Over time we’ve looked at many different classifications of antique stemware, where glasses are grouped by purpose, form, decoration, source or manufacturer, but it should not be forgotten that there are also broader categories which can encompass glasses which may share one element in common whilst being quite different in other aspects.

These disparate groupings are my favourite, as although you begin with a common theme on which to base your search, you can still end up with a collection that includes examples of several otherwise unconnected types of glass, an excuse to accumulate a wider range of antique wares than might otherwise be the case.

One such category is that of firing glasses; you may think that this will restrict any interest to little more than squat, stumpy, thick-set little shot glasses with their substantial feet, but dig a little deeper and you will find all manner of examples - from wine and cordial glasses with elegant stems to “captain’s glasses” which can be found up to ten inches in height.

But first, we must provide an indication of what a firing glass might be, and what it was for. We’ve made numerous allusions over time to the hugely formal nature of Georgian and Regency dining, multiple courses, many different pieces of tableware with specific purposes, a great deal of ceremony and near-ritual observance of protocols and codified behaviour – and all that for nothing more than what might in many instances be regarded as a casual dinner or family function.

Imagine the extent to which these formalities would be extended at dinners held by gentleman’s clubs – proceedings which would be defined by ritual as a way of enhancing the common bond between diners; being seen to possess the knowledge, and undertake the observance, of arcane regulations would have in some instances been tantamount to a test of allegiance for attendees – far more so than simply being an exercise in following proper etiquette. Bear in mind that in the 18th century your choice of dining companions could label you a sympathiser with one political cause or another, a member of a masonic order, or of a business cartel or syndicate; affiliations to certain clubs would quite literally make you the mortal enemy of others, particularly when entering the realms of Jacobite sympathies or those who would rail against the restoration of the Stuart dynasty - political leanings that underscored war and insurrection, and all the martial goings on they may entail.

Fortunately for the casual historian, although at the time that such clubs were prevalent their internal workings were closely-guarded secrets (other than when held up for public ridicule in the broadsheets and pamphlets of the day, which was how they were sometimes undermined by rival factions in early examples of black propaganda) the Victorians in particular took great delight in recording such goings on, and the sometimes lewd and salacious practices which they entailed.

The proposal of, and responses to, toasts throughout such dinners (not exclusively at the end as is more usually thought to be the case) were tried and tested methods of ensuring that everyone in attendance was singing off the same metaphorical or sometimes literal hymn sheet, and knew what they were expected to do – a simple way of showing that at the very least you had been briefed as to how to behave by an existing member, already party to the proceedings and who considered you to be “the right stuff” to have been admitted. The response to toasts had historically been to rap your drinking glass, suitably charged, on the table at an appointed time, as prompted by the toastmaster or “captain of the table” who may call for such a salute by making a speech of variable length, effecting some gesture or other (brandishing a sword for instance) or simply by standing and raising his glass. It’s noted that in some instances a series of toasts would be proposed, at intervals throughout a dinner, with the correct response being the usual bang on the table every time – apart from at one particular point where the usual prompt would be given, but everyone fully appraised of correct form would respond by raising their glasses in the normal manner but not completing the toast – anyone who “went through” with the firing of their glass on the table would clearly not be party to correct procedure, instantly exposed as an interloper or scoundrel and be suitably derided and harangued, booed out of the dining room, or challenged to identify themselves – depending on the gravity of the proceedings.

The mechanism for making your response to these calls for a toast would, of course, be your firing glass. These were so-called simply because the multiple reports of glasses being brought down sharply on a table-top would be very like a volley of musket fire; consider that motley recruitment, imperfect drill, unreliable weaponry, and unclear commands in the field would lead to 18th century gunnery being at best imprecise and at worst an un-coordinated shambles, and the clattering of glasses belonging sundry divers gentlemen in varying degrees of inebriation must have been a very accurate representation of such a cascade of discharges.

