Many thanks to Rita Wood for suggesting this topic and recalling the passage in Elizabeth Gaskell's North and South. You may use these images (which come from our own website) without prior permission for any scholarly or educational purpose as long as you (1) credit the photographer or person who scanned the image, and (2) link your document to this URL, or cite it in a print one. [Click on the images to enlarge them and for more information about them.]

The Crystal Palace. Left: Raising the ribs of the transept roof. Right: Assembling the glass over the main gallery.

To many, then as now, the Crystal Palace of 1851 was the single most dazzling wonder of the Victorian period. But, naturally, it had its context. Huge greenhouses, "Winter Gardens," bright and airy shopping arcades, enticing department stores and dazzling station train sheds, these and other such structures all helped to brighten the face of newly industrialised Britain. They depended as much on glass as on iron for their form, and even more on glass than on iron for their effect. Essential to their impact was the prefabrication and mass-production of glass panels, which had only recently become possible: as Isobel Armstrong writes, "[o]ne of the oldest artificial materials in the world, glass was at the same moment the most modern" (58).

The glass for the Crystal Palace was produced by the "Cylinder Process," during which cylinders of blown glass were cut, stretched, flattened and polished. Its manufacture had only recently reached the point where large sheets could be made by this process, using compressed air (see Kohlmeier 46).

Plate Glass

Oriel Chambers on Water Street, Liverpool, designed by Peter Ellis (1864), with its revolutionary, extensive use of plate-glass. Left: Building in York with a plate-glass window fitted on the first floor in the late nineteenth century, when such windows were in vogue.

Plate glass too had evolved:

English polished plate glass was first produced in significant quantities at a manufactory at Ravenshead, St Helens, Lancashire, from 1773 (St Helen's became a world leader in glass production...), and by 1800 the glass was being ground and polished with the help of a steam engine. As it was thick, to bear its potentially large size, plate glass was heavy and it was not until 1845, when the government removed the weight levy on glass, that it became more affordable. It was used especiaily for shop fronts to enhance the display of goods and, like cylinder glass, it also replaced six-over-six panes in domestic Georgian sashes, though cheaper cylinder glass remained more common. [Forsyth 198]

The process of improvement continued throughout the period, with many new patents being taken out, so that in Edwardian times, Walter Rosenshain could look back and comment on the much increased use and much improved quality of such glass: "The very large expansion of the use of plate-glass in modern building construction, together with the steady reduction in the prices of plate, are evidence of the success that has attended the efforts of inventors and manufacturers in this direction" (142). Rosenhain explained that, by the time of writing (in 1907 or 1908), "plate-glass is manufactured in very large sheets, measuring up to 26 ft. in length by 14 ft. in width, and in thickness varying from 3/16th of an inch up to 1 1/2 in., or more, for special purposes. At the same time the quality of the glass is far higher to-day than it was at earlier times. This high quality chiefly results from more careful choice of raw materials and greater freedom from the defects arising during the melting and refining processes" (142-43).

As this process of improvement started to gather pace in the mid-nineteenth century, people noticed glass in a way that we seldom do today. Here, for instance, are Mrs Hale and Margaret in Chapter VI of Elizabeth Gaskell's North and South, first published in serial form in 1854-55:

It was long since Mrs. Hale had been in London; and she roused up, almost like a child, to look about her at the different streets, and to gaze after and exclaim at the shops and carriages —

“Oh, there's Harrison's, where I bought so many of my wedding things. Dear! how altered! They've got immense plate-glass windows, larger than Crawford's in Southampton. Oh, and there, I declare — no, it is not — yes, it is — Margaret, we have just passed Mr. Henry Lennox. Where can he be going, among all these shops?" [57-58]

"In plate-glass we have no equals," claimed James Ward in 1851, devoting a whole chapter of his commentary on the Great Exhibition to its glass displays (135). Much had been learned from Continental sources, but, as Rosenhain says, the widespread use of plate-glass demonstrates the success of new generations of glass-makers at home as well. Later developments allowed for a greater range of thicknesses. In 1923 Harry Powell gives the examples of one-eighth of an inch for train carriage windows, and "a couple of inches for ships’ port-lights" (125). Yet the range was not that much greater: the Victorians had brought the manufacture of glass on a long way, for architectural and industrial purposes, as well as for decorative ones.


Left: Representation of Lewis Carroll's Alice through the Looking Glass (1871) in the grounds of Guildford Castle, Surrey. Right: Self-Portrait of Ralph Hedley, the Newcastle artist, in 1895.

Mirrors (made of silvered cast glass) were already fashionable when the Victorian age began, and their potential for creating interesting interiors was not lost on late eighteenth-century designers. But it was Sir John Soane, at the very end of the eighteenth century and early in the nineteenth, who saw their full potential for the interior, deploying them en masse and unforgettably at his house in Lincoln's Inn Fields. Here, apart from adding "sparkle, play of light and form, repetition, curvilinear distortion, illusions of depth, and so on," they produced "interiorized landscape vistas and perspectives" (Furján 55). Progress on silvering and mass-producing plate-glass meant that manufacturing mirrors now came "to constitute an entire industry" all of its own (Rosenhain 146), with the result that, whether elegant or simple, mirrors became a normal part of every Victorian home — and another tool of interior designers. It was through mirrors, too, that plate glass found its way into many a Victorian work of art, adding layers of meaning both in fiction and paintings, as well as simply aiding self-portraiture.


Armstrong, Isobel. "Languages of Glass: The Dreaming Collection." Victorian prism: Refractions of the Crystal Palace. Ed. James Buzard, Joseph W. Childers, and Eileen Gillooly. Charlottesville and London: University of Virginia Press, 2007 [Review]. 55-83.

Forsyth, Michael. "Window Glass." Materials and Skills for Historic Building Conservation. Chichester, W. Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell, 2008. 196-99.

Furján , Helene. Glorious Visions: John Soane's Spectacular Theatre. London: Routledge, 2011.

Gaskell, Elizabeth. North and South. London: Penguin, 1995.

Kohlmaier, Georg, and Barna von Sartory. Houses of Glass: A Nineteenth-century Building Type. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 1986.

Powell, Harry J. Glass-Making in England. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1923. Internet Archive. From a copy in the West Bengal Public Library. Web. 2 December 2020.

Rosenhain, Walter. Glass Manufacture. New York: D. Van Nostrand, 1908. Hathi Trust. From a copy in the Library of the University of California. Web. 2 December 2020.

Ward, James. The World in Its Workshops.... London: William S. Orr & Co., 1851. Contributed by the Getty Research Institute Web. 2 December 2020.

Created 2 December 2020; last modified 31 October 2023