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Lithophanes are three-dimensional translucent porcelain plaques which when back-lit reveal detailed images. First created in Europe in the 1820s, the largest collection of this 19th century art form in the world is now on view at the Blair Museum of Lithophanes.

Lithophane is a term derived from the Greek, litho meaning stone and phainen meaning to cause to appear. This Greek derivation has proven confusing to people who might know some basic Greek, but do not know that lithophanes have nothing to do with stone or a stone product, but are made of porcelain.

Artisans would carve into a wax with small tools like what dentists use on a back-lit piece of glass. Next they would create a plaster mold of the lithophane. Then from the mold porcelain slip would be added to create a positive of the image. Finally once the porcelain has dried it is put into a kiln and fired at 2000C.

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The Blair Museum of Lithophanes was founded by Laurel Gotshall Blair (1909-1993), a native Toledoan whose father had opened the Blair Realty and Investment Company in 1908. Blair Realty was a major developer in Toledo in the 1920s, creating such communities as the upscale Heatherdowns area with its own country club. Mr. Blair attended Scott High School and the University of Michigan, and like his father before him, served as President of the Toledo Board of Realtors.

A born collector, Laurel Blair, first discovered lithophanes in October 1961. He was attending a meeting of some collectors from the International Music Box Society in Berlin Heights, Ohio. There he saw something he’d never seen before -- two delicate porcelain pictures magically illuminated by the sunlight -- hanging in the window. He learned they were “lithophanes” and, as he later wrote, he “fell in love.” 

Over the next several decades, Mr. Blair, truly a world traveler, amassed the largest collection of lithophanes in the world. In March, 1965, he opened a private museum in his home, displaying more than a third of his collection of over 2,300 lithophanes.

Prior to his death in 1993, Mr. Blair donated his collection to the City of Toledo. Dedicated volunteers worked diligently for nearly ten years, photographing and cataloguing the collection, and overseeing the renovation of a building located at the Toledo Botanical Garden. In July 2002, the new museum opened to the public in its transformed space.

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