A Brief History of Glass Pens
Hi! This is Jane, and I’m back on the blog to talk about glass dip pens. Although some may consider it old-fashioned or inconvenient, the glass pen is a beautiful, vintage alternative to the more modern cartridge- or converter-filling fountain pen, and there are many reasons that they have stuck around and are still well-loved today. I’ll talk a little about the history of the glass pen before discussing how they are made and maintained, what different types are available, and how they can be used for writing, calligraphy, and art.
There are varying accounts, but according to several sources, the first glass pen is said to have been created in the 17th century on Murano, an island in Venice, Italy, that is famous for its rich glassmaking tradition. By the 12th century, Venice had developed into an important port city through which several lines of east-west trade were conducted. As a result, Venice had easy access to the creative skills and knowledge coming from the Middle East, including innovations in the art of glassmaking (such as the technique of glassblowing). As Venetian glass artisans adopted and built upon these skills, and as Venice started exporting its own glass products, the City of Water quickly became renowned for the consistent high quality of their glass products.
A woodcut map of Murano by Jacopo de Barbari, circa 1500.
In the late 13th century, Venetian authorities designated the island of Murano as the home of the glass industry and subsequently began to relocate glass artisans to the island. This strange policy made sense according to Venice’s “gilded cage” economic policy at the time: industries vital to the city-state’s economy were thought to be more easily controlled when confined to specific geographic regions. As a result of this policy, Murano glassmakers enjoyed luxurious working conditions (including three to five months of summer vacation) and a level of societal privilege that put them on par with nobles, but they were also strictly observed and patrolled. It sounds crazy now, but if you were a glassmaker, you were forbidden from leaving the island without a permit. If you decided to leave anyway, the government would imprison your family and even send an assassin after you. The aim of these dramatic measures was to retain this specialized workforce and prevent the dissemination of trade secrets outside of Venice. What do you think -- if you lived in 13th century Venice, would you choose to work as a glassmaker? You made a pretty nice salary and would get five months of PTO in the summer, but you were also… uh... confined to an island under threat of summary execution.
Glassmakers at a factory in Murano in the 20th century. Source: Domus.
The Venetian glassmaking industry looked a lot different by the 1600s, the era of the glass pen -- for one, there was no longer an enforceable death penalty upon its workers, thank goodness. When the glass pen was invented, pen users at the time quickly realized that it was an obvious improvement upon what most people had been using, which was the quill pen. Although quill pens had their own flair, they had always suffered the risk of bending out of shape or splitting no matter how well cured and maintained. And because they were hollow inside and had little way of holding or regulating the flow of ink, they had been inconvenient in that sense as well. For the first time, Venetian glass pens featured nibs that were grooved; these grooves held onto a small amount of ink that flowed down to the tip of the nib as you wrote. That means that one dip with a glass pen usually got you further across the page before you had to re-dip than did a quill pen. Aside from this convenience factor, glass pens were beautiful works of art from the moment of their conception. Murano glassmakers considered the glass pen a great, functional medium for showing off their glass coloring and manipulating techniques.
Back then as well as now, glass pens are commonly created using a glassmaking technique called lampworking, in which a torch or lamp is used to melt portions of a glass rod, which can then be shaped with clamps, tweezers, and other tools. Glass pens are often made in two parts: first, the handle is colored and shaped from one glass rod, then the nib and its grooves are formed on a separate rod. Once both components have been colored and shaped, they can be fused together under the heat of the torch. The sharp point of a glass nib is formed by heating the glass rod where the tip of the nib meets the rest of the rod it is formed from, stretching it like taffy, and pulling off the rest of the rod. As the final step, the tip of the nib is smoothed and fine-tuned by running the nib over wet/dry sandpaper.
Straight, twisted, and half-twisted grooves on glass nibs. Source: Hobby Stationery Box, Vol. 58.
The distinctive grooves on a glass nib usually come in one of these three patterns: straight (the grooves go straight up and down the nib), twisted (the grooves twist around the nib in a swirled pattern), and half-twisted (the grooves are twisted at the base of the nib but straighten out about halfway up the nib to the very tip). Each of these styles has a slightly different benefit: the swirled grooves hold slightly more ink for a longer period of time, the straight grooves make for a very consistent ink flow, and the half-twisted grooves aim for a middle ground where you get both adequate ink capacity and smooth ink flow. J. Herbin's Round Glass Pen features straight grooves, and J. Herbin's Smooth Frosted Glass Pen (out of stock) features half-twisted grooves.
The straight grooves on J. Herbin's Round Glass Pen.
The half-twisted grooves on J. Herbin's Smooth Frosted Glass Pen (out of stock).
Glass pens do require regular caution and care, but the steps are quite easy: using water or a wet towel to clean the grooves of the nib between ink colors, storing the pen in a safe place where it won’t scratch or chip, and using fine-grit wet/dry sandpaper to maintain the point of the nib. Because glass pens are so easy to clean, they’re very well suited to drawing or calligraphy if you are switching between several colors of ink. And you don’t have to limit yourself to one medium: you can pair a glass pen with fountain pen inks, liquid watercolors, or even drawing gum. Although you won’t be able to achieve a variety of pressure-based line weights with a glass nib, glass pens are still a popular option for calligraphers who don’t mind the extra step of manually adding in that line weight.
After researching the history of glass pens and the artisanship that goes into creating each one, I am finding myself with a renewed appreciation for these beautiful and functional tools that have withstood the test of time -- I hope you enjoyed learning a little about them as well :-)