The History of Glass in Art and Architecture

Historical records show glass was discovered in 3500 B.C. It featured prominently in Egypt and Assyria. This type of glass was mad-made, differing from naturally formed glass such as obsidian.

Nature’s Glass

If you know anything about the rock cycle, then you’re probably familiar with obsidian. But, did you know it is classified as a naturally occurring glass that forms from lava? When lava cools outside of a volcano, it forms obsidian, a dark black or green glass. It can be cut to have sharp edges, which made it an ideal material for weapons and tools. Due to its composition, obsidian is not a rock, mineral, or crystal.

How Humans Made Ancient Glass

In ancient Mesopotamia, a glass called faience was made using sand quartz and plant ash. Each material would be crushed into fine powders and heated until it became molten. Glassworkers cooled the faience, crushed it, and added pigment before reheating it in a mold at a higher temperature than before. The faience would once again become molten and fill the shape of the mold. After cooling, the mold would be broken away from the glass, leaving the finished product behind.

Use of Ancient Glass

Glass jewelry dates back 3,000 years, with beads being the most popular finished product documented. The Romans and Egyptians used faience glass to produce beads, and eventually the use of glass in jewelry evolved centuries later to include watch coverings.

Glass vessels (vases, glasses, pitchers) were one of the first practical uses of ancient glassblowing. These pieces of art would be painted or etched to showcase designs by the artist. Glassblowing grew in popularity throughout the Middle Ages, and stained glass techniques were introduced.


Glassblowing is the art of forming molten glass by blowing air through a metal pipe. It dates back to the 1st century. Rotating the pipe, adjusting the amount of air used, and manipulating the molten glass with tools helped produce different shapes when the glass cooled.

Stained Glass

As glass workers hones their skills, they developed windows made of colored glass. Stained glass windows were most commonly used in churches and government buildings, and they often depicted scripture references.

The glass for these windows was traditionally colored using metallic salts, with different pieces being used similarly to a mosaic, coming together to form a bigger picture. The different glass pieces are fused together with lead pieces to create the entirety of the window.

Stained glass windows can also be painted before being fired in a kiln, or a silver nitrate stain could be applied to color the glass before firing. Thanks to the heat of the kiln, these applications can penetrate the glass enough that they are almost 100% permanent.

Modern Glass Making

Glass can also be made from heating sand, soda ash, and limestone. Once this mixture is molten, it can be formed using a blowpipe, molds, and tools. Today, we can even recycle existing glass and use it to make something new. Additives such as iron, boron oxide, and lead can change the appearance and strength of glass, giving it different colors and heat-proofing properties.

The History of Glass in America

While these forms of glass art and their use in structures date back centuries, more modern applications of glass in art and architecture are attributed to the invention of plate glass in the 13th century. Known as broad sheet back then, it was introduced in Sussex, England. Glass production in America wouldn’t occur until settlers reached the east coast in the 1600s, and plate glass wouldn’t be used until the late 1830s for shop windows and public buildings.

Although colonists in the 1600s were capable of producing their own glass, resources were limited and they ended up importing most of the glass they needed from England. It wasn’t until 1739 that a glass company, owned and operated by Caspar Wistar, found success in New Jersey. At this time, glass was still expensive, so few people had glass bottles, art, or tableware. 

Middle-class households in the 1800s had more access to glass products once the pressing method was invented. This process involved the use of molds to form the glass, and it was less costly to produce than hand-cut glass. Streamlining production made glass less time-consuming to create, and the savings were passed on to the colonists.

Throughout the 1800s, glass in America was used to create candlestick holders, lamps, glassware, bottles, and various art. It was also used to make lightbulbs in the late 1800s thanks to Thomas Edison’s findings on electricity. Also during this glass was only used in small sheets for architectural purposes; which is why stained glass windows were comprised of multiple small panels soldered together with lead. Also, since glass lacked strength at this time, diamond-paned windows were common in homes.

Glass in the 1900s

Sheet glass machines were developed in 1902 by Irving W. Colburn, and in 1904 Michael Owens patented a glass bottle maker. Industrial machines made mass production possible and continued to make glass items more affordable for consumers. Also, this glass was stronger and made it possible for windows to feature larger panes of glass.

Glass as a medium for art gained in popularity in the 1900s as well. Yes, glass had been used to make ornate sculptures, intricate jewelry, and other decorative items before, but now it was more accessible to artists. Instead of having to work in factories that produced glass, artists could work with their own small furnaces to heat their materials and form glass.

By the 1960s, cameo glass had another moment in the spotlight. Originating in ancient Rome, artists of the ‘60s began once again incorporating etched layers of glass in their work. Due to widespread interest in studio glass art (versus factory-made, mass-produced glass), universities began offering programs of study related to glass.

As we have put glass to the test over the years, it has gone from a luxury for the rich to something accessible to all. Our homes have glass windows, glass shower enclosures, and even glass as purely decorative elements. Since glass is 100% recyclable, it has become one of the most environmentally friendly building materials.

Famous Buildings Made with Glass

Glass has come a long way since obsidian was hewn into tools and weaponry. Today we have beautiful, iconic buildings around the world that were made with glass.

  • Christ Cathedral/Crystal Cathedral – Garden Grove, California, completed in 1980
  • Louvre Pyramid – 75001 Paris, France, completed in 1988
  • Jardim Botânico de Curitiba (The Botanical Gardenof Curitiba) – Curitiba, Brazil, completed in 1991
  • The Gherkin – 30 St Mary Axe, London, England, completed in 2003
  • Basque Health Department – Bilbao, Spain, completed in 2004
  • The Giant Egg – National Center for Performing Arts, Beijing, China, completed in 2007
  • Aldar Headquarters – Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, completed in 2010
  • Philharmonic Hall – Szczecin, Poland, completed in 2014

The next time you pick up your cell phone, roll down the window in your car, or sit back to watch a show after a long day, be grateful for the advancements made with glass throughout the centuries.

