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Collection Dayton C. Miller Collection

Technical Study of Claude Laurent’s Glass Flutes

Glass at Risk: simple tools for detecting unstable glass in 19th century cultural heritage collections

Three Flutes by Laurent, Dayton C. Miller Collection

In 1941, Dayton C. Miller donated an extraordinary collection of nearly 1,700 flutes and other wind instruments, statuary, iconography, books, music, trade catalogs, tutors, patents, photographs, and glass plate negatives related to the flute to the Library of Congress (LC). Dr. Miller was a prodigious American physicist, acoustician, and astronomer who taught for and conducted research at Case Western Reserve University for more than four decades. Of particular note in the collection are the 18 rare glass flutes, 17 of which were manufactured in Paris by Claude Laurent (December 5, 1774-June 20, 1849) during the first half of the 19th century or, after 1848, by his apprentice J. D. Breton. This is the largest holding of Laurent flutes in the world. Dr. Miller methodically collected the Laurent flutes, covering a distinct range in dates (1807 to 1844) and styles, from simple flute tubes with frosted exteriors to highly decorative flutes with jeweled keys and cut designs. The flutes were made for and sold to amateurs, professional flute players, and collectors, or were presented to world leaders. The collection is highlighted by a particularly beautiful Laurent flute that was made for President James Madison.

While the manufacture of flutes of glass dates back at least to Henry VIII, modern glass flutes are attributed almost wholly to Laurent. The novelty of Laurent’s “flutes en cristal” arose mostly from their material, and on-going historical and scientific work at LC has endeavored to bring to light the remarkable story behind Claude Laurent, as well as provide a better understanding how best to care for his fragile flutes.

Non-invasive XRF analysis shows that most of the flutes are made of unstable potash glass, not more stable leaded glass (“crystal”), as expected!

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A three-year, $350,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities was awarded to collaborators at the Library of Congress, Catholic University, and George Washington University to create tools that assist in the identification of at-risk glass heritage collection items. Specifically, the grant will support research to develop simple tools, including imaging, organized into a “decision tree” that will allow end-users of varying backgrounds and abilities, from curators and collectors to conservators and conservation scientists, to better identify the risk posed by unstable 19th century glass in historical collections.

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