In Focus

Italian Glassware in the United States

In 1911, Italian glasshouses contributed two percent by value of all the ornamented glassware imported by Americans. During the postwar period, the use of Italian tableware and decorative glass grew dramatically in the United States. From a starting point of ten percent in 1956, Italian glass imports swelled to twenty-seven percent in 1965; Italian glass imports grew to twenty-seven percent in 1965 and then receded to eleven percent in 1972. Italian ceramics were never sent to America in such large quantities.

Americans have long had a tradition of thinking of all high-end Italian stemware generically as Venetian glass from Murano, the island near Venice, even though the Italian glass industry was very diverse by the 20th century. In 1968, Italy was said to have 500 glasshouses employing approximately 36,000 people. The chief centers of tableware production were Turin, Milan, and Rome. In 1963, 28 percent of all the table glass made in Italy was exported to the United States. A fraction of this total was crystal, but most of the glassware that came to America from Italy was inexpensive ware used in homes and in bars and restaurants across the United States. Simple in design and anonymous as to brand, such glass was in many ways interchangeable with much middle-level contemporary Czech, French, German, Swedish, and American glass. In fact, in 1967, an outraged manufacturer said of American importers shopping for products in Italy, "only three out of ten Americans here are genuine buyers....The rest want samples, which they take home to have copied in Japan."

In the end, the number of Italian glass and ceramics producers that were able to build brand-name recognition in the American market were few. During the early 1970s, Cooperative Emploese Vetrai and Vetreria Artistica Valdesana, two large glassmakers in Empoli, Italy, tried to establish themselves in the United States as makers of higher quality stemware. Hoping to effectively compete with the Germans and French, the Italians claimed that their new product was of "a quality not previously seen in the U.S." The new crystal lines were said to made from thirty percent lead glass that had been press-molded and then cut with a pattern in the traditional manner. Although it was purported to be cheaper than its European rivals and was often of very high quality, upscale Italian stemware never became widely popular in America.

Adapted from

Charles L. Venable, Ellen P. Denker, Katherine C. Grier, Stephen G. Harrison, China and Glass in America, 1880-1980: From Tabletop to TV Tray (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 2000), 272-278.