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A popular luxury item of the ancient Mediterranean world was the unguentarium–a little glass container which contained perfume, salve, balm, or suchlike precious unguents (the purpose is right there in the name, people). Today we would probably keep such cosmetics or medicines in a hermetically sealed plastic containers vacuum sealed by machines with metal or foil tops, but the Romans did not have such materials or technology. In order to keep their basalms fresh, they used the glassblower’s art. The jalop was put in the container during manufacture and the glassmaker sealed it in.
In order to use such a material, the buyer would snap the glass and break the seal (and alas, the vessel). Dove-shaped unguentariums (or whatever the English plural of that word is) were particularly popular because the shape was beautiful and effective. A user could break the beak for getting small amounts or snap off the tail if she wanted to use all of her lotion at once. Additionally, doves were sacred to Venus–a particular favorite goddess of the Romans. I wonder what sort of lubricious lotions and potions were in these lovely glass doves. In some cases we could perhaps find out. Some of these were never broken by the people they were made for, now dead for more than a thousand years. We could break them and find out what the contents were with our machines…but after so long it seems like an unimaginable shame.
For various reasons, I have been thinking about manufacturing and small American towns and communities in the hinterland. We’ll get back to these thoughts soon, but first here is a winsome artifact of this bygone age: a glass pageant crown from Dunkirk, Indiana. This crown was part of an annual tradition: it was used to crown the annual “Cinderella, Queen of Glass”, during “Glass Days” a local festival in Dunkirk, which had an amazingly robust craft glass industry (not unlike some of the small cities and towns I know from West Virginia). Cinderella’s crown was lovingly handmade and has some of the finer stylistic elements which I like in American glass. You can find it these days in the Glass Museum at Dunkirk, which sounds like a pleasant excursion, and not nearly so forboding as the palaces, vaults, and cathedral tombs, where some of the other crowns we have featured here are located.
The Cranchiidae are a family of squid commonly known as “glass squid” which live in oceans around the world. The squid are of no interest to commercial fisheries (yet) and a great deal about this family remains completely unknown. Most of the 60 known species of cranchiidae are small and inconspicuous–indeed the majority are transparent and thus nearly invisible. However the largest known mollusk, the colossal squid (Mesonychoteuthis hamiltoni), is part of the family, (so it might be wise not to antagonize them on the playground).
Glass squid are notable for having stubby swollen-looking bodies and short arms except for one long pair of hunting tentacles. The majority of glass squid have bioluminescent organs which they use to hunt, to communicate and to disguise the faint shadows cast by their transparent bodies (predators of the deep can see even the faintest shadows cast by the dim light from the surface). The cranchiid squids themselves sport a variety of interesting and complex eyes which range from giant circular eyes to stalked eyes to telescoping eyes. This little gallery shows how delicate, diverse, and beautiful (and how utterly alien) these squid can be.
Juvenile cranchiid squid are part of the plankton and live near the surface where they hunt microscopic prey while trying to avoid thousands of sorts of predators. As they mature, they change shape and descend to deeper waters—indeed some species become practically benthic and can be found more than 2 kilometeres under the ocean. Glass squid move up and down the water column by means of a fluid filled chamber which contains an ammonia solution (which maybe explains why they are not on the human menu yet).
Today we have a special (but largely visual) treat: the pelagic octopus Vitrelladonella richardi. This cephalopod is “transparent, gelatinous, and almost colorless.” Since they are not only transparent but also live in the deeper part of pelagic zone of the ocean (the portion which is near to neither the top nor the bottom) they are rarely seen and little is known about them. The females are ovoviviparous and broods her eggs within her body. Both genders are strongly bioluminescent and use light for hunting, communicating, and hiding (by mimicking the faint light from the surface they can become even more invisible). Even if we don’t know a huge amount about these octopuses, we are privileged to have some amazing photographs of them, thanks to the new generation of submersibles and submersible drones, which are exploring the pelagic regions of the ocean. Look at how exquisite and alien these octopuses appear! It’s hard to believe we share the planet with such strange animals…
Here in Brooklyn it has already been a long, long winter…and more snow and bitter ice is on its way. Spring seems like a vanishing dream which recedes further with every day instead of growing closer (as is the proper course of nature’s ancient power). Would that I were able to visit my felicitous readers in the beguiling south where tropical breezes cajole weary wayfarers with the heavenly scent of orange and gardenia—where winter itself is a whimsical conceit and life is an eternal pleasure garden completely free of care [ed’s note: the writer has not spent very much time in southern latitudes or among tropical people].
