Victorian Glassworlds: Glass Culture and the Imagination 1830-1880
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Isobel Armstrong's startlingly original and beautifully illustrated book tells the stories that spring from the mass-production of glass in nineteenth-century England. Moving across technology, industry, local history, architecture, literature, print culture, the visual arts, optics, and philosophy, it will transform our understanding of the Victorian period.
The mass production of glass in the nineteenth century transformed an ancient material into a modern one, at the same time transforming the environment and the nineteenth-century imagination. It created a new glass culture hitherto inconceivable. Glass culture constituted Victorian modernity. It was made from infinite variations of the prefabricated glass panel, and the lens. The mirror and the window became its formative elements, both the texts and constituents of glass culture. The
glassworlds of the century are heterogeneous. They manifest themselves in the technologies of the factory furnace, in the myths of Cinderella and her glass slipper circulated in print media, in the ideologies of the conservatory as building type, in the fantasia of the shopfront, in the production of
chandeliers, in the Crystal Palace, and the lens-made images of the magic lantern and microscope. But they were nevertheless governed by two inescapable conditions.
First, to look through glass was to look through the residues of the breath of an unknown artisan, because glass was mass produced by incorporating glassblowing into the division of labour. Second, literally a new medium, glass brought the ambiguity of transparency and the problems of mediation into the everyday. It intervened between seer and seen, incorporating a modern philosophical problem into bodily experience. Thus for poets and novelists glass took on material and ontological,
political, and aesthetic meanings.
Reading glass forwards into Bauhaus modernism, Walter Benjamin overlooked an early phase of glass culture where the languages of glass are different. The book charts this phase in three parts. Factory archives, trade union records, and periodicals document the individual manufacturers and artisans who founded glass culture, the industrial tourists who described it, and the systematic politics of window-breaking. Part Two, culminating in glass under glass at the Crystal Palace, reads the
glassing of the environment, including the mirror, the window, and controversy round the conservatory, and their inscription in poems and novels. Part Three explores the lens, from optical toys to 'philosophical' instruments as the telescope and microscope were known.
A meditation on its history and phenomenology, Victorian Glassworlds is a poetics of glass for nineteenth-century modernity.
transparent medium and barrier is one of the forms of nineteenth-century modernism. The vitreous world instantiated a structure of contradiction and also represented contradiction through iconography and image. Writers came up against this triadic mediation. ‘With my brow to the glass’: Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘The Man of the Crowd’ (1840), peering through a coVee house’s ‘smoky panes’, sees ‘the wild eVects of the light’ imbricating the crowd and its reXections. ‘[A]s if some giant had hewn a great
the Furnace: On not Being Able to Breathe These unsaid questions are the subtext of the fourth phase of the factory visit, the furnace. A white-hot furnace-cave in darkness, and the passion of heat, call out frankly aVective language. All the resources of allusion and iconography, from the Bible, from Dante and Milton, from melodrama and ritual, are summoned to do justice to the terrible energies of Wre, and conjure an underworld where elemental Wres burn eternally in the shades. ‘Once lit, the
an old pot [of molten glass] and replacing it with a new one is called ‘setting a pot,’ and constitutes the most arduous and indeed fearful operation of the glass-house, and the one to which the men are wont to refer as proof of their power of heat-endurance. It frequently happens that the old pot breaks, and the pieces, becoming partially vitriWed, adhere to the bottom of the furnace: in such case the men stand in front of the Wercely heated openings, and dig up and remove the broken fragments
Culture When the adjustment is properly made, the opening is immediately bricked up. The temperature to which the men are exposed in this operation (which sometimes takes several hours) may be imperfectly imagined when we remember that the other pots in the furnace may at that time be at a perfectly white heat.’ (p. 84) They who assist [setting the pot] are exposed for a considerable time to the whole force of the furnace heat, and it is frightful to witness the suVerings of the workmen exposed
deep respect for the men attend these expositions. But postfurnace phases of the factory narrative simultaneously interrogate work and species being. Accounts of work pull in diVerent directions. How can the worker be human? In the Penny Magazine and Exhibitor work is seen as prowess, interactive teamwork, spectacle, and dance, in the making of a claret jug or a wine glass respectively. The Penny Magazine presents teams of men as a disciplined collaborative mechanism: ‘one man whirled it . . .