Summary: This is a short history of gold leaf glass signs that starts in the pre-Roman era and ends in the 21st century. The article is not meant to be an exhaustive history, but a brief one so that everybody wants to know more.
A BRIEF HISTORY
Gold leaf glass signs have a long rich history throughout the world. The earliest examples of water gilded gold leaf on glass or “Verre egolmise" is believed to have originated in pre-Roman eras, but its name is derived from 18th century French decorator and art-dealer Jean-Baptise Glomy (1711-1786) who is responsible for its re-popularization. One of the key historical periods of the art was in Italy during the 13th to 16th centuries. Small panels of glass, with designs formed by engraved gilding, were applied to reliquaries and portable altars. The method used is described by Cennino Cennini. It has also been used throughout Europe since the 15th century, appearing in paintings, furniture, drinking glasses and jewelry. Gold leaf on glass is also often seen in the form of decorative panels of mirrors, clock faces, and in more recent history, as window signs and advertising mirrors. Some of the best examples can still be seen in the pubs and hotels throughout Europe.
The fronts of these establishments were decorated entirely of plate glass designs and gold lettering. Some of the finest examples of the1800s in London were manufactured by either Messinger & Son, R. Morris and Sons, Cakebread Robey, Walter Gibbs, Joseph hollyer, James Carter or Jones and Firmin. America was introduced to gold lettering on glass in 1849, when the English master gilder & sign writer, Mr. John J. Edward, emigrated from London to New York. At the time of his arrival there was not a single gold leaf glass sign to be found in all of New York. He then promptly opened a sign shop on Canal Street and began making samples of brilliant, lustrous gilded. As these grew in demand his business prospered. When word got out of his success, traditional sign writers of New York wanted to know Mr. Edward's “secret" of making gold adhere permanently to glass.
These artists would pay a hundred dollars each to learn his technique. Mr. Edwards was delighted to earn the extra income for his knowledge. In the last half of the nineteenth century this industry flourished. During this period in American history it was not unusual in large cities, such as Chicago and New York, for the fronts of buildings to be completely adorned with exquisite glass signs. By the turn of the century, Rawson and Evans ornamental glass designers and manufacturers had a showroom in both New York City and Chicago. Historical records indicate the company was started in 1880 and continued through 1920. According to a rare Rawson and Evans’ 1896 catalogue, they specialized in sand blasted, chipped and decorative glass signs. This company made the most elaborate ornamental glass in the country at that time. Their work is still sought after by collectors today.
The greatest patrons of elaborately decorated glass signs were the purveyors of alcohol, tobacco, drug stores and anyone who wanted to show off their products and store fronts. Unfortunately, the great depression took its toll on this once thriving industry with Rawson and Evans along with Chicago Sandblasting being forced to close their doors.
They would continue to be a small part of the individual sign artists repertoire, but it would not be until the 1980's that a sign artist by the name of Rick Glawson would dedicate himself to rediscovering long-lost techniques and materials. Glawson was the owner of Fine Gold Sign Company and Esoteric Sign Supply in Wilmington, California, and was recognized as one of the world's foremost authorities on glass decorating techniques. Rick spent unprecedented hours researching the tools, tricks, and techniques of the art of glass signs. His specialty was the restoration of vintage glass advertising signs - especially those of the 1880-1910 era.
Rick Glawson organized a yearly glass sign event at his studio which became know as “The Conclave". Sign artists came from around the world would come to share their ideas and information about glass sign art. Since Rick's passing in 2003, The Conclave continues to be held each year in his honor, where the timeless craft of gold Leaf glass signs is being kept alive by a handful of dedicated glass sign artists. The few of dedicated gold leaf glass sign writers carrying on the traditions of the past are: Roderick Treece of California, Larry White of California, David Smith of England, John Studden of California and Noel Weber of Idaho.
After the glass is cleaned, a thin wash of water size is brushed on the glass. The water size is the glue that attaches the gold to the glass. Water size for glass gilding consists of distilled water and a very small amount of pure gelatin. Once the water size has been allowed to flow on the glass a sheet of gold leaf is picked up with a special brush and applied to the wet glass. After the water size has completely dried and the gold is attached to the glass, it will have a brilliant mirrored finish giving it a spectacularly shimmering quality. With the popularity of gold leaf glass an original antique beer and tabaco advertising glass sign, from either Rawson & Evans or Chicago Sandblasting, can fetch quite a sum in today's auctions.
Roderick Treece is the owner of Custom Glass Signs in San Diego, California, that specializes in the creations of custom signs as well as a leader in the gold leaf glass sign industry. For more information on Gold Leaf Signs , visit:www.customglasssigns.com