Getting every detail right

Part of the curse of esoteric knowledge about the decorative arts is that it can distract you during even the finest historical movies. You bring deep-rooted expectations to the movie — expecting glassware like this — and almost gag at what glass is shown in its place.

This evening we marveled as Daniel Day Lewis brought Abraham Lincoln to life in Stephen Spielberg's latest masterpiece. They are both geniuses. But why on earth did the production designer choose that glassware, with heavily gilded rims, totally wrong forms and probably made in the 20th Century? And why, if they knew they were guessing, would the director feature it so prominently?

This particular goblet was not used in the White House. However, it was made in the same factory in the same period as those made for the Lincolns. Its blank — the goblet form prior to being cut and engraved — matches the goblet form of the Lincoln service. Its decoration is different, with an engraved Greek Key border rather than a Presidential shield, above fine cut ribs rather than fine cut diamonds and its foot is more deeply cut. However, like its form, its decoration is of the right time and place.

The Lincoln's glassware is extremely well known. A readily available, wonderfully illustrated book on White House Glassware shows exactly what glass was made for the presidents alongside receipts and invoices that document its purchase. It shows many pieces from the Lincoln service. This is probably the most iconic and recognizable service in American glass, made in Brooklyn at Christian Dorflinger's Greenpoint Glass Works.

Even books need to be treated with caution as knowledge continues to be refined. When it really matters — for a major motion picture or when decorating a historic house — check with a glass expert or two. However, there is no question what Lincoln's glass looked like.

Getting every detail right is not easy. Even if you know exactly what to look for you cannot always find it. But it is easy to avoid glaring mistakes and use or reproduce glass that is at least somewhat appropriate. All you have to do is ask.