A glass pantry door is always a special highlight to any kitchen. Where did the obsession of etching the words “PANTRY” on a door come from? Let's explore the popular pantry trend and the history of etching words onto glass.
The history of pantry door glass, or lack of it
I suspect if you are hunting for pantry door glass, be it frosted glass, half glass, or etched glass, you're dreaming about the beautifully etched words “PANTRY” delicately (or boldly) centered.
When you think of the words “PANTRY” crisply etched in glass, what do you think of? Do you flutter over nostalgia? Are you charmed with thoughts of cute vintage decor?
I wanted to delve into the history of this very popular glass pantry door favorite. It would be fun to discover how this novel door came to be. Who gets the credit for first etching the words “Pantry” in glass? Where did the craze start? Why did someone think it important to label a room?” Off I went to find out the mystery and history behind pantry glass.
I scoured the Internet for the true story, eager to find the answers. It was discouraging to not come up with good leads. A reality was starting to emerge. It dawned on me that the unexplainable fad of etching the words PANTRY on a vintage door is a false historical trend. Let’s look at the facts about 19th century home design and the 19th century glass industry.
Glass: a luxury for the rich
Where did the trend come from to even have glass in pantry doors? I remember reading books about pioneers in the early United States. Glass was a precious commodity and treated like gold – the act of adding glass windows to a house was an extravagance, let alone adding fancy interior door glass. I thought food storage was supposed to be kept dark? It is “food storage” after all!
Not surprisingly, the arrival of decorative glass in the home corresponds with the availability and affordability of decorative glass. These advances in manufacturing techniques happened in the 19th century. Another surprising factor that affected affordability in England was… taxes.
An exquisite example of a cut glass and etched glass with words on door. Photo Credit: David P. Whelan, morguefile.com
Modern day French embossing is still practiced by glass artist David Smith. The artist has a delightful collection of photos demonstrating original Victorian reverse glass pieces from pubs scattered around London & the British Isles.
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Removal of glass tax paves the way for unprecedented design trends
Glass was expensive on all continents. Manufacturing methods had not yet found processes to lower the cost of production. In England, the number of windows in a person’s home was used as a measure of wealth. That changed when England decided to tax homes heavily according to how many windows they had. People went as far as bricking windows up to reduce their taxes. “By the time the tax was abolished in 1851, it was effectively preventing 9 out of 10 homes in the country from having more than seven windows.”
Victorians delighted in excessive decoration
"Plate glass, because of its thickness and weight, provided the ideal surface for various decorative techniques. A heyday of glittering and unrestrained decoration ensued. The combination of frosted acid etching and brilliant cutting (sometimes referred to as French embossing) resulted in excessivily decorated glass surfaces that Victorians delighted in."
The abolition of the glass tax in 1845 in England and the window tax six years later led to an unprecedented reduction in the price of glass. Improvements and efficiencies in glass production assured more homes could afford the once luxury of a few. Plate glass production became economically favorable and could be used for larger openings. Of special importance was the thickness of plate glass which offered new possibilities for decoration.
With these improvements in manufacturing came artistic creativity in England. Plate glass, because of its thickness and weight, provided the ideal surface for various decorative techniques. A heyday of glittering and unrestrained decoration ensued. The combination of frosted acid etching and brilliant cutting (sometimes referred to as French embossing) resulted in excessivily decorated glass surfaces that Victorians delighted in.
“History of Architectural Glass for Windows.” Sash Window Specialist, Sash Window Specialist, 20 July 2020, sashwindowspecialist.com/blog/history-of-window-glass.
Etched glass Victorian door, Fieryn, courtesty Flickr.
Pantry door glass and home decor in the Victorian and Edwardian home
The trend of pantry door glass appears to get it's roots in this "glass renaissance" in England (my words, by the way). Hutchison Glass explains "acid etching results in a frosted look. It became popular in English pubs during the 1800s, because the frosted glass prevented people from looking in, but still let in natural light."
Make an Excellent Upgrade to Your Home With Sliding Glass Doors. (2017, July 15). Hutchinson Glass and Mirror. https://www.hutchisonglassandmirror.com/news/entry/custom-glass/a-look-into-the-glass-etching-process-silver-spring-md
Long Winter Nights Pub Window by Pavilna Jane, courtesy Flickr
Popularity of pantry door glass
Home interior designers and enthusiasts quickly adopted the use of doors with glass in homes, taming down the pub versions of the designs. According to Palace of Glass, "Victorian and Edwardian traditions quickly adopted the style, [English pub glass] and soon... It quickly became the trend of the day, and many home enthusiast became experimenting with etched glass in their home studios."
If you do your research, you can find examples of Victorian glass etching, from anywhere on doors, to window store fronts, and dishware. It makes sense that the Victorian's delight for richness and embellishent chose frosted glass with designs to cover unsightly views and beautify them instead, such as pantry door glass.
