A Rare Collection of Victorian Glass Microbes

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This gorgeous glass sculpture of an Actinophryid, an ocean microorganism, is over 100 years old. It's one the few surviving scientific models of tiny, swimming creatures created by a father-son team of glassmakers.

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A few years ago, Wisconsin Zoological Museum worker Paula Holahan opened some cabinets that hadn't been touched for decades. Inside, she found several boxes of delicate glass replicas of ocean life, including this Argonauta argo. Some were crumbling, and all needed to be cleaned. Fascinated by the artistry involved in their creation, Holahan embarked on a quest to find out who had made them and what they were for.

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It turned out these pieces, like this model of an Actineria Hemprichi, sold in the late 19th century by Ward's Natural Science Establishment, a company still operating today. Stamps in the wooden bases of some of the glass creatures revealed them as the work of German glassmakers Leopold and Rudolph Blaschka, a father and son who started out making glass eyes and graduated to scientific models of sea creatures in the 1880s. Holahan combed through the museum's records and discovered that a zoology professor ordered the collection in the mid-1880s as a teaching aid for biology students at the University of Wisconsin.

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Here's another of their creations, a model of Spongodes Celosia. According to University of Wisconsin-Madison News:

The Blaschkas were commissioned by museums to create glass models that would capture the exotic species' fanciful shapes and vivid colors. Other models were sold for exhibit or instruction at universities or even as elegant knickknacks for private homes.

"These were highly in demand. The living animals were often so minuscule and delicate, [models were] an ideal way to demonstrate what they looked like," says Holahan.

Working from illustrations or live or preserved specimens, the Blaschka craftsmen meticulously reproduced the spikes, polyps, and suckers of their aquatic subjects. They preserved an impressive degree of scientific accuracy, even modeling the tiniest creatures at 600- to 1,000-times actual size to show fine detail, Holahan says.

The Blaschkas pioneered many of their techniques and developed original formulas for their glasses, glues, and colored enamels. They experimented with methods, sometimes using internal wires for support and other times painstakingly gluing on individual spines and tentacles.


These delicate, now-restored glass creatures are a clear example of how art, science, and craft can merge beautifully.


Design Museum (with many more images)

University of Wisconsin-Madison News



Corpore Metal

It's creatures like this, crinoids, hydras, urchins, that inspired Lovecraft to imagine his extraterrestrial and hyperspatial horrors.