The Dream of Exporting Glass

Just off Jamestown Island is a popular re-creation of a colonial glasshouse. Artisans and interpreters are at work every day producing glass by hand in a similar manner to what the Jamestown colonists did 400 years ago.

Craftsmen brought special tools with them to find riches in North America. Beyond gold and silver, a decent glass window could also make the Virginia Company money because glass was in short supply in London. Window glass had to be imported from the continent at great cost because English glassmakers could not make window glass profitably using coal furnaces (which they were required to use by English law). The Virginia Company hoped a window glass factory in Virginia was worth the breakage that would occur during the weeks of sailing the windows back across the Atlantic. There was plenty of sand on the James River beaches to provide the needed silica and a limitless supply of wood for fueling the furnaces and producing the needed potash.

Three German glassmakers arrived at the colony in September 1608. Captain John Smith gave a nod to their industriousness when he wrote that most of the “labourers” in the fort “never did know what a dayes worke was, except the Dutch-men [Deutschmänner or German] and Poles, and some dozen other.” Archaeologists have found glass crucibles and cullet at James Fort. A crucible is a ceramic container made of refractory clay that can withstand the high temperatures used to melt the contents within. Cullet is glass waste that is recycled and used in the production of new glass.” The evidence indicates the glassmakers labored two months inside James Fort to produce a “tryal of glasse” that was returned to England at the end of 1608. The test glass was probably no more than an ingot to prove Virginia’s resources could make glass. With all the glassmaking items found inside James Fort and the later efforts made on Glasshouse Point just off the island, there is yet no evidence the Germans ever made any glass beyond their trial. The struggle for survival was too intense. Later attempts would be made at this location, likely with mixed success.

In the mid-20th century archaeologists uncovered the ruins of the workshop used for the glassmaking trials, and these foundation are visible today adjacent to the reconstructed glasshouse. Various forms of glass are produced today for sale in the gift shop.