Stepping into the Spotlight: Women Itinerant Glassworkers

By Rebecca Hopman

The orphans from the Home of the Friendless filed into the Metropolitan Rink in orderly rows, staring at the wonders displayed before them. Glass sparkled from every surface, shaped like ships and birds and little men and women. A steam engine made of colorful glass spun and whirred next to a model of a derrick bobbing for non-existent oil. In the center of it all stood Madam Nora and her troupe of itinerant glassworkers, spinning, twisting, and blowing glass into all sorts of marvelous shapes. They were there to show the children all the wonderful things that could be made from glass, and to give each child a toy to treasure long after the show was over. To thank the glassworkers for their gifts, the orphans sang them a song. It was the perfect end to the troupe’s two-week stay in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, in March 1887. More importantly, it garnered Nora and her troupe a slew of free publicity and praise, as well as an open invitation to come back again. It paid to be a marketing-savvy woman in show business. [1]

sepia photograph of two itinerant glassworkers behind a table of their goods

Mrs. and Mr. Frank. A. Owen. Glass exhibition featuring spinning wheel and glass steam engine, 1904? Collection of the Rakow Research Library, The Corning Museum of Glass, Corning, NY, CMGL 131372.

Itinerant glassworkers were lampworkers who toured cities and towns entertaining and educating audiences from the 17th century through 20th century. [2] They demonstrated glassmaking, blowing glass bubbles, spinning glass thread, and shaping flowers, baskets, and figurines. They created intricate models like skeletons and steam engines and covered tables with trinkets for sale. The trade was dominated by men, but there were quite a few women who performed too, including some of the most prominent and popular itinerant glassworkers of the 19th and early 20th century.

By stepping outside the home and entering the public sphere, these women transgressed the standards set for women. They traveled across countries and continents, demonstrating glassmaking for royalty, government officials, and members of the public. They made their own living, and some of them counted their male family members as employees. Women like Madam Nora and Madam J. Reith ran their own troupes and became popular performers. Details about their private lives are few and far between, but as public figures they were breaking down ideas of what women could and should be at that time.

The earliest-known woman itinerant glassworker was a Mrs. Johnston or Johnson, who was active in the mid-18th century. In December 1740, she performed at the Robin Hood tavern in Dublin, Ireland, making “curiosities such as, men, women, birds, beasts, swords, scabbards, and ships” out of glass. She also used a wheel to spin glass thread, as much as “ten thousand yards of glass in half an hour.” [3] A few years later she had traveled north to demonstrate in Edinburgh, Scotland. Here she won herself an admirer who was so impressed by her performance they composed a poem in her honor. [4]

More women followed in Johnston’s footsteps, often performing alongside their spouses or families. Signora Murch demonstrated with her husband in Devonport, England, in 1825. The two demonstrated their lampworking skills, “Modelling, Blowing, and Spinning Glass, of various colours.” They offered to make the “Likeness of any favorite DOG” in glass and teach women the “Art of Flower Making.” The Murches made many items for sale, including “Glass Feathers, Pens, Baskets . . . and other Curiosities too numerous to mention.” [5]

portrait of a young Madam Nora

Detail Madame Nora’s original troupe of glassblowers, 1876?Collection of the Rakow Research Library, The Corning Museum of Glass, Corning, NY, CMGL 132079.

Nora Allen (a.k.a. Madam Nora), the performer whose troupe put on a show for the orphans of the Home of the Friendless, was one of the most popular American itinerant glassworkers of the 19th century. Her troupe – Madam Nora’s Original Troupe of Glass Blowers, Workers, and Spinners – included her second husband, her son, and her daughter-in-law, Adalorra Allen. They toured the East Coast and the Midwest in the 1870s-1890s, spending most of their time in New York and Pennsylvania. Her name was listed at the head of every advertisement, and her portrait was featured on broadsides and a newspaper published by the troupe.

By demonstrating for the orphans, Nora was performing “respectable” womanhood. Many women performers of the late 19th and early 20th century did the same, or were marketed by their managers as respectable women. They dressed conservatively, spoke about how much they loved to cook dinner for their husbands, and showed their interest in traditionally feminine pursuits like knitting and sewing. They did so to avoid public censure and to continue making a living as performers. Because their profession put them in the public eye, they could easily be labeled as disreputable and their acts as inappropriate for women and children to attend. So, while Nora may have truly wanted to give the orphans a fun day out, her actions also helped prove to locals that hers was a reputable show proper for all audiences to attend.

During the first half of the 20th century, there were several well-known families of lampworkers, including the Howell family. All of the women in the family demonstrated glassmaking: matriarch Ethel Maude Howell, daughters Grace Howell and Nona Deakin, and daughters-in-law Marie Howell and Verna Howell. Grace in particular found success demonstrating at festivals, for scouting troops, and making appearances on TV variety shows. She was perhaps best known for dressing up as Mrs. Santa Claus each December and demonstrating lampworking at the Manhattan Savings Bank during the 1960s. [6]

black and white photograph of the Howell family of itinerant glassworkers

Nona, Ethel, and Grace Howell are pictured here alongside their male relatives. Howell family of Chelmsford, 1937-1945. Collection of the Rakow Research Library, The Corning Museum of Glass, Corning, NY, CMGL 151522.

These are only a few of the many women itinerant glassworkers who performed for crowds. They, alongside circus performers, actresses, lecturers, singers, vaudeville stars, and other women working in the public eye proved that women had a right to be in that space. Each time they appeared in front of an audience they broke the boundaries, putting themselves in the spotlight instead of staying at home.


Resources


Notes

[1]  “Workers in Glass,” The Wilkes-Barre Record (Wilkes-Barre, PA), March 16, 1887; “Entertaining the Children,” The Wilkes-Barre Record (Wilkes-Barre, PA), March 24, 1887. I’ve taken a little poetic license with this description, but it’s based on newspaper accounts of Nora Allen’s show in Wilkes-Barre and elsewhere.

[2] Lampworking (now often referred to as flameworking or torch working), is a technique used to make objects from rods and tubes of glass that have been softened in a flame. Most itinerant glassworkers would have used a lamp fueled by oil or paraffin together with foot-powered bellows to create the flame in which to work the glass.

[3] Mary and Peter Francis Boydell, “Eighteenth Century Curiosities,” Glass Secrets of Ireland no. 4 (1994): 9.

[4] Paul Engle, “Mrs Johnston, 18th Century Fancy Glassblower,” Conciatore, November 8, 2019.

[5] Rebecca Hopman, “Glass blowing and working in miniature,” Notable Acquisitions 2017, ed. Richard Price (Corning, NY: Corning Museum of Glass, 2018), 21.

[6] Rebecca Hopman, “‘Only Mrs. during the month of December’: Grace Howell’s holiday glass gig,” Gathering a Crowd, December 9, 2019.


Rebecca Hopman is a first-year student in the Women’s History graduate program at Sarah Lawrence College. She is the Project Archivist at the Sarah Lawrence College Archives and works as an editor for the Re/Visionist. Her research interests include the history of itinerant performers, gender dynamics in artistic communities, women’s life writing, and women’s collegiate experiences.