Note from a Bristol Glassmaker

This weekend, The Sloane Letters Blog celebrated its first anniversary and the recent addition of the 3000th letter to the database! On this occasion, it seems appropriate to reflect on Letter 3000.

Bristol blue glass: unlikely to be the glass in question because it wasn't invented until later in the century. But it sure is pretty! Image credit: Wikimedia Commons, user Arpingston.

Bristol blue glass: unlikely to be the glass in question because it wasn’t invented until later in the century. But it sure is pretty! Image credit: Wikimedia Commons, user Arpingston.

The short letter was written in late October 1727 by a Bristol glassmaker, Jonathan Rogers. Rogers claimed to have discovered a method of glassmaking that would offer “Universall benefit to the state” and asked for Sloane’s assistance in promoting the technique. This sort of request was by no means unusual. People regularly wrote to Sloane asking for favours, such as providing reference letters or assistance with schemes, and offering to share secrets or give demonstrations.

What was interesting about Rogers’ letter, though, was his reference to recently reading a treatise on natural philosophy by Joseph Glanvill (1636-1680). This is what had inspired Rogers to write to Sloane. I wish that I knew my Glanvill well enough to guess what exactly Rogers had read that encouraged him to write to a man so far above his station.

That a glassmaker might read natural philosophy is not necessarily surprising; technical processes and natural philosophy regularly blurred in early modern Europe. But it strikes me as important that Rogers must have been reading widely. Glanvill, who tended towards the religious side of natural philosophy, is not the obvious practical choice for a glassmaker. The reference also suggests that Rogers expected Sloane, as an educated man, to be familiar with the work of Glanvill.

A short letter, perhaps, but one that might tell us something about eighteenth-century reading practices. If only it also told us the secret of why Roger thought his glass could be of “Universall benefit to the state”…

5 comments on “Note from a Bristol Glassmaker

  1. thonyc on

    Congratulation on the blogiversary. Glanvill tended towards popular books which might explain why Rogers chose to read him. Sloane would of course have known of Glanvill.

    • Lisa Smith on

      Thanks, Thony! Your point that Glanvill was fairly popular would certainly explain both Rogers’ choice and his assumption that Sloane would be familiar with him. Sloane may have known about Glanvill, but if his printed books collection is anything to go by, he wasn’t exactly a heavy reader. He owned Glanvill’s Two choice and useful treatises (1682). Admittedly, this is no proof since Sloane could have sold, given away or borrowed other books by Glanvill…

      • thonyc on

        Glanvill is one of those figures who was very well known in the 17th century but is virtually forgotten today. He’s a very important figure in the early Royal Society above all in leading the fight against the critics of the Royal Society and of the new science. To quote Wikipedia, quoting Richard Westfall “Not himself a scientist, he has been called “the most skillful apologist of the virtuosi”, or in other words the leading propagandist for the approach of the English natural philosophers of the later 17th century”. Although he died whilst Sloane was still a child he would definitely have been venerated as one of the great defenders of the Royal Society and thus certainly known to Sloane.


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