THE LIBBEY GLASS COMPANY WAS facing stiff competition. It was the summer of 1893, and as many as 27 million people were shuffling through the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. They pressed in to gawk at the grand plaster buildings rising above Lake Michigan—meant to evoke ancient Greece and Rome—or marvel at new-fangled neon lights. The grounds were crammed with the old and the new, from recreations of ancient Egyptian temples to an early prototype for a fax machine.
To drum up enthusiasm, the organizers changed from free admission to a 10-cent price tag, which they soon pushed up to 25 cents. Something worth paying for was something worth waiting for, they reasoned. And soon enough lines were snaking out of the building. Attendees were able to put their admission fees toward Libbey-branded souvenirs, especially novelties such as neckties and dolls that incorporated spun glass.
For Libbey, the exhibition was a chance to show off their inventiveness, “not only what they usually did, but amazing, unheard-of things they could do with glass,” says Rebecca Hopman, outreach librarian at the Rakow Research Library.
To “spin” these glass fibers, a glassworker used tweezers to pluck filament after filament from a rod dipped into a flame. These threads were often wound onto a wheel and then woven on hand looms, dressed with some organic fiber to cushion the fragile glass. According to Charlotte Holzer, a textile conservator who studies glass clothing, the ties and belts were fashioned by gathering bunches of fibers into braids. Dresses like Eulalia’s weren’t boxy sheaths made from pieces of glass, but rather consisted of very thin strands mingled with other fabrics, such as silk. The garment would have been shiny and fragile, but not so brittle that it would shatter at the slightest touch.
An advertisement on view in Curious and Curiouser: Surprising Finds From the Rakow Library, an exhibition at the Corning Museum, details the particulars of her outfit. A team of workers spent more than 67 hours spinning and weaving to create a gown that weighed nearly 14 pounds—not counting the dangling trimmings—and carried a $2,500 price tag. Eulalia was so enamored with the result, the story goes, that she granted Libbey the right to print the Spanish coat of arms on their advertisements, quite a seal of approval.
Over the coming decades, synthetic materials blossomed and then reigned. The early 20th century saw the development of rayon—made from cellulose—and then nylon, the first wholly synthetic fabric. Marketing materials often variously trumpeted its similarity to the material it mimicked and its wondrously unnatural origins, Byrd says. The fascination with fiberglass dresses presaged the textile innovations that really did revolutionize fashion.
Eulalia’s sister donated her glass dress to the Deutsches Museum in 1924, but it didn’t hold up well. By the time Holzer examined it in detail a few years ago, it was pocked with holes and covered in grime. (She speculates that the poor condition could be, in part, a consequence of damage sustained during World War II, when its storage facility was a hard-hit bomb shelter.)
The glass dress never became as ubiquitous as nylon stockings, but it is a wearable distillation of the excitement about science that brought nearly one in four Americans to Chicago in 1893 for awe-inspiring glimpses of the past and the future. And, before long, synthetic textiles would be hanging in just about every closet in the country.