Glassmaking in Vimperk

When the sunken roads of the Gold Trail were deserted and salt ceased to provide livelihoods for the population of Vimperk, it was replaced by glass. There had been glassworks in the region as early as the Middle Ages, often situated along the Gold Trail; glassmaking required plenty of firewood, which was provided by the forests in the border area. A true boom of glassmaking, however, did not occur until after the Thirty Years’ War, and particularly in the 18th century, after the Gold Trail fell into disuse. The vast woodland was soon dotted with deforested patches growing around thriving enterprises, and when the wood was used up, the glassworks closed down and were moved further into the depth of the forest. There were many of them in the region between the 16th and the 18th century, some of them surviving to this day at least in the place names containing the word "huť", an old Czech expression for glassworks: Korkusova, Kubova, Vltavská, Tomášova, Šeravská, Janouškova, Kryštofova, Žlíbská, Březská, Magerlova, and a number of others.

Castle Vimperk, exhibition "glass-work"

The most renowned of them was situated on the brook Helmbašský and originally bore the name Janouškova huť; it was later renamed Michlova huť, to commemorate an acclaimed glassmaker and a glassworks production manager Michal Müller. In 1683 he discovered a new technology which made it possible to produce beautiful clear glass reminiscent of crystal, called "chalk glass"; it was the same year when the Polish King Jan Sobieski saved Christianity by defeating Turkish armies at Vienna. Müller’s glass was perfectly transparent and very hard, and was suitable for cutting designs into it. The introduction of this glass onto the European market in the late 17th century brought to an end the era of Venetian glass, replacing it with that of Czech glass. In addition, Michal Müller was the first to start the production of the red "ruby" glass without the addition of gold, using copper oxide instead.

Glassmakers from the Vimperk region were much sought after abroad for their outstanding skill and inventiveness. To stop them leaving, the lords of Vimperk forbade them in the middle of the 18th century to move out of the country, and prevented the glassmaking journeymen from going abroad to gain new experience. Glassmakers constituted a unique social group, which was, on the one hand, hard to control, but, on the other hand, represented a rich source of income for the nobility through the taxes and duties which they paid. The cream of glassmakers, the glassworks production managers, ranked among the wealthiest people in the area. In their behaviour, often whimsical, they did their best to imitate the ways of noblemen, and there was hardly anybody to match them as far as clothing, spending money, and wild parties were concerned. The true glassmakers, foremen and journeymen, although not so well-off, were still above the average, and, most importantly, were freemen among serfs.

The 1820s saw a crisis; too many glassworks virtually flooded the markets with their products, and sales dropped. The position of Vimperk glassmakers was made worse by the Eggenbergs, who realised that the production of glass was causing devastation to their forests, and started to protect them. This change in attitude heralded the eventual fall of glassworks in the area around Boubín mountain, a development which was only reversed in the early 19th century, when Josef Meyr, a glassmaker from Nové Hrady, built a glassworks near Vimperk. It started production in 1816 and gradually expanded outside the town. Josef Meyr‘s son and successor, Jan Meyr, revealed the secrets of glassmaking to his nephews Vilém Kralik and Josef Taschek, and they built another glassworks on the river Vltava below Boubín. When its first furnace was lit in 1834, the glassworks was named after Eleonora of Schwarzenberg, the estate owner‘s wife. This marks the beginning of another glorious chapter of glassmaking in Lenora (called Eleonorenhain in German), which along with the original glassworks in Vimperk (Adolfov), and another in Nové Hutě (Kaltenbach) won worldwide reputation, and at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries were repeatedly awarded a number of gold medals at world exhibitions. Vimperk saw the rise of two more glassworks (Idatal and Luisa glassworks) and, owing to the Kralik family, the tradition of glassmaking was successfully continued in the 20th century. The production of glass survived even WW II and the subsequent nationalisation, but was brought to a bitter end by a failed privatisation in 1995.