English glassmaking was of poor quality until entrepreneur George Ravenscroft set up a glass house in the Savoy Palace, Strand, in July 1673. He was a Catholic who had attended the English College in Douai to train for the priesthood, but dropped out. His early life was spent as a merchant exporting glass and lace from Venice to England.
Joining forces with John Baptista da Costa, a Genoese master glassmaker, he patented lead-based ‘flint-glass’ which is described as a ‘perticular sort of Chrystaline Glasse resembling Rock Crystall, not formerly exercised or used in our Kingdome’. Having overcome the longstanding production problem of crackled surfaces, he transformed English glassmaking into a major industry.
From 1668 Ravenscroft marked his glass with the Raven’s Head seal. The craze for French wines was instrumental in the firm’s success. His output included wine jugs, but the production of decanters proved a real coup. It was necessity rather than fashion that sparked the craze.
Until the 1780s most wines were shipped unfiltered and contained deposits of residual yeast. The wine had to be transferred into another container to remove the sediment. Since the word decanter did not exist at the time of early production, Ravenscroft used various terms to describe such vessels, including ‘bottle’ and ‘crewitt’, available both in pint and quart sizes. The first references to ‘decanters’ appeared in customs records around 1700. The modern spelling was formalised in 1712 by John Kersey in his Dictionarium Anglo-Britannicum defining the word as ‘a Bottle made of clear Flint-Glass, for the holding of Wine, &c, to be pour’d off into a Drinking Glass’. Its style conformed to the ‘façon de Venise’ which had reigned supreme across Europe since the Renaissance.