The First Glassblowers
The first evidence of man-made glass dates back as far as 4000 BC. Glass was first used as a glaze to cover stone beads, and naturally occurring glass found near volcanoes -- obsidian -- was used for spears and hunting. The first instance of glassblowing as we know it did not happen until 1500 BC, when glass was used to create hollow containers for drinking and storage. Around 100 BC, the Romans began to add colors to glass during the glassblowing process, and the glassblowing trade became the prominent artform that we recognize it to be today.
The disintegration of the Roman Empire saw the glassblowing techniques spread throughout Europe and Asia. The presence of good sands in Venice, Italy saw a boom in glass housing by 1400 AD, but through the 1700’s heavy government taxations began to limit the still-emerging industry. Glassmaking followed settlers into the colonies that would become the United States, and the age of Enlightenment saw glass being used for scientific tools such as microscopes and telescopes.
Bob Snodgrass and the Glass Pipe Revitalization
The duality of glassmaking as both a scientific and artistic process continued through the world wars. In the 1960’s and 70’s, the protest movements in the United States and Europe created a new glassblowing icon: the hippie. Bob Snodgrass is considered the godfather of the artistic glass movement, specializing in glass spoon pipes and bubblers. Snodgrass traveled the states with his family and students, and even discovered the fuming techniques commonly found on spoons even today. By incorporating gold and silver into the glassblowing process, the translucent pinks and blues that are common on pipes today became a new breeding ground for incorporating other experimental glassblowing techniques onto pipes and bongs.
Snodgrass eventually settled in Eugene, Oregon, which is considered the “glassblowing mecca” of the United States. Here, he took over two dozen apprentices to help spread his practices throughout the states as a new American folk art. In the coming years, we would begin to see other glassmaking hubs spring up in the states, such as in Asheville, North Carolina where the tradition of glass as folk art spread through the east coast.
The DEA Crackdown
In 2003, the DEA launched a nationwide investigation of glassblowers and headshops called “Operation Pipe Dreams.” By using a little-known line of code from Title 21, state law-enforcement cracked down on the “war on drugs” by targeting the creators of the so-called paraphernalia. Hundreds of business and family homes were raided, costing the government 12 million dollars and sentencing 55 artists and businesspeople to heavy fines and jail time.
On September 11, 2003, Chong was sentenced to nine months in prison and a fine of $20,000. Chong was jailed mostly for the promotion of his son, Paris Chong’s, business, Chong Glass Works. Chong Glass Works ran a unique business model at the time, selling hand-crafted heady pipes and bongs to collectors as pieces of art. Federal agents pressured Paris Chong into packing and shipping out glassware for them while disguised as collectors, and Tommy Chong took a plea bargain to avoid the prosecution of his wife and son. Afterwards, federal agents admitted to being harsher on Chong for “trivializing law enforcement efforts to combat drug trafficking and use.” After serving his time, Chong became an even larger icon for the glassblowing industry’s fight for legitimacy, legalization, and artistic integrity.
Legalization and the Glass Industry Today
Headshops and dispensaries became a breeding ground for innovation and collaboration. In 2012, Smoke Cartel formed its online store and retail location, allowing millions more to receive glass art and pipes through discrete shipping.
Today, the scientific and artful uses of glass still stand as important techniques of the modern age. The folk art movement continues not just in Eugene and Asheville, but in new hubs such as Los Angeles, California and in the home studios of artists throughout the midwest. Heady pipes are still seen as works of art, and new scientific methods have allowed for the creation of hundreds of percolation systems and body styles. Many forms of technology such as smartphones even implement glass screens, making glass itself one of the most ubiquitous materials used today.
Bob Snodgrass continues to blow glass out of his studio in Eugene, Oregon.