A Look a Luxury – Increasing Home Value with Glass

Glass windows in homes became popular and more common in 17th century England. Before then, stained glass windows were often used in the construction of church buildings, but glass windows were not an affordable or practical option otherwise. As result, having glass in ones’ home was a sign of wealth.

Growing Popularity of Windows

Early glass windows did allow light into structures but didn’t always offer a clear view due to the process through which the glass was made. By the 19th century, glass production was streamlined and improved, making better quality glass became more affordable and widely available. 

How Windows Increase Value

Once glass windows become more commonplace, they got more creative in their design and function. They not only let in light but can improve your home’s appearance inside and out. And although the use of glass windows is no longer a definitive sign of one’s social standing, the right use and application can be. 

Here’s how the use of glass in architecture adds monetary and visual value:

  • Improved curb appeal
  • Increased energy efficiency
  • Blocks noise
  • Allows for better natural light indoors
  • Provides privacy (tinting)
  • Increased safety (shatterproof glass)
  • Gives the appearance of more square footage

In addition to these pros, glass is also a renewable resource. It is 100% recyclable and is touted as an eco-friendly design choice. 

Types of Glass Used in Architecture

Did you know that there are different types of glass used for different types of architecture? When remodeling or building new, be sure you know what is best for your space, and what is architecturally consistent with the design of your home or business.

Sheet or Plate Glass  

Doors and windows in homes and commercial buildings use a lot of sheet or plate glass. This glass is formed in panes, which can be cut into various sizes, making it versatile. 

Wired Glass

Think back to your days in school; do you remember seeing windows with small, diamond patterns inside the glass panes? This is wired glass, which is commonly used for interior partitions or windows in fire escapes, hospitals, and schools due to its fire rating.

Laminated Glass

Laminated glass has an inner layer of polyvinyl butyral (PVB), which helps hold layers of glass together in the event it is struck. The PVB creates shatter-resistant glass that is ideal for use in skylights, and homes or offices that need to block noise and UV rays.

Other Window Materials

Once you’ve picked out the type of glass for your windows and doors, be sure the frames they come in are consistent with your design and offer the best performance for your climate.

Window Materials Cost Comparison

  • Aluminum frame – least expensive
  • Vinyl frame
  • Composite frame
  • Wood frame
  • Fiberglass frame – most expensive

You may be tempted to save on the initial cost of your windows by investing in vinyl, but if they end up needing to be replaced sooner than a more expensive material, you end up spending more over time.

Window Styles

Depending on the type of home or office you’re building, you have a variety of windows styles to choose from. If you’re bored of regular rectangular windows, consider adding a flourish with one of the following options.

Single Hung vs Double Hung Windows

A single hung window is one that opens from the bottom, with the bottom half of the window sliding up to meet the top half. Double-hung windows allow you to slide the bottom of the window up to the top, or the top of the window down to the bottom. They offer versatility that single-hung windows don’t.

Casement Windows

Instead of sliding a window up or down, a casement window has a vertical hinge. This allows you to push the window out, or pull it in, to open it. The casement window is operated by a hand crank so you can open and/or close the window for ventilation.

Awning Windows

Also operated by a crank, awning windows open on a horizontal hinge, much like a door. They can be swung open outward, away from the wall of the house by operating the hand crank.

Bay Windows

Three or more connecting windows offer an interesting architectural element in a home or office. The windows form a nook or alcove inside the home, providing picturesque views of the outside from a variety of vantage points. 

Dormer Windows

Like a bay window, a dormer window juts out from the wall of a home (or roofline) to prove a nook inside. Dormer windows are flanked by siding that hits perpendicular to the roof of the home. 

Transom Windows

These serve as a header over doors, or other windows. A transom can complement existing elements of your home, and offer privacy while still letting in light. Traditionally rectangular, you could opt for a transom that is arched, half-round, or “eyebrow” shaped.

No matter the placement, be sure to explore different window shapes, such as gothic, napoleon, pentagon, or even round. 

Interior Glass

According to home renovation expert Bob Vila, there’s about the same return on investment (ROI) whether you add a new tub or a curbless, walk-in shower to your bathroom. So while one over the other may not significantly affect your home value, it’s important to know your buyer demographic or stay true to your home’s current design style. Are homebuyers looking for luxurious soaker tubs, or high-end-looking, glass-surround showers? 

Interior glass in your commercial building whether it be an office, restaurant, or hotel-casino, should send a message to your clientele about your brand. Is your image modern, sleek, futuristic, or simple? Glass interiors can help reinforce your aesthetic and what your business stands for.

Other ways to add value with the use of interior glass:

  • Glass partitions
  • Mirrors
  • Tabletops
  • Lighting
  • Textured or frosted glass accents (doors, windows, partitions)
  • Acoustic glass (noise reducing)

Are Windows Worth the Investment?

The return on investment for windows is estimated at 73.4% for new vinyl. Using wood can garner an ROI of about 70% if you choose to sell your home at some point after the upgrade. Although wood is a more expensive material when installing your windows, vinyl offers more flexibility and, therefore, a higher estimated ROI.

If you don’t plan to sell any time soon, you can still enjoy some extra cash in your pocket thanks to energy-efficient windows. Installing windows that are designed to regulate the temperature of your home can save you up to 30% of your current energy costs. Your furnace and air conditioner won’t have to work so hard to keep your house heated or cooled, and new windows can also offer UV protection for the interior of your home, including your wall paint and furniture.

Getting creative with this renewable design resource can add luxury to your home or business, even if it’s not as rare of a building material as it once was.