Glory Hole.

Rhodes Murphy has a, well, overheated but informative Slate article on the term glory hole; here’s the premise:

For most of the culture, this terms refers very specifically to a public, quasi-anonymous sex act involving gay men, bathroom stalls, and a handily placed hole. For glass blowers, the glory hole is a high-powered furnace burning at over 1000 degrees Fahrenheit—hardly suitable for sex acts of any kind. So why do they call it that? Which glory hole came first?

The answer to the last question is simple: the glass-blowing term, by a century. Of course Murphy is more interested in the cultural stuff, but here at the Hattery we focus on the language, so here are the facts (just the facts, ma’am):

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the first recorded use of “glory hole” in English comes in 1825, when it was described as “a receptacle (as a drawer, room, etc,) in which things are heaped together without any attempt at order or tidiness.” Twenty years later the term made its slang debut, being used to describe “a filthy, stifling cell” or small room for “degraded beings,” such as prisoners. […] The first recorded use of “glory hole” in glass blowing appears in an 1849 text called Curiosities of Glass Making by English glassware manufacturer and politician Apsley Pellatt.

The best arrangements for annealing may be foiled, should the Glass-blower unnecessarily lose time after finishing the work; as the hotter the goods enter the arch, the better; on this account, the large goods receive a final reheating at the mouth of a pot heated by beech-wood, and called the Glory Hole.

As the glass manufacturing industry grew, so did the term’s usage. One reason for its adoption, according to the Museum of Glass in Corning, New York, may have been the visual phenomenon that the furnaces produced in glassmaking factories themselves; the surreal effect of light beaming from the 2100-degree furnaces, piercing the smoke-filled factory air and creating an “illusion not unlike that seen in paintings of saints and angles where ‘The Glory’ radiated from their heads.”

The OED’s entry is from 1900 and the citations can doubtless be antedated, but I have not been able to find anything earlier than 1849 for the glass one (there are, of course, hits that Google Books dates earlier, such as a 1931 bulletin they date 1831). They have this draft addition from March 2021:

A hole in a wall, typically the cubicle wall of a men’s public toilet or booth at a sex establishment, through which people can engage in sexual activity incognito.
Originally and chiefly with reference to sex between gay men.

1949 ‘Swasarnt Nerf’ et al. Gay Girl’s Guide 10 Glory-hole, phallic size hole in partition between toilet booths. Sometimes used also for a mere peep-hole.
1989 M. Rockland Bliss Case ii. 52 Sometimes I’d sneak off to a porno peep show and hang round the glory holes.
2005 Gay Times Dec. 150/2 It’s a contemporary take on a cruisy men’s bar… A stylish little den of iniquity, though rumour has it that the glory-holes have been removed from the toilets.

The glass and gay terms are entirely unrelated (Green’s treats them in separate entries), but of course anyone familiar with the sexual sense (which, pace Slate, is probably not “most of the culture”) will wonder about its relation to the earlier senses, so the linked article is performing a useful function (as indeed do glory holes).


  1. Jen in Edinburgh says

    I think I only know the junk-cupboard-under-the-stairs type meaning – I must be odd.

  2. No, I’m sure there are lots of people in your situation — that’s why I added my “pace” parenthetical. Devotees of a particular subculture tend to exaggerate popular awareness of said subculture.

  3. It’s probably a large portion of the culture, seeing as it was featured on Family Guy at least a decade ago (the episode where Peter explores homosexuality).

  4. I think most Americans in my generation know this term, if only because it’s a funny concept if you’re a teenager. As an actual-thing-encountered it firmly belongs to a previous generation (as can be inferred from the 2005 quote).

  5. It’s probably a large portion of the culture, seeing as it was featured on Family Guy at least a decade ago

    I think most Americans in my generation know this term

    You’re both succumbing to the illusion I mentioned in my previous comment. “Lots” is not the same as “most.” Similarly, most lefties of my generation are surprised, if not shocked and disbelieving, to be told that the majority of young people in the ’60s supported the war and the cops and were for Nixon. (Pauline Kael famously said she only know one person who voted for Nixon.)

  6. A few years ago I was going through the glass museum in Corning and there was an art display from someone I suppose was a feminist artist, although I don’t remember who the artist was; it was a big glass thing with words written on it: some term commonly used by glassmakers which sounded sexist or raunchy in a male way, and an alternate term the artist of this piece had made up for the purpose of sounding raunchy or sexist in a female way. I may be slightly mischaracterizing the piece because it’s been several years since I saw it, but it was something along the lines of what I am describing, it caused me to learn glory hole is a term used by glassmakers, and I wish I could remember what her proposed alternative to glory hole was.

