Stained Glass - Table of Contents ............... Illustrated Architecture Dictionary

Opalescent Stained Glass ("American glass")

A milky glass of mixed streaky colors.

Glass developed in the late 19th century by John LaFarge and Louis C. Tiffany, in which streaks of coor, when fused, give a milky, iridescent appearance.

The "Opalescent Era" is considered1880-1920.

Named after the appearance of opals,

Opalescent glass can be one solid color, but it is generally a mixture of two or more colors with streaks and swirls. Opalescent stained glass is generally translucent but often almost opaque

Unlike antique pot-metal glass that is relatively translucent, opalescent glass reflects as well as refracts light. While the milky and swirling mixture of colors in opalescent glass let in less light than traditional windows, it was perfect for dark late 19th century interiors with lighting provided by electricity.

Used extensively in Tiffany-style lamps and windows.

The Kokomo Opalescent Glass Works of Kokomo, Indiana, is the oldest (since 1888) manufacturer of hand cast, rolled cathedral and opalescent glass in America.

The modern method of producing stained glass is by ladling molten glass onto a table and then into a roller. See the process in photos with captions: Kokomo Opalescent Glass: Tour the Factory

There is also a type of opalescent glass which is made in layers - "plating" - and again the heating and re-heating process is used to create the opalescent effect with the addition of chemical agents. The degree and location of the opalescence is controlled by the thickness of the glass itself as it forms itself in the molds. 

A large proportion of cathedral glass [machine-made] is the so-called opalescent glass, which, as its name implies, is a material almost opaque to light. Rather than allowing the light rays to pass directly through it, it spreads them within its surface confines to point up its own colors and designs.

Much of it has quite dramatic mixtures of colors spread throughout the sheet in whorls and darting lines, which are given movement and life when light illuminates it from behind.

Opalescent glass, alone among stained glass, can also be seen by reflected light. Due to its dense makeup it does not lose its lines and tones with the disappearance of backlighting as do most stained glass windows when the sun goes down. In lamps it is a particularly happy choice, for the opalescent glass hides the bulb that otherwise would be plainly seen as a "hot spot."

Because of the quite direct flow of color line across such a sheet of glass some can be misled into thinking the glass has a "grain" somewhat like wood. In fact, glass has no grain whatsoever and the appearance is misleading; whatever grain there is comes from the color alone and does not relate to underlying layers of glass.

- Anita and Seymour Isenberg, How to Work in Stained Glass. 1972, p. 4

The period known as the "opalescent era" in the United States extended from about 1880 to 1920. Glass was produced in multicolored, marbleized sheets, often with an iridescent sheen.

The windows designed with this glass demonstrate an entire gamut of quality and cost levels, from mass produced window transoms for working-class dwellings to individually designed glass murals for the homes of leading industrialists such as William H. Vanderbilt and Frederick Lothrop Ames.

The vast majority of American glass studios of the era provided windows in the opalescent style. The innovative concepts that began this process, however, can be attributed to the artistic impetus of John Lafarge (1835-1910) and Louis Comfort Tiffany (1848-1933).

- Virginia Chieffo Raguin, Stained Glass: From Its Origins to the Present, 2003, p. 224

John Lafarge
, 1902

Louis C. Tiffany
, c. 1908

First Presbyterian Church, Lockport

LaFarge and Tiffany

Use of the colored glass itself to create stained glass pictures was motivated by the ideals of the Arts and Crafts movement and its leader William Morris in England. This can be contrasted with the method of painting in glass paint or enamels on colorless ["white"] glass that had been the dominant method of creating stained glass for several hundred years[since the Renaissance] in Europe.

John LaFarge was the first designer to incorporate opalescent glass into a window and received a patent for his new product on February 24, 1880. Tiffany received several patents for variations of the same opalescent process in November of the same year. La Farge was persuaded by Tiffany with hints of a future partnership and possible collaborations to waive his patent. The promises never materialized while competition and animosity grew between the two artists.

Fellow artist and glassmakers Oliver Kimberly and Frank Duffner, founders of the Duffner and Kimberly company, and John La Farge were Tiffany's chief competitors in this new American style of stained glass. Tiffany, Duffner and Kimberly, along with La Farge, had learned their craft at the same glasshouses in Brooklyn in the late-1870s.

Eventually Tiffany became the darling of the Gilded Age industrialists and he created a glass and decorating studio that boasted more than a hundred workers. La Farge remained the lone artist who contracted out fabrication of his designs to smaller studios.

Both LaFarge and Tiffany secured their glass from the Kokomo glass factory in Kokomo, Indiana, after it became a reliable source for them in 1888.

Beyond Tiffany and La Farge, a plethora of stained glass studios developed in America around the turn of the century.

La Farge and Tiffany, dissatisfied with the anemic colors and poor quality of available window glass, experimented with novel types of materials, achieving a more varied palette with richer hues and greater density. Working independently, they explored the pictorial, coloristic, and textural qualities of stained glass in new and daring ways that completely changed the look of the medium.

By 1881 each artist had patented an opalescent glass, which has a milky, opaque, and sometimes rainbow-hued appearance when light shines through it.

It was a uniquely American phenomenon that proved to be among the most important advances in decorative windows since the Middle Ages.

- Louis Comfort Tiffany at the Metropolitan Museum. 1998 catalog

The search for the mysterious qualities of medieval pot-metal glass in the United States was diverted somewhat by the enormous popularity of two glass artists, John La Farge and Louis Comfort Tiffany. Both were painters of considerable stature who experimented with making opalescent glass, a milky glass of mixed streaky colors. Pictorially their work was stunning.

Still, at least two other glass artists of the same era, Charles J. Connick of Boston and William Willet of Philadelphia, and the architect Ralph Adams Cran rallied against opalescent windows and strongly advocated the return to pot-metal glass of the Middle Ages for the making of stained glass windows.

- Discovering Stained Glass in Detroit, by Nola Huse Tutag. Detroit: Wayne State U. Press, 1987, p. 12

For examples of Tiffany opalescent glass in Buffalo and elsewhere, see Louis C. Tiffany Stained Glass Windows in Western New York

For examples of LaFarge opalescent glass in Buffalo and elsewhere, see John LaFarge Stained Glass Windows in Western New York

For examples of opalescent glass from contemporary US companies, see Opalescent Glass Samples

Other examples:

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