead gorgeous. It was made for the World’s Fair in St. Louis in 1904, which commemorated the 100-year anniversary of the Louisiana Purchase. This must have been a showstopper.

Diane Wright: [0:29] This was made to showcase all of the skill and artistry that the Libbey glassmakers had to offer.

Beth: [0:36] Libbey is a glass company based here in Toledo, Ohio, known as the Glass City. This cut glass was enormously popular with the American public, so when this was exhibited at the World’s Fair, people really wanted to see it.

Diane: [0:51] Brilliant-cut glass has its heyday from about the 1870s up until about World War I. This is the kind of glass that you would use for fine dining, that you would give as wedding gifts. It was greatly admired. Libbey would make something like this to show off what they could do in this area of glassmaking.

Beth: [1:12] This is first blown and then cut.

Diane: [1:15] You would have people that have great skills as glassblowers. Once they’ve made this tremendous blank, like a blank slate ready to be cut, they would hand it off to the glass cutters. Those are very different skills.

[1:28] The glass cutters would mark out a pattern on the bowl. They would go in and rough out the pattern, so, make a slight cut. Then they would go back and finish the cut. Then you would have to polish this piece, because when you touched the glass with the cutting wheel it would make the surface matte and you want the surface to be shiny.

[1:47] When you cover the entire surface, it’s very difficult to go in and hand-polish it. In the 19th century, this would have been dipped in the hydrofluoric acid to give it this final polish and shine.

Beth: [1:58] You have a cutter who’s balancing this very breakable material and holding it against a wheel which is spinning, and he’s making fine cuts, sometimes deeper, sometimes more shallow, and he’s looking through the glass to what he’s cutting.

Diane: [2:17] The way you describe it, you get a sense of how difficult the process is and what a tremendous skill it is to be a cutter. That’s why if you were a glass cutter, this is all you did. You spent years and years honing and refining your skills so that you could be very exacting.

Beth: [2:33] This is a level of craftsmanship that is hard to imagine today. I think we’re used to things being made by machine. It’s so tempting to stare at this…

[2:42] [laughter]

Beth: [2:42] …for a very long time.

Diane: [2:44] I think that’s the idea. Yes, you can get lost in the patterns, in the reflection of the light in the glass. One of the wonderful things about brilliant-cut glass is that this is a lead-based glass.

[2:57] A glass with lead in it has a high refractory index. When you cut it, it allows the light to pass through it in a way that creates this wonderful brilliance and you get tremendous reflection. You can see that there is a rainbow effect. It does create this kind of magical moment where you get reflection and pattern and light all working together.

Beth: [3:20] It’s transparent but it’s filled with color.

Diane: [3:23] Many people would have a piece of brilliant-cut glass that was smaller, but imagine putting this on your table in the early 19th century and lighting might be dim. You might even have candles on the table. It would really create this atmosphere.

Beth: [3:37] I’d like to think about the setting of the World’s Fair. This is a place where countries had the opportunity to showcase their art, their technology, their manufacturing. And here was the United States putting forward Libbey’s glass punch bowl as this amazing example of technology, of craftsmanship, of what America could do.

Diane: [3:59] Glassmaking was America’s first industry. It was one of the first things that was tried here by the early colonists. Now, glassmaking had been successful in Europe much earlier. Now, in America, we’re able to show that we can make these objects that are just as fine as the companies that are coming out of Europe.

Beth: [4:18] We have an American company making beautiful American glass with craftsmen who are immigrants to this country and all of this coalescing here in Toledo, in the Glass City.

[4:30] [music]

Cite this page as: Diane C. Wright, Toledo Museum of Art and Dr. Beth Harris, "American brilliance at the St. Louis World’s Fair: Libbey’s Punch Bowl," in Smarthistory, April 6, 2019, accessed May 23, 2024,