Humans have drunk from vessels from time immemorial—whether from naturally formed objects adapted for drinking, such as shells and gourds, or from handcrafted forms made of wood or metal. But today, when one thinks of a drinking vessel, one thinks of an object made of glass—so much so that the object has acquired the name of the material from which it is made. And today, no formal dinner table would be regarded as properly appointed without stemware.
The earliest evidence of man-made glass occurs in the form of beads made in Egypt and Mesopotamia during the last quarter of the third millennium B.C.E. And the archaeological record indicates that Egyptian artisans during the reign of King Thutmose III (1479 – 1425 B.C.E.), arguably Egypt’s greatest warrior-pharaoh, developed the technique of making drinking-vessels of glass using the core-formed method. By the first century B.C.E., the Egyptians had developed the technique of blowing glass; and when the Romans conquered Egypt in 27 B.C.E., glass, by then popular in Egypt, was introduced to Rome, thereafter spreading throughout Europe—to those who could afford it since glass was very expensive and could be acquired by only those of the elite classes. It was not until one thousand years later that there would be reference to glass-making in Venice, which became famous for the craft—so much so that in 1291 all Venetian glass production was moved to the Venetian island of Murano for fear that the watery city would burn on account of the high concentration of glass foundries in the city.
Perhaps the first written suggestion of the drinking glass as it is best known today—in its transparent form—occurs around 1570 when there is reference to Venetian “ice” glass. [But See Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper, 1495-98; and Domenico Ghirlandaio’s Last Supper, 1480. In both paintings, transparent glass is prominently depicted, indicating that transparent glass was in use almost a century earlier in Renaissance Italy. See also examples of 3rd– and 4th-century C.E., Roman transparent cut-glass objects at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Also, Pliny the Elder, writing in the 60s C.E., discusses the contemporary taste for clear glass and glass as similar to rock crystal as possible]. Caravaggio’s Bacchus, circa 1595, demonstrates the artist’s mastery, in oil on canvas, at rendering what is believed to be an example of that “ice” glass. And by1673, the technique of adding lead oxide to glass production resulted in a heavy, clear glass that was ideal for cutting.
The pressed-glass machine was invented in 1825 in the United States, ushering in the era of mass-produced, relatively inexpensive glass. (There were, however, companies specializing in high-quality crystal glasses as usable, functional, works of decorative art: Baccarat, founded in 1764, was by the 1850s producing elegant drinking-glasses for the world’s elite; and Lalique, founded in 1888, began producing luxurious stemware in 1921). But it was during the Victorian era, in the 1890s, that the drinking glass as it is known today became popularized. In the late 1800s, when opulence was the order of the day, heavily carved crystal stemware adorned the dinner tables of the world’s great hostesses. But while such glasses may be beautiful to behold, they are not perfectly suited for the enjoyment of their contents. And it would not be until the 1960s that Claus Riedel would design a collection of wine-specific glasses—clear, smooth, über-lightweight glasses designed especially to enhance the appreciation for the taste and bouquet of wine. The collection was officially launched in 1973; and Riedel and Riedel-inspired glasses have been the standard ever since, with companies such as IKEA, Pottery Barn, and Williams-Sonoma offering similarly designed, machine-made stemware at affordable prices.