A short history of Swedish Glass – how a nation conquered the world.

Short History of Glassmaking in Sweden

Early days

The art of glassmaking comes to Sweden in the 1500’s, which is relatively late compared with the rest of Europe. The skilled glassworkers came mainly from Germany and Italy and were hired by the wealthy nobility that owned the glassworks. The glassworks were first located close to the capital Stockholm. As glass became more and more accessible, glassworks were established all over Sweden. Due to the geography of Sweden, with large forests and an ample supply of sand and other raw-materials needed to make glass, glassworks were able to operate in most parts of the country. The oldest Swedish glassworks that are still operating today are Kosta (founded in 1742) and Limmared (founded in 1741).

From the 19th Century onward

In the latter part of the 19th century, most glassworks were founded in central and south Sweden, particularly in Småland (Smaland). Fifteen out of Sweden’s 16 glassworks of today are still located in this province, which has since then become known as the Glasriket, or the Kingdom of Crystal. The reason why most of the glassworks were founded in Småland was simple: before, Småland was home to most of the Swedish iron works, and as these closed down, glassworks were established on the old iron works sites. The newly founded glassworks had the benefit of being able to use the existing infrastructure that was left behind by the closed-down ironworks, as well as of the plentifully available cheap labour force. Indeed most of the laborers were poor and unskilled, and had no other means of subsistence than to work in the hard and difficult conditions of the glassworks, much like they previously did in the ironworks. An example of such a case would be Kosta, which was founded on an old ironworks site.

Difficult working conditions

As the glassworks grew, so did whole communities around the glassworks. The glassworks would provide housing for the workers and their families, but one should not expect too much from this: often it was just a single room for the whole family. Only highly skilled workmen would be able to benefit of the privilege of an extra room. It was not until the 20th century that workers had the opportunity to abandon the glassworks’ accommodation in order to go and live in private housing.

The glassworkers worked together in teams. These were quite small, just a couple of people, and each member of the team had his own title based on the job that he was doing and the type glass he was manufacturing. As was quite normal at the time, child labor was widespread. The glassworkers had to work in harsh and difficult conditions for very little pay. Cruelty and beatings were common, and it was not until 1881 that the minimum working age was officially set at 12 by the Swedish government. This looked good on paper, but the enforcement of the law in “real life” was difficult to say the least. As in so many other countries, laborers started to organize in trade unions and gained more influence. This led to a slow but steady improvement of the glassworkers working and living conditions.

The influence of the industrial revolution

Technical innovations, like in so many other fields during the industrial revolution, brought glass into the reach of most people by rationalizing production and making it more affordable. Whereas few people could afford the high-end crystal, most people were able to afford everyday glass wares made out of pressed glass. In the second half of he 19th century, Swedish glass was exported all over the world. The leading glassworks of the time, Kosta, exported to countries as far away as India.

The 1897 General Art and Industrial Exposition of Stockholm

At the 1897 Allmänna Konst- och Industriutställningen in Stockholm, international critics were not impressed with Swedish glass. Kosta, being mindful of its reputation as being the foremost Swedish glassmaker, hired Gunnar Gunnarson Wennerberg whose first art nouveau art glass helped to establish Kosta as a leading manufacturer of art glass. Other manufacturers followed and employed artists that were encouraged to produce pieces of their own designs and develop new techniques. At the Paris World Fair of 1925, Swedish glass finally gained international recognition for its quality, beauty and craftsmanship.

Two World Wars

The two World Wars brought hardship to Sweden and the Swedish glass industry. Even though Sweden stayed neutral during both wars, the wars prevented the glassworks to export their products and they were effectively cut-off from their markets. Add into this equation the great depression of the 1930s, and you understand why so many glassworks ceased business.

1950s

After the Second World War, the Swedish glass industry flourished again. Rising exports together with an increased spending power due to an increased standard of living both internationally and domestically, made a large portion of people worldwide susceptible to purchase higher quality glass wares.

1960s

In the 1960s, the spirit of freedom and rejection of established values led to new designs as well as new techniques in glass, as it did in so many other fields of industry.

1970s

The 1970s were different to the 1960s in the sense that glassmaking became to be regarded again as a craft in which an artist could express himself. Consequently, experimentation was common and these artists who could not align their ideals and ideas with the harsher economic reality of working in a large glassworks, joined the Studio Art Glass movement. During the second half of the 1970s, Swedish glassworks started to compete with cheaper foreign imports, and many smaller glassworks could not survive this new economic competition. In 1976 the glassworks of Kosta, Boda and Åfors merged to form Kosta Boda AB.

1980s

During the 1980s, the general interest in glass increased again. Some wealthy collectors started to collect Swedish art glass on a large scale, raising auction prices and thereby putting Swedish art glass even more in the spotlight. A shift in consumer behavior from interest in cheap, mass produced table-ware to higher quality and higher priced, hand-made or hand-finished glass table ware also helped the glassworks.

1990s and onward

In 1990, the two leading Swedish glassworks of Kosta Boda AB and Orrefors AB, decided to merge to form Orrefors Kosta Boda AB. The group comprises 7 glassworks: Orrefors, Kosta, Boda, Sandvik, SEA and Åfors. All glassworks are encouraged to preserve their identity and traditional glass making techniques. Other, smaller glassworks such as Bergdala, Gullaskruf, Johansfors, Lindshammar, Målerås, Nybro, Reijmyre, Rosdala and Skruf remain independent to this day. All glassworks cater to a broad audience and carry a lot of everyday use glasswares in their portfolio. However, all glassworks also employ different artists to design and experiment with glass. In 2005, Orrefors Kosta Boda AB was bought by the New Wave Group, a group that focuses on lifestyle products. Whether this will have a positive or negative impact on the development and the innovative power of swedish glass will only be seen in the future. 

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