With regard to the development of the firing glass, I am of the opinion that they were not – with conscious and determined effort – designed with their ultimate purpose in mind from the outset. A cursory look at the development of British glassware to the first quarter of the 18th century will show that by this time we were, for the most part, producing what are now known as heavy baluster glasses; whilst we were able to formulate high quality crystal using fine sands, Britain lacked the technical knowhow – particularly in the construction of furnaces – to enable this glass to be worked with anything like the same finesse that was found on the continent, Our glasses were thick-set, substantial and somewhat clunky – with sturdy stems and similarly robust feet. It cannot have escaped anyone’s attention that such bluff, uncompromising pieces made a pleasingly loud report when brought down sharply on tables and bar-counters. British society was then propelled wholesale with the headlong rush in to the industrial revolution, complete with all its cultural spin-offs including the environment which supported the proliferation of gentleman’s clubs, mercantile associations, and august cabals of bankers, not to mention military cliques and political knots; bring on the formal dinners outlined above, with the burly-footed baluster glasses being perfectly positioned to slip in to the hands of toastmasters and diners alike – and so a genre of stemware was appropriated, as is the case with most such instances, more by accident than design. There are isolated examples of firing glasses which are regarded as dating to the first two or three decades of the 18th century, but it is the 1740’s and 50’s where they become suddenly far more commonplace – to meet the demand of the new “toasting illuminati”.

With regard to the form of the glasses, they are predominantly short, holding a small measure of wine or spirit, and intended solely for “single draught” consumption. This ethic of “little and often” would add to the rowdy nature of the functions, which further explains the fact that most existing firing glasses are of this diminutive stature. It’s obvious that the longer the stem, the lighter the construction of the glass and the more delicate the bowl then the smaller would be the chances of a glass surviving repeated exposures to the riotous assembly of the club dining room. However, it is equally apparent that not all occasions which demanded toasts would veer quite so far from the path of decorum – and for these less tumultuous events, we find more seemly firing glasses having been made. These still, however, tend to be designed to hold just enough for a solitary swig, and so we find progressively longer-stemmed cordial glasses with firing feet and small bowls. This removal from the vulgarity of the abbreviated forms is defined by the aforementioned exceptionally tall examples known as captain’s glasses, which look positively disproportionate with their tiny bowls and extended stems. The act of toasting, regardless of the quality of the glassware, still – however – involved the coming together of glass and table-top, and the scarcity of firing glasses is directly proportional to their height; surviving examples of captain’s glasses (referring to the nominated captain of the table who lead the toasts, rather than any nautical or military pretentions) are worth several thousands of pounds, simply due to their rarity.

We have already touched on the popularity of firing glasses amongst the mercantile fraternities, and those who would meet to align themselves with certain political movements. Their use at these meetings where somewhat codified means of stating one’s allegiances were often prudent have led to many examples being produced with Jacobite or Masonic engravings or inscriptions. They very much suited the whole aura of subterfuge, double-meaning and mystery and quickly became an integral part of the proceedings rather than just a hastily co-opted piece of tableware. The distribution of engraved pieces amongst the members of these cabals and coteries was tantamount to the sharing of badges or mementos of belonging – and one can imagine a gentleman with a number of fealties ensuring that he slipped the correct glass from his collection in to his pocket before leaving his house for dinner, in the same way that the more modern club member might select the correct tie or buttonhole.

Lastly, and with rather pleasing practicality, we come to what by definition is another subdivision of less-numerous firing glasses. We have already noted that the toastmaster or captain of the table would be required to act as compere during proceedings, prompting diners to follow one observance or another almost as if following a script. It was convenient for these masters of ceremony, therefore, to maintain a marginally clearer head than the other diners, so they had at least some idea of what was supposed to be happening at a given point in hostilities – and so we have what are known as deceptive firing glasses. To all intents and purposes these were outwardly the same as all the others in a set, but they would be purposefully made with much thicker walls to the bowl so their capacity was reduced, and while the toastmaster appeared to take just as many draughts as his fellow guests, he would actually consume far less liquor and – hopefully – be rather better placed to orchestrate the evening’s seamless progress – albeit one from convivial gathering to inebriate ribaldry.

The pics with this piece include, by row:
1) early 18th century heavy baluster dram/deceptive dram glasses
2) 1740/50 firing glasses
3) 18th century firing-foot cordial and short wine glasses
4) masonic and Jacobite firing glasses
5) deceptive firing glasses
- with a tall captain’s glass to the bottom right

link to most of our firing glasses:

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