courtesy: The Corning Museum of Glass

Goodbye, Brooklyn! Hello, Where Again?!

We’ve all heard the phrase, “It’s not you. It’s me.”

The intended meaning is simple. It’s not that the other person, place, entity lacks appeal, but that the speaker has specific needs, interests, dreams that require a change.

In some ways, that describes the journey Brooklyn Flint Glass Company started back in 1868 and which it continues today as Corning Incorporated. The physical move of the glass manufacturer from the hustle and bustle of 19th Century Brooklyn to a small, rural town about 300 miles upstate led to the transformation of a waning lumber town into America’s Crystal City.

And, along the way, it also changed the world.

Sometimes things seem to just fall into place at the right moment. Around the same time the family who owned Brooklyn Flint Glass was looking to move the company out of Brooklyn (for one, coal prices were exorbitant, but there were others reasons as well) a Corning inventor patented a glass window blind (which was really more like an indoor shutter with slats of colored glass) which he was certain would be the next big thing in home decor. The inventor, Elias Hungerford, believed Corning was an ideal location for a glass company and it seems that he shared his vision with the Houghton family.

Why would a small town, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, appeal to entrepreneurs already operating in Brooklyn? Proximity to an unlimited supply of coal and cheaper prices, a willing workforce, accessibility to markets in New York and Pennsylvania for glass sales, excellent transportation via railroad and waterways, and Hungerford’s blinds all played a role in why Corning New York became the preferred destination for the glass company.

In June 1868, work began on the foundation for Corning Flint Glass Works and by October of that year the plant was manufacturing glass. The industrialization of the town happened just as the lumber business was fading and Corning was abuzz with new arrivals including a number of workers from Brooklyn who came with the company.

Another glass company, Hoare & Daily, agreed to open a branch on the second floor of the Corning Glass works factory. Hoare specialized in cut glass for which Corning would make the blanks.

While it might seem like the next part of this story is “and they lived happily ever after,” the company and the town actually struggled. Despite all the new jobs (about 150 men were employed at the Glass Works by 1869) and newspaper reports of the company’s success, some of the preconceived benefits of the move didn’t happen.

As a matter of fact, the company declared bankruptcy in 1870 and struggled for several more years, yet still managed to transform Corning. While the Hoare shop established a reputation for the highest quality of cut crystal which was being purchased by dignitaries, even presidents, in 1876 fire ravaged the glass factory and that winter only one furnace was in use. Things looked bleak.

But a few things happened. In 1877, Charles Houghton designed and patented a new signal lamp for the railroad that resisted dirt, snow and ice buildup making it a big improvement on what had been used. And, in 1880, inventor Thomas Edison enlisted the aid of Corning Glass Works to create the glass envelopes necessary for his incandescent lamps. In time, Corning became the country’s leading producer of light bulbs.

Edison Bulb Reenactment
Courtesy of the Corning Incorporated Department of Archives & Records Management, Corning, NY

These two events are significant for a number of reasons. In addition to providing stability to the company, they also opened a new door, the use of glass for science and technology. And it is that focus that transformed Corning Glass Works into a worldwide leader in glass technology for the company would go on to invent Pyrex (chances are your mother or your grandmother used these remarkable dishes for casseroles or other baking), Corning Ware (those seemingly indestructible dishes that so many families across the country grew up using), fiber optics (the vehicle through which light travels, through which our thoughts and words and ideas travel, speeding across the world wide web, connecting people around the planet in seconds), Gorilla Glass (which Corning invented decades before it had any practical use for, long before cell phones became the norm). They’e had their hands in everything glass, from space shuttle windows to telescope lenses to thermometers.

Other glass companies, like Hawkes Crystal, came to the small town located on the Chemung River, in New York’s Finger Lakes region, which is why Corning became known as America’s Crystal City. It was in Corning that Steuben Crystal was first created, gaining renown for the iridescent colors of the elegant Carder Steuben pieces, and later for the pure, colorless crystal which it continues to produce today.

And it’s here today, that you’ll find glass studios like Vitrix Hot Glass and Hands-on Glass Studio, where artists continue the legacy of glassblowing for which the town in known.

To learn more about the fascinating history of glass, visit the world’s largest museum devoted to glass art and artifacts (with objects dating back over 3,500 years). Be dazzled by live glassblowing demonstrations. Take a class at The Studio and create a one-of-a-kind keepsake with your own hands. Check out the Tiffany & Treasures Trail for more wonderful glass and fire arts experiences.