Glass has played an important part in our domestic history, but for a long time it was the preserve of the rich. In particular, it is hard to imagine life without windows, but for several hundred years they were a great luxury. It was really only in the late-18th and 19th centuries that glass passed into common use.

Glass was invented by the ancient Chinese, but it wasn’t made in England until the Middle Ages. In 1570 one Jacopo Verzelini arrived in England and set up a Venetian glass factory in London, and in 1615 the Vauxhall glass-house was founded for the manufacture of glassware.

By 1700 lead glass was widely used (and remains to this day the finest type of glass available). The technology of glass blowing has also remained much the same. What has changed is the way we have developed the use of glass in art and architecture around us.


In the Middle Ages, glass was so expensive that when nobles travelled from one property to another, they took their window panes with them! Ironically, it was the scarcity and expense of window glass that encouraged experimentation with artificial lighting, because without windows, most houses were very poorly lift and needed to introduce light in other ways. Indeed, in 1696 there were still only 18 glass-producing factories in England and Wales making window glass.

The vast majority of people lived in windowless hovels with a hole in the rood and slits in the wall. The printed image of the perfect country cottage with mullioned windows was more often than not a bucolic flight of fancy – most people just couldn’t afford the luxury of glass.

And in truth, with all the other work involved in keeping a house sparkling clean, the last thing most women wanted was to have something else to polish! It’s interesting to note that books like The Complete Servant of 1825 make virtually no mention of how to clean window glass, although we do know that one of the most popular traditional glass cleaning materials was vinegar, followed by a wipe down with some crumpled newspaper.

Vinegar is still unsurpassed as a glass cleaner and indeed if you are using a chamois leather to clean a window you should apply vinegar rather than detergent, which reacts with the oils in the leather skin and destroys them. An effective variation on the vinegar theme is a mixture of 4 fluid ounces of ammonia and 4 fluid ounces of white vinegar in a bucketful of water. Another excellent cleaning agent is warm tea, which will remove hard bits such as fly specks from both the window itself and the painted frame.

Stained glass and leaded windows

Stained glass, which is made either by adding pigment to the glass or by painting the surface of clear glass before firing, should be cleaned with care; if it is old or delicate, wipe with a damp cloth but don’t use a detergent. If the surface is painted, dust with a soft paint brush rather than using water, which can destroy fragile paintwork. Leaded windows should be examined on a regular basis to make sure that the lead isn’t weakening and bowing out.


Drinking glasses and glass bottles only became widely available at the end of the 17th century. Prior to that, liquids were drunk from pewter or silver vessels and kept in wooden barrels, animal skins or stoneware bottles. Along with the development of glass bottles came the invention of bottling food, for which we owe a debt of gratitude to a Frenchman called Nicholas Appert; who, responding to a prize of 12,000 francs put up by the Emperor Napoleon for anyone who could find a way of preserving food for his army, came up with the Kilner jar.

Bottled fruit remains to this day an important item in the well-kept larder, even though the modern