Some Secrets of Glass Rolling Pins

From the last decades of the eighteenth century, right though the Regency, a vast number of decorative rolling pins were made in Britain. They were all made of glass and most were produced in the many glass works located in the area around the city of Bristol, in southwestern England. And all of those glass rolling pins were hollow. Which is not their secret, nor was the identity of their various contents, during the Regency. Though such details may well be unknown to many people living in the twenty-first century. Despite the mundane household purpose to which these rolling pins could be put, Regency romance authors may find them an ideal, and historically authentic, symbol of love.

Glass rolling pins though the Regency . . .

The origin of the rolling pin has been traced to the Etruscans by historians of cooking implements. The ancient Etruscan civilization reached its height in the ninth century, in the northern regions of the Italian peninsula. These ancient rolling pins consisted of rod of smooth hardwood which could be used to flatten any kind of dough or other malleable food. This simple and effective cooking tool gradually spread beyond the Etruscans, whose civilization eventually died out, for rolling pins were in use in many kitchens from the Middle Ages right through to modern times.

Early wooden rolling pins were typically made of turned hardwood, which, if properly seasoned, would not crack or warp out of shape, even under heavy use. Rolling pins made of hardwoods would also retain their smooth surface even after years of use. Hardwoods, especially fruitwood, maple, and lignum vitae, would also not absorb any of the liquids and/or oils which were ingredients in the doughs that were rolled out by those rolling pins. But as the centuries progressed, rolling pins began to be made of other materials. By the seventeenth century, many rolling pins were made of stoneware and other ceramics. In the eighteenth century, with the discovery of porcelain in Europe, rolling pins began to be made of that more delicate ceramic as well. Most were plain, smooth cylinders meant for utilitarian purposes. But some were highly decorated and intended to be given as gifts or used for display purposes.

In the last decades of the eighteenth century, glass formulas were improved and perfected so that the finished product had much greater tensile strength than ever before. It was then that rolling pins began to be made of glass. Initially, glass-makers experimented with making rolling pins using leftover glass gathers at the end of a work day in order to demonstrate their skill. Because glass objects were made by blowing, these rolling pins were, by their very nature, hollow. It was not long before glass-makers left an opening in one end of the rolling pin, which could be closed with a cork or metal stopper. These glass-makers took their rolling pins home, where their womenfolk put them to good use. When others saw these glass rolling pins, they requested them for themselves, and in time, a number of glass-makers began to offer a few rolling pins for sale. And the buyers of those rolling pins could not resist filling them with a wide array of contents.

By the 1790s, several glass-works had been established in the area around Bristol, where there was a plentiful supply of coal to feed the great glass furnaces. Several of these glass-works were producing glass rolling pins on a commercial scale in the last decade of the eighteenth century. The most popular glass rolling pins were made at the Nailsea Glass-Works a few miles from Bristol. Those first rolling pins at Nailsea were made of transparent dark green bottle glass. Because bottle glass, unlike Flint glass, was taxed at a much lower rate, these rolling pins could be sold fairly cheaply. However, to make them more attractive, these bottle glass rolling pins were decorated with loops and splashes of opaque white glass laid on the surface in a number of interesting patterns. By this time, it had also become the usual practice to make rolling pins with knobs at each end so that a cord or wire could be attached for hanging.

As the eighteenth century slipped into the nineteenth, the glass-makers of Nailsea continued to expand the colors of glass they could make, as well as the designs which could be applied to that glass. By 1810, rolling pins were made of exceptionally rich and transparent dark blue and crimson glass, as well as the original dark green. Graceful loops of opaque glass in white, pink, blue, and green were used to embellish many of the best Nailsea rolling pins. In some examples, the opaque glass loops were pulled or combed to create a feathered effect. Other patterns included spots and streaks of multiple colors laid over a clear or colored glass base. Another form of decoration was applied, using tranfers, painting and/or gilding on solid colored glass. Applied designs included floral patterns, landscapes, seascapes and/or mottoes or sentiments popular at the time.

Bristol was an important port in the coastal trade and glass rolling pins became a popular gift item purchased by sailors for their sweethearts, wives, mothers and sisters. For their sweethearts, sailors favored rolling pins with mottos like "Forget Me Not" or "Remember Me," often surrounded with a colorful garland of pansies or forget-me-nots, both having strong associations with true love. More complex mottos were also seen, among which a particular favorite was "Remember me, when this you see, though many miles I distant be." Brief love poems could also be found painted on some glass rolling pins. It is likely that some of those verses were written by the person who purchased the rolling pin and were therefore custom work. There were also less amorous and more general mottos such as "A Present From a Friend," or "A Present to My Mother From Her Son."

Within a few years, a number of glass-works in various ports along the coast of Britain were producing their own hollow glass rolling pins, most of them intended to be sold to sailors as love tokens. Typically, the sailors would then fill their new rolling pin with some type of dry goods to make their gift even more special for their lady. Cocoa, baking powder or spices were all poured into glass rolling pins, though salt was the most popular gift of all. Though few of us today would consider such a mundane commodity as salt a special gift, particularly from a lover, during the Regency, salt was heavily taxed, making it very expensive, and thus a most welcome gift. There is no way to know how much of the salt that found its way into these glass rolling pins actually had the tax paid on it, but it is unlikely any of the recipients concerned themselves with that minor point. The knobs on these rolling pins came in particularly handy, since it was the usual practice to hang the rolling pin by the kitchen fireplace to help keep the salt dry.

