The Bryn Athyn Glass Factory (1922-1942)

davidsmithnov08.jpg“One of the things that I remember is going over to the glass factory and watching the operation going on there, particularly watching David Smith, the glassblower, sit on that bench and actually be blowing glass. And I remember one occasion where I thought that I could do it myself, and so he handed me the blowpipe with some glass on the end, and I puffed as hard as I could—nothing happened. I didn’t make any bubble at all at the end of the pipe” (Carl R. Gunther, son of Ariel Gunther. Interview. March 30, 2006).

glassfactoryleftnov08.jpgDuring the early 1920s, when much of the construction for Bryn Athyn Cathedral had been completed, the builders began to turn their attention to the production of stained glass windows. Raymond Pitcairn, who was in charge of the project, was determined to duplicate the textures and pure colors of the medieval glass he admired in the churches of Europe. This proved to be a monumental undertaking. In industrialized America the art of making hand-blown glass had virtually disappeared. To achieve the quality he was looking for, the Bryn Athyn studio had to rediscover the lost techniques of the medieval glassmakers. The Bryn Athyn glass factory was located on what is now Tomlinson Road (see aerial photo below, with the glass factory circled in yellow). It operated continuously from July, 1922, until April, 1942, when it was shut down because of World War II. The building was torn down in 1952, but many of the tools and materials were preserved, and are now part of the collections of Glencairn Museum. All of the stained glass and mosaic made for Bryn Athyn Cathedral and Glencairn were produced in this factory.

glassfactoryaerial.jpgPhotographs and a plan of the factory still exist (see photos, above and below). It was a long wooden building, sixty feet long by 32 feet wide. A small metal building to the right provided a space for the setting of mosaics. The design and assembly of stained glass windows took place across Second Street Pike in Cairnwood’s Garden House, under the direction of Winfred S. Hyatt, the principal stained glass artist and designer.

glassfactorylayoutnov08.jpgIn the first few years of its operation the glass factory was managed by John Larson, a Swedish glassmaker from Brooklyn, New York. David Smith, also a Swede, was hired to be the main glassblower. Ariel Gunther, a member of the Bryn Athyn New Church congregation, served at first as an apprentice, and proved to be an apt student. John Larson left the factory in 1925, and at that time Ariel Gunther took over its management until it closed in 1942. Gunther’s book Opportunity, Challenge, and Privilege gives us a picture of the factory’s daily operation:

glassfactoryrightnov08.jpg“Once we actually got into the daily making of glass my routine became established. For the next twenty years I was to arrive at the factory each morning at 5:45 A.M. and start the fires in the furnace. By doing this I would have the furnace hot enough to receive the batch by the time that [John] Larson and [David] Smith arrived at eight o’clock. Larson made up the batch and I filled it in. This would allow us to begin the blowing of the glass about one o’clock in the afternoon. When the glass had all been blown and put into the lehr, the fires were turned off and the furnaces were allowed to cool overnight” (pp. 57-58). (Note: a lehr is a special furnace that allows the glass to cool slowly, making it stronger and less brittle.)

In later years Ariel Gunther developed a slide lecture of the Bryn Athyn glassmaking process which he delivered to various New Church societies. His slides and additional archival photographs have been compiled to form an online album titled “Glassmaking in Bryn Athyn.”

Photos: The photograph of David Smith at the glassblower’s bench (top) was originally a 35 mm slide used by Ariel Gunther for his lecture. The photograph of one end of the glass factory (second from top) shows David Smith in the doorway. If you compare the door openings in this photograph to those shown on the drawing plan, it appears that he is standing on the left end of the building when viewed from the Girls School athletic field. These two photographs are in the collection of the Glencairn Museum Archives, Bryn Athyn, PA. The aerial photograph of the glass factory and the small mosaic setting shed (both circled in yellow), shows a Pitcairn PAA-1 Sport autogiro in flight. The large road on the lower left is Second Street Pike, and what is today known as Tomlinson Road runs past the factory. Across Tomlinson is empty land now occupied by Bryn Athyn College buildings and Pitcairn Hall. (This photograph is courtesy of the Stephen Pitcairn estate and will be used in an upcoming book by Carl Gunther titled, Harold F. Pitcairn: Aviator, Inventor, and Developer of the Autogiro.) The second photograph of one end of the factory shows the right end of the building when viewed from the Girls School athletic field. It was originally a 35 mm slide used in Ariel Gunther’s lecture. This and the plan of the factory (above) are both in the collection of the Glencairn Museum Archives, Bryn Athyn, PA.

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November 17, 2008 | Posted by: Ed and Kirsten Gyllenhaal in New Church History Fun Fact