As the sun rises upon Homewood House, the richness of all available light pours into its front hall by way of a fanlight and sidelights that border one of two main doors to this historic building. Likewise, the glaring light of the setting sun is controlled, and displayed, through a differently designed fanlight and sidelights around a door on the opposite side of the structure. The house, built in 1801, also has unusually large windowpanes, used to capture the sun's rays.
Light and sparkle were inherent aspects of the neoclassical style, and in the Carroll family's Baltimore home--a house that exemplified this architectural design--glass played an important role.
Even broken glass served a purpose for the building, as trenches uncovered in archaeological digs in the 1980s were found to contain unusually large quantities of broken wine bottles mixed in with the soil. These types of trenches used glass to help improve drainage away from the house.
Ample evidence of glass use within the house exists even today. The 1825 inventory of the house lists such glassware as bottles, lamps, decanters, a jelly stand with matching champagne glasses, and eight looking glasses.
But not every home in those days came so well-equipped. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, glass still was considered somewhat of a luxury item; to own much of it was a testimony to one's wealth. Today, however, many of us probably take for granted this material that we use to drink, decorate, help us see and look at ourselves in. To help remind us of the elegance and functionality of glass, the Homewood House Museum will celebrate and explore the history and usage of this substance in its fourth annual exhibition, titled Bubble to Bottle, Pontil to Prism: Early Glass in Maryland, 1785-1835, which will run from Jan. 21 to April 30.
Glassware for eating and drinking, made or used in Maryland during this period, will be a focus of the exhibit, which was made possible by a donation from a Carroll descendant. The exhibit also will look at many types of glassware popular during the Federal era, including imported window glass, mirror glass, prisms, lighting fixtures, tinted spectacles and eglomise, or reversed painted glass used as ornamentation for furniture. Also of note is a rare glass harmonicon, made in 1820, a variation of the armonica invented in 1761 by Benjamin Franklin. The armonica, one of America's earliest musical instruments, is an arrangement of various-sized, tuned glass bowls that produce delicate, ethereal tones when spun using a flywheel and rubbed with a moistened finger.
Objects in the exhibition come from major museums, private collectors and from Homewood House's permanent collection. Several items from the private collections have never been shown to the public, said Homewood House curator Catherine Rogers Arthur.
Each of the museum's annual exhibitions is intended to offer a more in-depth look into various topics that relate to life in the early 19th century, when the Carrolls lived in the house, by focusing on one part of the museum's permanent collection, according to Arthur.
"It's also a fresh way to look at the house that many have visited and pass by every day," Arthur said. "And it gives us at the museum a chance to break away from our everyday interpretation of the building and show and tell people what life was like back in that period."
The guest curator of the exhibit is Jennifer F. Goldsborough, an independent decorative arts consultant who teaches at the Smithsonian's Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum's master's program, the Sotheby's Institute and Chesapeake College.
Goldsborough said the collection incorporates many styles of glassware and techniques of glassblowing, showing off elaborately cut and engraved pieces, as well as ordinary bottles and jars. The only thing the objects have in common, Goldsborough said, is they all were painstakingly hand-made. "Although," she quips, "it's mostly the mouth blowing that did the work."
The history of glass use dates back to prehistoric times, when our primitive ancestors used its naturally occurring form for arrowheads and simple tools.
Created when inorganic substances, primarily sand, are fused and then cooled at a rate fast enough to prevent crystallization, man-made glass as we know it today originated about 4000 B.C. Yet it's believed that it wasn't until the first century B.C. that a blowpipe was used to make a hollow vessel. The glassmaker did this by blowing a large bubble of glass, which would be spun rapidly by a metal rod called a pontil while the material was still soft, thus shaping its form. The technology of blowing glass has changed very little since its inception, and it wasn't until the early part of the 20th century that the product was first mass-produced.
Large glasshouses were in operation in this country as early as the late 18th century, however, and Maryland had more than its share. Judith Proffitt, Homewood House program coordinator, says this particular time period and collection of objects were chosen in part because of the wealth of glasshouses that operated in the state at the time and produced such household items.
In particular, Proffitt points out John Frederick Amelung, who, in Frederick, Md., operated one of the country's first glasshouses to produce fine tableware on a commercial basis.
"Maryland had several early glass-production facilities of notoriety," Proffitt said. "But Amelung created some really wonderful Maryland glass that people have prized over the years."
Proffitt said it's also interesting to note that Amelung, whose work will be displayed at Homewood House, arrived from his native Germany with a letter of introduction by Charles Carroll of Carrollton, a signer of the Declaration of Independence and father of Charles Carroll Jr., Homewood House's original owner.
Scheduled in conjunction with the exhibition is a series of special programs that include glass appraisal days, demonstrations of eglomise and glassblowing techniques, a symposium on antique glass, group tours to working glasshouses, and entertaining and educational family programs. Homewood House will open the exhibition on Thursday, Jan. 20, with a 5 to 7 p.m. reception that will feature a performance on the glass armonica by Boston resident Carolinn Skyler.
Skyler, who performed at the Peabody Institute in September, is one of the less than 25 known glass armonica players in the world.
Arthur said any armonica performance today is a "rare" treat.
"The armonica was popular in the early 19th century, but then it fell out of favor," Arthur said. "It has a very eerie, sort of ethereal sound to it, and people who played the instrument back then were fearful they would go mad, basically--either from the sound of it, or there apparently was some concern that, between using wet fingertips and the high lead content in the glass, one could have dangerously elevated lead levels."
Arthur notes, however, that the owner of the harmonicon lent to the collection has no such concerns when he uses the instrument to play Christmas carols each year.
The appraisal days on Jan. 22 and March 3 will allow visitors to learn more about their own glass from experts, just like on the popular Antiques Roadshow that airs on public television, Arthur said.
"People can bring in glass from any time period, and the expert will evaluate the item and tell the owner what he feels the price would bring at an auction," Arthur said. "He also will give the owner a sense of the object's history and what time period it's from."