Though a vast number of rolling pins were purchased by sailors as gifts for loved ones, many sailors also purchased a glass rolling pin for themselves. Since so many sailors bought glass rolling pins, they would not be considered in any way remarkable as part of a sailor’s possessions while on board ship. But instead of being filled with cocoa, salt, or other dry goods, these rolling pins were usually filled with the sailor’s favorite alcoholic beverage. Rum was the most common liquor found in rolling pins. Some sailors even used their glass rolling pins to smuggle small quantities of French brandy or other prohibited liquors back to Britain. It is almost certain that small amounts of other prohibited commodities could be smuggled in these hollow glass rolling pins by the sailors who carried them on their voyages.

Naturally, since seafarers were involved, there were several superstitions associated with these glass rolling pins. Most sailors believed that so long as there was at least one glass rolling pin intact on their ship, it was a lucky charm that would protect the vessel from shipwreck. Which may explain why so many sailors carried a glass rolling pin on their voyages. It may not have been just for the rum or other spiritous beverages it might contain. However, there were also a few superstitions associated with those glass rolling pins that were given as gifts to sweethearts. Since so many of those rolling pins given as gifts were highly decorated, they were not of much use in the kitchen. Therefore, most of them were hung on a wall as a reminder of the sailor while he was away. In some regions, it was believed that if the rolling pin were to fall and be broken, the sailor would never return from the sea. In other areas, it was believed that the breaking of the rolling pin was an omen that some great misfortune was about to befall the family of the sailor’s sweetheart. Still another superstition held that if the rolling pin was broken, the woman would forsake her sailor for another man. Though, in some areas, the breaking of the rolling pin was a sign that the sailor was lost to another woman.

By the Regency, the practice of giving glass rolling pins as love tokens had spread beyond the coastal towns of Britain. In many rural inland areas, it was common to give a glass rolling pin as a wedding gift to a prospective bride. Such rolling pins were typically filled with salt, though those gift rolling pins might also be filled with one of the usual commodities, such as cocoa, baking powder or spices. Wedding gift rolling pins might also be filled with tea leaves, another expensive commodity which would be much appreciated by the recipient. The contents of wedding gift rolling pins could also be beads, ribbons, sewing notions and/or skeins of thread. All things which a young woman might find useful in preparing her trousseau.

Though quite a number of these glass rolling pins given as wedding gifts were decorated, there were still many more that were free of applied decoration and were therefore quite functional. In several areas, it was the custom for the prospective bride to use her new glass rolling pin to roll out dough for some kind of pastry or biscuit to be served at her wedding. Some bakers chose to fill their glass rolling pins with cold water and/or crushed ice to keep the pastry dough cool and firm while they rolled it out. However, there were other bakers who found that condensation developed on the surface of the cold-water-filled rolling pin that would work excess moisture into their dough. Those bakers might fill their rolling pin with water to give it added weight, but they would use water which was at room temperature, rather than chilled, in order to prevent any condensation from forming.

Dear Regency Authors, now that you know something of the lore of glass rolling pins, could you find a use for one of them in an upcoming romance? Perhaps a sailor gives his sweetheart the gift of a glass rolling pin before he ships out on a long voyage. Will another young woman, superstitious and jealous of her rival, break the glass rolling pin, hoping to bring bad luck down upon the sailor’s sweetheart and family? Could it be that a young sailor helps his family by giving his mother or sister gifts of rolling pins filled with salt to spare them that cost? But has the tax been paid on the salt he provides? Or, might a glass rolling pin figure in a larger smuggling scheme? Could it be that an entire ship’s complement of sailors are all smuggling French brandy using glass rolling pins, and item that would typically be overlooked by a customs inspection? Then again, perhaps a network of British spies, posing as sailors, use glass rolling pins to transmit clandestine messages to their team members? Are there other ways in which a hollow glass rolling pin might figure in a Regency romance?

About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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10 Responses to Some Secrets of Glass Rolling Pins

  1. Dear me, how very boring I am, i thought my glass rolling pin was purely for use to fill with chilled water for pastry making and I prefer my great grandfather’s marble one for that actually anyway…. I am thinking of a sailor’s sweetheart whose rolling pin falls but does not break, hitting a cushion say, and when word comes that his ship was lost she insists that he is not dead. Months later a letter is received that he is a prisoner of war, and she knows she was vindicated. Feels like a short story….

  2. alinakfield says:

    This is brilliant! I was looking for a cylinder to be used for smuggling a small painting. This might do!

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      You may want to think twice about rolling a painting. Despite all the nonsense perpetrated in books and films, rolling a painting painted on canvas can do a great deal of damage to the surface. Thieves who steal paintings by cutting them from the frame and rolling them up are destroying the value of the very object which they are stealing.

      Paintings on canvas are done on canvas which has been stretched and coated with one or more coats of gesso before the paint is applied. Though the canvas on which the image is painted may be flexible, over time, the gesso and/or the paint itself dries out and becomes very brittle. When the canvas is cut from a frame, it loses the support of the stretchers and becomes unstable. Worse, when a painting is rolled, the paint surface will crack and chips of paint will flake off during the process of rolling and unrolling.

      If the painting in your story is small, and you wish it to retain its value after it is transported, you would be wise to find some way to transport it flat, with the canvas still on the stretchers. Perhaps a false side or bottom in a suitcase or hat-box might serve the purpose?



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