New glass production techniques allowed interiors to be fitted with glazed doors, encouraged by the popularity of etched glass. Typically, half glazed doors were featured in hallways, kitchens and bathrooms, often with two or nine panes of decorative glass. Originating in the 1840’s this style of door remained popular through to Edwardian times. The Victorian's love of glass extended to textured glass, stained glass, and other artistic expressions as well, enhancing the Victorian home.
A LOOK AT VICTORIAN WINDOW & DOOR DESIGN. (n.d.). Salisbury Joinery. Retrieved March 30, 2021, from https://www.salisburyjoinery.com/blog/victorian_windows_doors-0
The truth about pantry door glass
The affordability of glass in 19th century homes and new manufacturing techniques explains the trend for decorative glass in the home. Here is the part that puzzles me. In all of my research, I could not find one, true example of an actual Victorian pantry door with the word, “Pantry” etched on the frosted glass. Of course, I found tons of tutorials on how to etch your own modern day pantry door, and places to buy the words already etched, or apply adhesive artwork to customize your pantry door glass.
The myth of labeled pantry door glass
Folks, our beloved, and titled wood and glass pantry door is not the common Victorian item that we believe it to be. Let’s look at the facts.
Advances in manufacturing made it possible to have larger window openings, thus increasing light and visibility. However, it was still dark in Victorian homes. Victorian homes were dimly lit and relied on candlelights. There was no electricity and heavy curtains and shutters contributed to the darkness. According to the National Parks Service , it wasn’t until 1925 that half of homes in the U.S. had electric power. In addition, caucasion Victorian women revered pale, white complexions, and took every effort to shield themselves from the sun.
It wasn’t that the Victorians didn’t like daylight. From a design standpoint, it makes sense that you wouldn’t want to sacrifice any more daylight in your home than you had to. The use of glass doors inside of the house allowed more light to penetrate and was an effective strategy to brighten up Victorian homes (by the way, the succcessor to the Victorian age, the Edwardian style, abandoned the heavy ornateness of the Victorian age, and thus successfully lightened up interiors in favor of lighter designs).
Another point that doesn’t make sense is that there were some incredibly beautifully designed and magnificent examples of etched French glass from that time period. More than likely, those fine examples are only in the homes of the very wealthy, not that of a commoner. I would bet that the pantry door you found in the lower-class houses were all made of wood, if they had a door at all.
Glass with texture, Kemeki, courtesy Flickr
Figured glass was another alternative used in kitchens to etched or frosted glass. “Figured glass—also called decorative or obscure glass—was produced by rolling a textured pattern onto one side of a sheet of molten glass as it cooled, leaving a permanent imprint behind.
Figured glass had the economic advantage of costing just pennies more than standard glass and wasn’t expensive like artisan-produced stained glass windows or wheel-cut glass. You can also find figured glass in some kitchens and pantries where it was used to blur the contents of built-in cabinets. While its forms may not be as memorable or splashy as those of its art glass cousins, figured glass filled a valuable role in many old houses beginning around 1850.”
Aposporos, D. (2020, August 13). A Look at Figured Glass. Old House Online. https://www.oldhouseonline.com/interiors-and-decor/a-look-at-figured-glass
Modern day etched store front glass, Марьян Блан, compliments Unsplash
But where did the trend come from to put pantry words on glass?
Who decided to etch the word PANTRY on a pantry glass door? I can’t come up with any logical explanation except if the trend of marking PANTRY or LAUNDRYROOM was perhaps in a hotel, to clearly indicate the room to staff and visitors. The other situation where it would be relavant would be in a Victorian mansion, where organization and signage made sense to a wealthy household that employed a large number of staff.
There is no shortage of glass signage examples from railroad depots, shop fronts, offices, and other public places along with etching words on housewares. Obviously, when the clever artisans applied fanciful decorations to glass, it wasn’t long before some business person said, “Hey! Can you add these words to my glass?”
Pannich pantry door refinished, Amormino & Pucci courtesy Flickr
Once you think about it, the idea that the common Victorian person would label a room in their home in such a manner seems a bit silly (although that is what we are doing now, isn’t it? :)). Labeling the toilet room, for example, would be a sensical thing to do in a public setting, but again, not in your own home.
I am not disputing that Victorian homes did not enjoy plain frosted glass – I just highly doubt that they had the words etched in to identify PANTRY.
I love the charm of a vintage repurposed door as much as the next kitchen decor enthusiast. However, the idea that we are copying an element from the common Victorian home is a falsehood. Yes, Victorian glass makers etched words in glass signs, but it wasn’t for the benefit of the common home.
So there you have it, the modern day etched glass pantry door has taken up a life of its own, rewriting it’s own version of vintage history that actually isn’t there. Pantry doors are undeniably a chance to be creative and bring art into the kitchen.
This article is based on my drawn conclusion. If you have other factual information that clarifies why and when people started labeling pantry doors with the words "PANTRY" reach out to me!