A field Guide to Rolled Figured Glass
I receive lots of questions on “Rolled Figured” or “Cathedral” window glass, particularly from readers in Queensland, where this product was widely used for many decades around the turn of the century. And I share the fascination - what's not to like? The glass looks great, it has historic value both in terms of manufacturing technology and pattern design, and there’s something compellingly organic about it – those deep colors, tactile patterns and the “boiled candy” texture on the supposedly flat side of the glass. It feels more like an artisan creation than a mass-produced building material.
It also appears that Google ranks my previous notes on the topic rather high, so there’s clearly a demand for more information. In this piece I’ll compile everything that I’ve found to date.
Brief History and Manufacturing
“Figured glass" was pioneered in the 1830s by James Hartley, of the UK-based Hartley and Co glass manufacturers, England. James patented a process called Hartley Rolled Plate, where molten glass was ladled onto a cast iron bed and rolled into sheets with a large metal roller. The product was sometimes called “table” glass, for this very reason. In the early days the rollers were actuated by hand, and later by steam power.
Hartley discovered that the iron bed could be engraved with a pattern which would leave an imprint on the glass, and by 1847 his factory was producing large quantities of a ribbed glass suitable for roofing for factories, conservatories etc. But the product was rather coarse and opaque – often referred to as “rough rolled”. The method also precluded any great variety of patterns, as each design had to be engraved into its own, massive cast-iron table. As a result, only simple patterns such as longitudinal ribbing and lozenge-style imprints were produced this way.
Machinery for production of rolled glass
Hartley’s technology was licensed to the two largest glass manufacturers in the UK – Pilkington and Chance Brothers – who continued to refine the system. Chance Brothers eventually created a “Rolled Cathedral” product, and in 1888 they introduced the “Double-Rolled Cathedral” range, where the glass passed between multiple rollers to produce a clean surface on both sides. A schematic of the process is shown below. Figured glass was made by passing the glass through a second set of rollers, where the upper roller was engraved with the negative of the pattern, creating a clear, sharp and deep imprint. One side of the glass was always left flat, so that it could be cut to size with a diamond.
Machinery for production of double-rolled, figured glass
Figured glass is still being made today, and reproduction glass is available for some of the common vintage patterns. The modern glass is generally “white” or clear, with the colour provided by a second laminated layer of tinted glass. Today's product has been perfected to the point of absolute clarity and uniformity, which arguably has also removed much of its charm.
Until about 1930, almost all window glass used in Australia was imported. Much of it came from the two dominant English manufacturers - Chance Brothers located in Smethwick close to Birmingham, and Pilkington based in St Helens near Liverpool.
This was also the case for rolled and figured glass. A search of 19th century Australian newspapers returns plenty of advertisements for imported products, for example an ad for “Chance Brother’s and Co’s Rough Rolled Glass” from 1855, and an 1863 mention of “Hartley Cathedral Glass” being installed in Ballarat. There are many more records, and we can reasonably assume that rolled and possibly also figured glass was a staple building material by the 1870s.
But we don’t know much about the commonly available patterns of that time. Trade catalogues and advertisements were low on graphics and patterns were rarely named. More field research is needed here.
We do however have good information on the products available from about 1890 and onward. So let’s run through the collection of known patterns. The dates denote either the registration date of the pattern, or the date of the published source of the image, which of course could be quite different from the earliest production date. Many popular patterns were produced over decades.
We will start with British glass, proceed to Australian products, then have a quick glance at the American situation and finish with samples of glass yet to be identified and dated.
Chance Brothers & Co, 1898-1905
The magazine Academy Architecture ran a series of illustrated ads by Chance Brothers & Co from 1898 to 1905. In the ads, Chance describes several product lines including Rolled Plate, Figured, Rolled Cathedral and Double Rolled Cathedral, presumably in ascending order of quality. All of the images in the ads are of the Figured Rolled range.
Using the design numbers and a bit of detective work I managed to track down the registration dates for the patterns, spanning the years 1890 to 1905. It’s fair to assume that manufacturing began shortly after the registration dates.
The first seven patterns are named by letter only, and have registration dates from 1890 to 1903. The designs are typical for the Victorian era – dense and often floral. Pattern K has a damask-style design, pattern M vines of hop. The basic pattern G is widespread in Queensland, and it was later named “Granite” by other manufacturers.
