• Linda Borromeo

A Spanish Princess, a Glass Dress and a Creative Gamble

Updated: Jul 14

Actress Gloria Cayvan (left) and Infanta Eulalia of Spain

Cinderella's fairy godmother created glass slippers with just a flick of her wand. She would have needed to work overtime, however, to create something even more fanciful: a glass dress.

Actually, there were two glass dresses—fashioned for an American actress and a Spanish princess—during the enchanted reign of the White City.

In 1893, the White City contained a treasure trove of fascinating exhibits from all over the world. They were housed in magnificent or whimsical buildings surrounded by cascading fountains and mysterious lagoons.

Spread over 600 acres and representing 46 countries, the Chicago World's Fair held more wonders than the most imaginative person could wish for after finding Aladdin's Lamp.

A Young Man on a Mission

Edward Drummond Libbey

The tale of the glass dress began when a young man faced a challenge.

At the age of 29, Edward Drummond Libbey took over his late father’s glass company. Although he’d wanted to become a minister, Edward started out as a chore boy in the company and worked his way up the ranks.

In his excellent article, Jack Sullivan tells the story of what happened when Edward inherited full control of the company. The prospects for this young man looked dim. [1]

The company had never been profitable, always struggling, just keeping its head above the waters of financial ruin. In 1876, Edward's father had tried sponsoring a pavilion at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition. The resulting fallout from the venture resulted in near bankruptcy.

As with his father before him, nothing Edward did seemed to work to make the financial picture better. He barely kept the company finances from tumbling into oblivion for the company and its workers.

A Bold Plan

After about ten years of struggle, Edward knew something had to change. He proposed a bold plan of action—something old and something new.

The something old: he wanted to participate in the current Exposition—the Chicago World's Fair of 1893.

The directors of the Libbey Glass Company, perhaps quite understandably, demanded that he put on the brakes. They’d lost so much at the Philadelphia Exposition; it made no sense to lose what money they had left on a venture that sounded all too familiar.

Edward was adamant—the Libbey Glass Company would go to the Fair in a big, exciting way. To become successful, the company needed national recognition. He felt the Fair was an opportunity not to be missed. [2]

He also brought out his "something new" plan: he’d bring to the Fair skilled glassblowers and artisans from the company's headquarters in Toledo, Ohio. He'd build a complete and working glassmaking factory behind the walls of a castle. Then, he'd allow visitors to watch the skilled workers as glass came to life in the company's creations. [3]

It was visionary and bold, and the directors flatly refused to finance it. Why, they asked, would they risk the rest of the company’s small reserves on a creative gamble?

Edward worked hard on a creative business plan and raised $100,000 on his own to try to help his company. [4]

Facing Failure

At first, things looked grim. The castle built on the Fair's Midway Plaisance failed to attract a great deal of attention. [5]

Faced with failure, he decided to allow visitors to apply their entry fee of a dime (later a quarter) to purchase a glass trinket with the name of Libbey Glass Company engraved on it. Crowds began to increase, but something was still missing.

Could two celebrities—the actress and the princess—help bring fame as clear and sharp as glass?

An Actress and the First Glass Dress

Behind the castle's two towers, there stood an unusual room. Everything in it was made of spun glass, from the window curtains to the cushions on the divan, chairs and ottomans. Even lampshades were made with glass fibers woven into fabric. This process had been patented in America by inventor Hermann Hammesfahr. [6]

One day, a famous actress toured the room. Georgia Cayvan stood gazing at it and envisioned a glorious and attention-gathering costume. She asked if they could make a dress for her made of glass.

Georgia ordered 12 yards of spun glass at a cost of $25.00 a yard from the Libbey Glass Company. Hammesfahr used satin thread with the glass fibers to create the extraordinary dress [6a]. When completed, Georgia wore the first glass dress ever made. [7]

Georgia Cayvan

In her memoir, Amelia Ransome Neville recalls seeing Georgia Cayvan on stage in a theater of old San Francisco—and the actress wore her spun glass dress:

"The fabric was delicately brittle, shimmering as crusted snow in sunlight, but flexible enough to be fashioned into an eight-gored skirt and modishly tight bodice with many glass ribbon bows. Gracefully and gingerly Miss Cayvan wore it in 'The Charity Ball.'" [8]

The Spanish Princess

Georgia's dress proved too brittle to wear regularly. It went on display at Libbey's castle and attracted large crowds during the Fair. A Spanish princess returned several times to see the intriguing and beautiful glass creations, especially the glass dress.

Everything the young princess did found its way into newspapers, articles and gossip. For Eulalia, Infanta of Spain, every move she made in public was broadcast in print and pictures.

Infanta Eulalia of Spain

So pleased was the princess with her garment, she allowed Edward Libbey to use the Spanish Royal Insignia on the company's advertising. Not only had Edward made the company known nationally, but thanks to the Fair, an actress and a princess, they now had an international flair.

A Turning Point

By the end of the Exposition, the Libbey Glass Co. exhibit had become hugely successful, with the glass dress one of the most popular items of all at the Fair—everyone wanted to see it. Libbey's glass became the rage and the company found themselves in demand to display their creations at companies such as Tiffany's in New York. [9]

Add creativity,and good business sense, to a challenge and you have the makings of a dream that becomes true.

The Libbey "Eulalia" Bowl, named for the Princess

Helpful Resources

[1] Sullivan, Jack. "When Mr. Libbey Went to the Fair." Bottles and Extras Mar-Apr. 2010: 44-47. Web. 02 Aug. 2017

[2] "A City Built of Glass." University of Toledo. Web. 03 Aug. 2017.

[3] Marsh, Allison C. "Taking the Factory to the Fair." Meet Me at the Fair: A World's Fair Reader. Pittsburgh, PA: (Carnegie Mellon U) ETC, 2014.

[4] Ibid.

[5] "A City Built of Glass."

[6 and 6a] Hecht, Jeff. City of Light: The Story of Fiber Optics. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2004.

[7] Kane, Joseph Nathan. Famous First Facts: A Record of First Happenings, Discoveries, and Inventions in American History. Referenced (9) in: Wikipedia contributors. "Georgia Cayvan." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. 10 Jun. 2017. Web. 3 Aug. 2017

[8] Neville, Amelia Ransome. The Fantastic City, Memoirs of the Social and Romantic Life of Old San Francisco. Chapter VIII. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1932. Web. See link (12) in: Wikipedia contributors. "Georgia Cayvan." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. 10 Jun. 2017. Web. 3 Aug. 2017

[9] Sullivan.

I've been immersing myself with all the wonders of the 1893 Exposition as I write my next book, Mystery Fair. In the story, Melina Karyotakis encounters intrigue and danger as she searches for her missing father at the World's Columbian Exposition.

One of the characters tells Melina about "a princess and a glass dress." I had to find out more, and the result is my blog here. Look for the release of Mystery Fair as soon as Melina can solve this mystery that is very close to her heart. The first book in the series, Mystery Shores, is available to read now.

#ChicagoWorldsFair #FascinatingPeopleinHistory

In my stories, you'll find islands, mystery, friendship and danger. 

My novel, Mystery Shores, is set on a lighthouse island filled with secrets. 

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