Myth # 140: A woman would use a diamond to etch her name/date on window glass to see if the stone was genuine.

 

window at The Old Manse in Concord, MA

window at The Old Manse in Concord, MA


“I am a museum interpreter at Bacon’s Castle in Surry, Virginia. We have a couple of window panes that have names, dates, and even a branch with leaves etched in them – all from the 19th century. Is it true that ladies would test their diamonds or other gems to see if they were real or glass by doing such etchings?”

You may have heard that a real diamond will scratch glass and an imitation one won’t. If only it were that easy! Many high quality imitation diamonds made in recent decades are harder than glass, so even fakes will scratch glass. Don’t rely on this myth to determine whether your own diamond-looking piece of jewelry is genuine or not. Take it to a reputable, local jewelry, one who has been in business for many years, and he or she will tell you at no cost whether it is genuine or not. They will not appraise it at no cost–for that you need an experienced CGA or Certified Gemologist Appraiser who has the training to judge your jewelry value it.

The idea that the ability to scratch glass proves a diamond’s genuine-ness is clearly a myth today. But what about in earlier times?

Well, it was closer to the truth in the past, when imitation diamonds were made of something called “paste.” Not the sort of paste you used in kindergarten to glue lace to your Valentine, this word meant a type of glass with a high lead content that was used to make imitation stones. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, the Romans were the first to make this sort of imitation stone. For all you chemists, here’s the lowdown: 

“Before 1940 most imitation gems were made from glass with a high lead content. Such glasses were called paste because the components of the mixture were mixed wet to ensure a thorough and even distribution. Colourless paste is commonly formulated from 300 parts of silica (silicon dioxide, SiO2), 470 of red lead (a lead oxide, Pb3O4), 163 of potassium carbonate (K2CO3), 22 of borax (a sodium borate, Na2B4O7·10H2O), and 1 of white arsenic (arsenic oxide, As2O3). Pigments may be added to give the paste any desired colour: chromium compounds for red or green, cobalt for blue, gold for red, iron for yellow to green, manganese for purple, and selenium for red.”

Nonetheless, that doesn’t mean it was true in the past–other clear stones that look like diamonds can scratch glass. Quartz, for instance. I think it likely that people who scratched on window glass were indulging in some playful or sentimental graffiti rather than testing their diamonds.

Some window glass in the Virginia Governor’s Mansion had two little girls’ names etched in it–these were youngsters who lived in the mansion when their father was governor in the 1840s. (Sadly, that pane went missing during the 1999 renovations.) Many old houses have windows with initials, names, dates, or even sketches that were scratched in the glass. My theory is that most of them were done by girls or young women having fun, but I can’t prove that. 

Does anyone else work at places where someone etched something into the window glass?  

18 Responses to Myth # 140: A woman would use a diamond to etch her name/date on window glass to see if the stone was genuine.

  1. Jake Pontillo says:

    Not exactly in an historical context, but certain graffiti ‘artists’ will scratch their initials, their ‘tag’ as they call it, on the windows of the NYC subway cars. To do this they use a sharpening stone- the kind I would use to sharpen a knife. They use the edge or else break it to get a finer edge. I think they found that using spray paint for their tags was not that permanent since the NYC Transit authorities can remove their paint work, but the tags on windows are left in place, I think.

  2. Frank says:

    According to the Shakespeare House in Stafford-upon-Avon, when I visited there, the etchings were customarily done by guests as a way of “leaving their mark”, so to speak.

  3. Thank you for your response! We have had visitors who have been to other historical sites where this is told to them as being the truth. Now I have more information to help debunk this myth!

    I forgot to mention that we also have a windowpane (it is broken into several pieces and kept carefully in storage) from 1840 where a husband wrote an entire love letter to his wife. We have a copy of that letter on display. He definitely was not testing any sort of gem – he was expressing his love to his wife in a permanent way!

  4. Margie Thompson says:

    There is a house in Ravenna,Ohio that has a window with the initials of my mother’s twin uncles. The boys carved them there when they were young. I would guess in the 1870,s.margiethompson

  5. Barb King says:

    My history professor at U of Michigan, who used to work at Ithica College (I believe) said the building he was housed in used to be Women’s Dorm in the early 1900’s. The women when they got engaged would etch their initals, and their fiancee’s, into the glass with the date, with their diamonds; IIRC there are letters to coroborate this. I’ll check and see for sure.

  6. In the 1730s four volumes of collected graffiti from English outhouses, walls, AND tavern windows and glasses were published under the title The Merry Thought, or the Glass-Window and Bog-House Miscellany. Occasionally the poems are self-referential and mention the use of a diamond-tipped pen for writing on glass.

    You can find online editions at Project Gutenberg

    Volume 1 – http://www.gutenberg.org/files/20558/20558-h/20558-h.htm

    Volumes 2-4 – http://www.gutenberg.org/files/20535/20535-h/20535-h.htm

  7. First Time Visitor says:

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sophia_Hawthorne

    “Together the couple etched their impressions of their new married life in the glass of a window in the study using Sophia’s diamond ring:”

    http://www.thetrustees.org/places-to-visit/greater-boston/old-manse.html

  8. I’ve etched in glass–as a boy. My grandmother possessed what my sister and I believed might be a diamond (it was probably quartz). We etched a little on her mirror to test it, but didn’t write our names–after all, she was renting.

  9. JennyOH says:

    I went to a private school in CT with many buildings, including the dorms, from the 19th/early 20th centuries. At this school, getting your school ring at the end of your first year was a big deal, and using your ring to then scratch your name/initials into your window was one of several of the school’s idiosyncratic traditions (that were mostly dying out at the time – I attended in the late 90’s). The room I stayed in my freshman year had names and initials from the early 20th century and I remember seeing a few older than that.

  10. Jayne says:

    I recently bought a 145 year old house. Just last week I glanced up from the sofa and noticed that someone had etched their name in the window but I can’t make it out. I do know that this is one of the older window panes as it is full of waves and bubbles. I find it to be fascinating!

    • Mary Miley says:

      That is so exciting! I wonder if you were to brush the pane with baby powder or something, would it become more legible?

  11. Andrew says:

    Honestly the myth makes no real sense, if the interest was to test the diamond they would do it in an out of the way place with as little a mark as possible. Names, dates or images put on glass were done intentionally, because someone wanted to leave their mark.

  12. I have 2 names in my grandparents home from 1832 😊

  13. Dianne Fitzpatrick says:

    Sophia Hawthorne (maiden name Peabody), when she was newly married to author Nathanial Hawthorne, supposedly etched some panes of window glass with her diamond ring while living at the Old Manse in Concord, MA. Her husband etched on the gkass as well. Here’s what they etched:
    Man’s accidents are God’s purposes. Sophia A. Hawthorne 1843
    Nath Hawthorne This is his study
    The smallest twig leans clear against the sky
    Composed by my wife and written with her diamond
    Inscribed by my husband at sunset, April 3 1843. In the Gold light.
    SAH[9]
    Their landlord was none other than Ralph Waldo Emerson, a spiritual leader and founder of Transcendentalism. David Thoreau is said to have put in a vegetable garden for the newlyweds before they arrived. The house and those panes of glass still exist today overlooking the spot where the Battle of Concord and Lexington ignited with the “shot heard ’round the world.” I know all this because I regularly canoe to this spot and enjoy reading about these people and their contributions.

What do you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: