Making the invisible visible: flat glass in the Netherlands, 1850-1930

Date of news: 21 February 2022

No building is conceivable without glass, whether old or new. Art historian Laura Roscam Abbing investigated the background of Dutch flat glass in the period 1850-1930 on the basis of the most important flat glass factory in the Netherlands: the Royal Dutch Glass Factory J.J.B.J. Bouvy in Dordrecht. She will defend her thesis on 22 February.


Without glass, a building could hardly exist. The shape, size, location and appearance of glass are very decisive for the appearance and perception of a building. ‘The paradox of flat glass is that it is present in many places but is rarely noticed', says art historian Laura Roscam Abbing. ‘The application and presence of glass in buildings is taken for granted. This is undoubtedly one of the reasons why little research has been done into flat glass and why so little has been published about it.’

Glass can be divided into two categories, hollow glass and flat glass. Hollow glass is glass that has been shaped by blowing or pressing to hold a volume, such as bottles, vases and table glasses. Flat glass refers to sheets of glass, in whatever form, with or without all kinds of decorative processing, such as etching and stained glass. The development of flat glass was particularly rapid in the period 1850-1930. A lot of glass was needed during the large construction waves in the period 1850-1930. Standardisation was important for keeping construction fast, efficient and cheap.

Royal Dutch Glass Factory

In April 2019 Roscam Abbing published the book The Royal Dutch Glass Factory J.J.B.J. Bouvy, Dordrecht 1854- 1926. Supplier of window glass. In it she describes her research into the Royal Dutch Glass Factory J.J.B.J. Bouvy, showing that Bouvy played an important role in the (technical and decorative) processing and supply of flat glass in the Netherlands and abroad. ‘Bouvy was a special and innovative company', Roscam Abbing explains. 'From the very beginning the company concentrated on bending large sheets of glass and sent in bent glass products for exhibitions.'

From 1856 onwards the firm won various medals at home and abroad, including a gold medal at the Exposition Universelle, the 1900 World Fair in Paris, for the largest curved window. This specialisation made the company increasingly well known. Thanks to the lead in bending and later in producing very large mirror glass panes, the firm J.J.B.J. Bouvy became known in the Netherlands. Among its customers were large companies and institutions that had to be sure of good and quick delivery, such as the railways, the navy, municipalities, the Rijksmuseum and the Nederlandsche Bank. In the early seventies Bouvy also started to export processed glass. Roscam Abbing: 'At that time, the world would have looked very different without a company like Bouvy.’

Wider framework

‘After the publication of the book I wanted to place my research into the Bouvy glass factory in a broader perspective', Roscam Abbing continues. That research resulted in the thesis Vlakglas in Nederland 1850-1930. The picture that emerges from the research confirms the existence of an interaction between the developments in the flat glass industry on the one hand and on the other hand the demand from the building sector in 1850 - 1930, for example for the construction of government buildings, station roofs, shops and homes. The requirements which the glass products had to meet were attuned to their use. That use is inextricably linked to the changes in the sector for which the products were intended, namely architecture, building and housing. It also becomes clearer how Dutch flat glass and its design can be placed in relation to other cultural-artistic developments and how they relate to foreign flat glass in that period.

The stormy developments in the building industry and the interaction with innovative companies such as Bouvy can still be seen in our environment. 'This important legacy deserves to be highlighted and appreciated as part of the Dutch cultural heritage,' says Roscam Abbing. 'With this research I want to contribute to increasing the knowledge about and the enthusiasm for this special, everyday material. In this way, I hope, even the most transparent flat glass will become visible again.'

Laura Roscam Abbing's defence will take place on 22 February, starting at 2.30 pm.