Think of patterned glass and you probably conjure up images of colorful stained glass windows or sidelights glittering in a patchwork of beveled splendor. However, for more than 150 years there has been another type of glass in common use, although admittedly with less breathtaking effect. Known as figured glass, its main purpose was to provide a measure of privacy while letting sunlight pass through. While its forms may not be as memorable or splashy as those of its art glass cousins, figured glass filled a valuable role in many old houses beginning around 1850.
Figured glass—also called decorative or obscure glass—was produced by rolling a textured pattern onto one side of a sheet of molten glass as it cooled, leaving a permanent imprint behind. The result was a patterned surface that reduced transparency, yet didn’t diminish the passage of light. Because figured glass was about the same thickness as regular glass, it could be substituted for the latter in areas where people wanted their light served with a measure of modesty. This need made figured glass popular for a variety of uses, such as bathroom and foyer windows, as well as more creative displays, such as transoms and interior doors.
Many Practical Uses
You can find figured glass in the windows of many a bungalow bathroom where it kept bathers out of public view while letting them bask in natural light. Sometimes, windows had figured glass only on their bottom panes, allowing a clear view at the top of the window, which usually sat well above street level. You can also find figured glass in some kitchens and pantries where it was used to blur the contents of built-in cabinets.
Figured glass had an economic advantage, too. It usually cost just pennies more than standard issue glass and wasn’t expensive like artisan-produced stained glass windows or wheel-cut glass. That doesn’t mean it didn’t see use in high-style buildings, though. For example, at the Biltmore House, the Vanderbilt mansion in North Carolina that was completed in 1895, a third-floor door that leads to the servants’ quarters contains an insert of floral-patterned decorative glass, allowing light from main living spaces to help brighten those of the domestics.
Figured glass wasn’t confined to home use, either. It had many commercial applications as decorative panels on office doors that could let light from exterior windows brighten dark inside hallways, or as partitions between lobby areas and the rest of an office suite. Some shops even used it to showcase their storefronts.
Appearance Is Everything
So what does figured glass look like? Patterns once came in a variety of shapes and sizes, from delicate lacelike floral and snowflake imprints to substantial vortexes entwined like dueling snakes to subtle hammered patterns resembling handworked copper. There were also patterns bearing a rippled or ribbed curve, sometimes with a hard edge that cast the light like a prism, and others consisting of a series of small, raised, industrial-looking squares. Levels of obscurity varied greatly with all of these styles. Some patterns barely distorted the view, affording just a hint of privacy, while others blocked all but the most basic shadows.
In addition to its primary use for privacy, figured glass could also be used for security. When embedded with wire netting to make wire glass, it was popular in skylights, school windows, storefronts, and other areas where the dangers of broken glass was a concern. The wire mesh ensured that even if the glass was violently broken it would remain predominantly intact instead of raining down in potentially harmful shards. Wire glass had the added advantage of remaining serviceable even if cracked in one or two places, according to one advertisement. The glass was often found on commercial entrances.
It’s hard to say exactly when figured glass fell out of widespread use. It seemed to be everywhere in the early part of the last century, when a 1927 Universal Millwork Catalog touted its many practical uses and declared it especially desirable for halls, transoms, bathrooms, side and rear entrance doors, court windows, office partitions, church windows, etc. (The same catalog allowed any of its windows or doors to be special-ordered with figured glass.) One could argue that later versions of figured glass saw use well into the 1950s, as evidenced by mirror image rows of suburban subdivisions built with foyers notably obscured by front-door surrounds of rippled or hammered glass.
If you have figured glass in your old house, you probably wonder whether it’s possible to replace it in kind. Depending upon the pattern, the answer is a cautious yes. Many companies make modern versions of figured glass in a tremendous range of patterns, some bearing the same designs and names as those from the 1920s. It’s also possible to find creative modern patterns that closely match originals, so bear this in mind when seeking replacements.
During the early years of figured glass production, the choice of pattern dictated the level of modesty, but today it’s sometimes possible to order individual patterns in a range of figure-blurring options. To help consumers meet their needs, manufacturers often rate their glass on a scale numbered from 1 (minimally obscure, offering just a hint of visual distortion) to 4 (affording such a high level of distortion that no clear shape can be discerned).
In addition, many of today’s figured glass patterns can be ordered in safety versions, either tempered glass or laminated glass, which most modern building codes require for use in areas such as sidelights and substantive interior panels. Tempered glass is specially heat-treated using a process that both strengthens the glass and makes it break into small pieces with rounded edges if smashed. Laminated glass is a glass-plastic-glass sandwich that, like wire glass, holds broken pieces in place so they pose no danger. Today’s decorative glass can even be found in a range of colors, too, if you want to get creative with your replacements. Speaking of wire glass, it is still sold today and available in a much more techno-savvy version with a fire-safety rating that guarantees the glass will contain smoke and flames for 20 to 90 minutes.
Clearly, decorative glass has come a long way since it was first manufactured in the middle of the 19th century, and it continues to be a great solution for areas where you want a little privacy without sacrificing the light of day.Published in: Old-House Journal September/October 2006