The last two patterns are Imperial and Flanner Flower, registered in 1904 and 1905 respectively. This was the dawn of a new age and the designs became sparser, more naturalistic. And isn’t the Imperial pattern sublime? A patriotic celebration of the rose, thistle and shamrock. And is that palm frond-like graphic a Welsh leek?
Flannel Flower is a well-known and much-loved glass in many federation-era buildings, particularly in NSW. It’s much less common in Queensland.
In conclusion there must have been at least 15 patterns in this product range, including A-M and the two named designs.
Unknown manufacturer, 1907
These two patterns - "Lustre" and "Venetian", were found in a 1907 catalogue by Rowe Bros & Co. hardware dealers. The manufacturers are unknown but we can assume that they were British - likely Chance or Pilkington.
This collection is from another British hardware catalogue, dated 1901. The glass is by Pilkington, and it contains a pattern that was widely used in Australia for several decades - namely Muranese, in two different sizes Other patterns reflect the Victorian fascination with exotic cultures - "Indian", "Arabesque" and "Morocco".
Unfortunately I can't verify the design registration numbers - they haven't been digitised and would need a visit to the UK National Archives in Kew (if anyone happens to pass by). Even if we can't date them precisely, at least we know that they predate 1907.
This Pilkington catalogue from the 1920s has two product ranges. The less intricate (and presumably less expensive) Cathedral Glass collection is described as having seven patterns; Clear, Plain, Double Rolled, Rimpled, Waterwhite, Small Hammered and Large Hammered. Three of these patterns are shown below, and also the widespread Arctic pattern which belongs to the next collection.
The Tinted Figured Rolled Glass range had 14 patterns, some of which came in multiple sizes and about 100 different shades. Pilkington recommended the product for public buildings, or for any situation where maximum light was required with some privacy.
The patterns listed include Arctic large and small, three sizes of Muranese, three sizes of Morocco (including “pinhead” size), Cretan, Oceanic, Rose, Maltese, Japanese, Kaleidoscope, Rippled, Quilted, Persian, Shell and Arabesque. Only four of the patterns are illustrated in the catalogue, as per below. The whole catalogue is available in the reference section of the House Histories website.
The Pilkington catalogue of 1939 contains many of the same patterns seen in the 20s collection, with some additions. The various designs and grades were segmented into the product categories “Diffusion”, Non-Formal, Semi-Formal” and Formal. The glass was still fully tinted (not laminated), in thirteen standard and many more intermediary shades.
We will only include the new patterns here, and leave out old favorites such as Muranese, Japanese, Arctic and Kaleidoscope.
The Australian Window Glass Co. was registered in 1929 and the Sydney factory opened the following year, thereby severing the long dependence on overseas window glass imports. The opening coincided with a massive lift in duties - up to 500% increase on British products - including figured glass. By 1932, the company was advertising for their own range of rolled glass including the patterns Kosciusko, Waverley, Pyramid, Euston, Spotswood and Coogee.
A quick glance at the advertisements below reveals that the company had been - let’s say - very inspired by the designs produced by the British competition. Kosciusko was the Australian version of Pilkington's Arctic, Euston the equivalent of Hammered etc. Pyramid, Arrowhead and Glacier appear to be purely Australian designs, where Pyramid is widespread.
I haven't found any direct evidence of American imports of figured glass, but it seems likely that some stock made it across from the far side of the Atlantic. There was a vigorous import of American hardware around the turn of the century - hinges, locks and other fittings - and the US established a domestic glass industry earlier than Australia.
We won't attempt to cover the subject in detail, only show some samples that again have a likeness to original British patterns. The two ads are from the Pittsburgh Plate Glass Company 1923, and the Mississippi Glass Company.
Believe it or not, I have been able to confirm imports of this rolled glass from Canada. From about 1912 to 1930, the "Max" Silk Glass product, made by the Consolidated Plate Glass Company, was distributed in NSW and Queensland. The photos were supplied by Arriana, and the ad is from a Canadian hardware catalogue dated 1912.
And finally, despite all the research, there are still a few patterns that I haven't been able to identify and date.
Number one - I call it "Stars & Swirls", and it is common at least in South East Queensland and south of the border, starting from about 1900 and possibly earlier. Despite my best efforts - no leads.
Number two - submitted by Steve, who has a 30's Mission-style house in Nundah with these gorgeous leadlights. There are three types of figured glass in the windows, including the subtly fluted panels on top. All of the patterns are new to me and it's possible that the finished panels were imported fully made and as-is.
Any information on these or any other products will be gratefully received.
Sources are available on request.