Unfortunately I am presently unable to leave the ice-fastness of my home to travel the happy Azores or frolic in the eternally verdant south. Even my imagination is beginning to turn cold and cracked. People of past eras likewise missed the summer during long winters. Unlike us, such bygone generations also lacked Hollywood movies, jet airplanes, and refrigerated trains full of produce—even aristocrats were far more trapped by the winters of yesteryear.
To keep some of summer’s pleasures with them (and, more practically, to provide a home for tropical fruits and flowers which would never grow in temperate climes), bygone generations kept conservatories, greenhouses, and orangeries. These splendid glass buildings were heated in the winter. Such conservatories had a golden age in the18th and 19th centuries, when glass and heating became cheaper, yet international transit infrastructure was not robust enough to provide cheap travel and tropical produce to the masses (or indeed to anyone).
The favorite architecture for such buildings was ornate gothic–which suited the shape of the iron and glass (and of the taste of the times). To help my winterbound readers escape the endless arctic storms, I have included a gallery of some of the loveliest gothic greenhouses I could find online. Sadly the majority of these buildings seem scantly furnished with flowers and fruit, but that means you can imagine them filled with whatever sensuous orchids and sumptuous fruits you would like. As an added bonus the last few greenhouses are contemporary, so if you have some space you could always add such a miniature gothic greenhouse to your own garden!
In the 1860s the formula for making pressed glassware changed. Manganese was substituted for lead to act as a stabilizer and to make the glass brighter and clearer. Nearly every major American glass manufacturer used manganese dioxide for such a purpose until 1915, when industrial chemists realized that selenium made for a better stabilizing/clarifying agent.
Because of the nature of manganese, the glassware manufactured during the late nineteenth century has some unique properties. Original manganese glassware glows brightly under a blacklight (although vaseline glass, glass tinted yellow with uranium does the same thing). When exposed to the sun over the years, as in a bright kitchen or a window, manganese glass takes on a slight amethyst purple cast. Glass objects with a faint hint of sun purple betray their provenance, but they also lose some value–since antiques dealers regard the effect as “discoloration”.
However, some people became obsessed by the sun purple effect and put their antique glassware outside for months in order for it to fully turn cloudy purple in the sunlight. This “solarized” glassware could then be sold to novice antiques collectors (often with a little card explaining “sun-purpling”). Dealers realized that the causative factor behind the color change was ultraviolet radiation, and so instead of putting glass outside they exposed it to radiation from UV sterilizers (a common anti-microbial tool in bio labs and hospitals). As you read this, somewhere out there is a room full of ornate glass pitchers, sugar dishes, and goblets being irradiated with blistering ultraviolet waves!
Seasoned glass dealers are aghast at the practice, which leaves everything a murky washed-out pale purple. Additionally there is glass currently being deliberately manufactured to resemble the manganese purple solarized glass. To confuse the issue even further, there is also glass manufactured in a robust shade of purple (for people who like purple) which is named “amethyst” glass.
The Kingdom of the Netherlands has the 16th highest nominal gross domestic product in the world. This becomes more impressive when one realizes the Dutch have the 61st largest population. Holland’s long history of trade and empire has combined with its own native tradition of artistic excellence to leave the country littered with all manner of treasures and masterpieces. The country is a parliamentary democracy ruled by a beloved sovereign, Queen Beatrix. If you say anything censorious about the reigning monarch to a Dutch subject, you are likely to get a scowl and some harsh words (or possibly a fist). At times, the personal net worth of Queen Beatrix has been reckoned to surpass that of the Queen of England (depending on the art and financial markets).
So what is the crown of the Queen of the Netherlands like? Actually the crown, which symbolizes the sovereignty of the Kingdom of the Netherlands (which presently consists of the Netherlands in Western Europe and two overseas territories in the Caribbean: the Netherlands Antilles and Aruba) and represents the dignity of the sovereign as head of state, is of comparatively recent construction. It was made in 1840, upon the abdication of King William I, and it differs substantially from the heraldic crown of the house of Orange (which–being heraldic–exists only in depictions). The actual crown is very small. It appears to be gold but it is actually constructed of silver covered with thin gilding. The crown has no actual jewels but is ornamented with colored glass, foil, and artificial pearls. These “pearls” which are the chief feature of the royal headdress are constructed from paste covered with fish skin.
For some reason the Dutch kings and queens have never chosen to wear the crown during coronations, but the object has always been present on a special table. The crown has only appeared in public during coronations (in 1898, 1948, and 1980), during a royal funeral in 1934, and at an exhibition in 1990. Below is the largest picture I could find.