Glass and the Uniqueness of the West

The West is a very peculiar civilization. It was, for instance, unique in its use of glass.

Historically, glass has had five main uses:

  1. Decoration, such as beads, toys, or jewellery;
  2. Vessels, such as drinking glasses;
  3. Windows;
  4. Mirrors; and
  5. Lenses, prisms, and spectacles.

The West was the only civilization to develop all five uses, and it did so early on by 1300. Here we see a great Western divergence — much earlier than the industrial revolution.

  1. Decorative glass, particularly beads, was produced by all the Eurasian civilizations, though it was unknown in the Americas or Africa.
  2. Vessels were produced in the Middle East and the West, particularly Rome (notably wine glasses) and later Venice. The East preferred china vessels.
  3. Windows were little developed either in Asia or Southern Europe. A great window revolution around 1000 saw window glass spreading across NW Europe, particularly in churches and cathedrals.
  4. Mirrors were peculiar to Western Europe from about the 1200s (elsewhere in Asia polished metal served the same purpose, though less efficiently).
  5. Lenses, prisms, and spectacles were unique to Western Europe. Spectacles spread from about 1280.

What were the causes and consequences of these developments? That is a subject for another time.


Alan Macfarlane and Gerry Martin, The Glass Bathyscape (London: Profile Books, 2002).

Alan Macfarlane, “Glass and Its Effects” (YouTube).



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4 responses to “Glass and the Uniqueness of the West

  1. Interesting! I’m enjoying watching the Macfarlane’s lecture on YouTube as well—thanks for including the link. In case it’s of interest, here’s my own meditation on the use of glass in German and EU legal buildings: Is there some deep historical grounding for this philosophical view of architecture?

  2. Pingback: A New Video: German & EU Legal Buildings | Worlds of Law

  3. Pingback: Origins of The Glass Revolution | Breviosity

  4. Pingback: The Age of Glass | Breviosity

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