  7. David Marjanović says

    illusion not unlike that seen in paintings of saints and angles


    Rouge Angles of Satin

  8. J.W. Brewer says

    A quick look at google books hits from the 1930’s and ’40’s seems to indicate that most uses of “glory hole” back then were in a mining context, which seems quite distinct from the glassblowing context (the Slate piece has a brief reference in passing suggesting it’s a later extended sense of the glassblowing sense, which I frankly don’t buy w/o more confirmation). The mining sense 1 (of 9) in the wiktionary definition. At least some of the mining uses make it seem like the sexual sense could potentially be a metaphorical extension from that? At least more plausibly than from the glassblowing sense, especially for mining senses involving gold mining, where one might say that the purpose of the hole is to provide focused access to something particularly desirable.

    And of course it’s plausible to think that the sexual sense is substantially older than its first published use given taboos in the publishing industry back then, although there may be no good way to estimate how much older. The 1707 documentation of the first known reference to the referent seems to be written by “outsiders” to the relevant subculture, which may well have had its own slang term for the referent even back then. Perhaps in another decade or so the historians of that sort of thing will have located, scanned, and digitized enough secret diaries and the like from the 1707-1949 era to make corpus linguistics for subcultural jargon easier to do.

  9. JOHN W BREWER says

    On Election Day 1972, Pauline Kael was 53 years old. Her quote (which may or may not have been ironically intended depending on what account you read) is about the political gap between Manhattan and Normal-America, not about the electoral consequences of the so-called Generation Gap. And the GG was real that year – the most plausible data I can google up quickly suggests that McGovern got >45% (even if not a majority) among voters under 30 years old but <35% among voters over 30.

  10. Her quote (which may or may not have been ironically intended depending on what account you read) is about the political gap between Manhattan and Normal-America, not about the electoral consequences of the so-called Generation Gap.

    Yes, of course, and I’m sorry if my compressed reference suggested otherwise. I just couldn’t resist mentioning it.

  11. I was wondering what the “just the facts, ma’am” link was going to point to, since Jack Webb supposedly never actually said it. However, by the time the video loaded, I had guessed that it would be Ackroyd—not because I remembered it from the Dragnet movie, but because I figured the comedy writers couldn’t have resisted putting that supposed quote in their Friday’s mouth.

    In the film, they also play on Friday’s obsession with giving times, which I only really understood when I learned that, before it was on television, Dragnet had originally been a radio show. Thus the framing device of Friday’s notebook entries was used to set the scene. Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar, another radio mystery show, used a similar device of expense account entries. Dollar, a freelance insurance investigator, was described as the man “with the action-packed expense account.”

  12. For a long time I didn’t understand Johnny Dollar’s universe, where an insurance investigator was some sort of celebrity people had heard of. Finally there was a reference to the fact that the radio show exists in his universe, so people are recognizing him from that. That must complicate the resulting legal cases.

  13. through which people can engage in sexual activity

    The OED, even in these licentious times, is being somewhat delicate about it. Not that anyone wouldn’t figure it out.

    So as I gather, the progression is glaur ‘grease’ (Scotland/N. England) > glaury ‘greasy, filthy’ > glaury hole / glory hole ‘waste pit; ship’s bilge’ > ‘disreputable bar’ > ‘gay bar’. Once partitioned booths were invented and engineering minds recognized their potential, the glory hole was reinterpreted, in parallel to another meaning, ‘vulva’, documented by Green since 1930.

    While on the subject, I learned that lumber and lumber room came from Lombard: pawnbrokers were Lombard, and lumber came to describe an accumulation of unclaimed furniture.

  14. Another semantic turn, from a 1916 mining publication:

    The little band of investigators foregathered in a ‘glory-hole’—in which unfamiliar use of the word the Western miner will find the origin of the term now glorified indeed. ‘Glory-hole’ is a corruption of ‘glaury-hole,’ a name given by Scottish sailors to the place of refuse in the waste of a ship. At our Western mines it became convenient to throw the discard from the boarding-house into the nearest open-cut so that the latter became a glaury-hole in the Scottish sense, which was soon forgotten in the fact that many open-cuts, as at the Alaska Treadwell and the Combination mines, were made by excavating rich ore. Thus the term became synonymous with mineral wealth.

  15. The comments at Metafilter list other citations and definitions of the term Glory Hole:

  16. As an actual-thing-encountered it firmly belongs to a previous generation

    as hat said – beware of generalizations…

    sure, plenty of respectable gays under 40 have never encountered one – but glory holes have never been common in places respectable gays went, if they had a choice. more of them have more choice now, so they encounter them even less – and while their absence has in various ways endangered the places they no longer have to go, it’s improved the quality of the habitués no end.

  17. @rozele — thanks, I appreciate being put in my place (and being reminded of the diversity of human experience)!

  18. Robert Everett-Green says

    There is a donut shop called The Glory Hole not far from my house. Nothing could make me want to try those donuts.

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