By Deborah Holmes
If you have small children in your life, chances are you've been given a "stained glass" project to decorate your home or office. These offerings range from colored glue painted onto windows to dry to a translucent finish, to little plastic beads painstakingly dropped into a metal design frame and baked in the oven, to clear plastic painted with translucent stains, to tracing paper colored with markers.
Okay, so they don't really look like real stained glass. But close one eye and don't look too closely and you can still get the wondrous effect of prisms of light dancing through rich colors.
Imitations of stained glass are nothing new. America's glass industry boomed during the second half of the 19th century putting the once rare and expensive stained glass in the hands of everyone from homeowners of modest means to shop keepers to pastors of rural churches. And almost at the same time, entrepreneurs were trying to figure out newer, cheaper, better ways to get the effect of the colored panels.
The Manufacturer and Builder magazine from June 1890 describes at length of the the early stained glass imitations.
"One of the most noteworthy effects directly traceable to the educational influence of the Centennial Exhibition, was the immediate and pronounced interest created in decorative art in all its features, but especially in the matter of household decoration...
...It does not follow necessarily that the gratification of a love for artistic decoration must be accompanied by a great outlay of money...The ingenuity of inventors has been enlisted in the case...Entitled to a prominent place of inventions of this order, is the stained glass substitute which most of our readers will recognize at once from the appearance of the accompanying illustrations. The effects which it is possible to produce by the extremely simple artifice employed in this process, are really surprising for their richness of coloring and beauty. And it is not to be wondered at that the material has come into very general use.
The substitute in question, which is the most effective imitation of the genuine colored glass, is formed of thin, tough sheets of linen paper, so prepared to give the effects of the opaque leads and richly colored glasses close enough to defy anything but the closest inspection to determine the imitation from the real. The paper is prepared in a great variety of designs, suitable for windows of all sizes, and therefore adapted for use in houses, churches, stores and public buildings, to represent the effects of the most beautiful stained glass, at comparatively trifling cost.
The material may be readily applied by any person of ordinary intelligence who follows the directions given in the circular of information sent with it, so that no difficulty is imposed upon those residing in town, village or country who may propose to use it. The material, when properly applied, is remarkable durable considering its character, and by observing the precaution of applying an occasional coat of varnish, the freshness and beauty of a design of this kind may be preserved for a number of years.
The special advantages of this species of decoration for vestibule, lobby and bathroom windows are obvious. The material admits the light freely, softening and mellowing it, but completely obstructs the view from without. For these situations the substitute has grown into very extended favor.
For the same reason the material is largely used for the decoration of back windows that may have an objectionable outlook.
The manufacturer of this ingeniously prepared material has issued a catalog containing an extensive collection of specimens, colored to exhibit the effect of the material in place, and embracing richly decorated center pieces, borders, etc. in great variety from which parties may make selections of designs that please them.
Persons who may wish to introduce this style of ornamentation into their homes, may send to the manufacturer a sketch showing the number and relative positions, with size of lights in each window, who will make and send for approval drawings of some appropriate designs; or the catalogue of the manufacturer may be scanned, and the most attractive design selected therefrom.
As these have dimensions given, they need only to be referred to by the catalogue number. The material being light, can be sent by mail. The sole agent for this stained glass substitute is W.C. Young, 968 Arch street, Philadelphia."
(Source: The Manufacturer and Builder / Volume 22, Issue 6, June 1890, Library of Congress.)
By Deborah Holmes, The Old House Web