Steuben Glass Works was established in 1903 when Frederick Carder, an English designer known for producing colorful blown glass at Stevens & Williams in Stourbridge, was invited to Corning, New York to partner with Thomas G. Hawkes, whose namesake company had previously specialized in engraved and cut glass.
Carder served as designer and manager of the glass department at the Steuben for nearly three decades. During his tenure, Steuben specialized in colored Art Nouveau-style glass wares in addition to simplified classical forms typica of the the Art Deco movement. Carder invented a number of new formulas for colored glass, including a popular line of iridescent cobalt blue and gold glass known as Aurene, a rival to Tiffany Studios' iridescent Favrile Glass. He continued to serve as the head of Steuben after the company was acquired by Corning Glass Works in 1918.
In 1932, under the strain of financial difficulties caused by the Great Depression, the style and production of Steuben was forever altered when glassworkers at the company developed a new clear glass with a high level of refraction, a proprietary formula with a high lead content that resulted in the brilliant finish and strength for which Steuben crystal would become world renowned. Now headed by Arthurt A. Houghton, Steuben shifted away from colorful wares of the Carder era towards designs exclusively produced in brilliant clear crystal under the direction of a team of artists and designers including architect John M. Gates and sculptor Sidney Waugh.
The new forms produced during this era tended more towards Modernist styles, with streamlined forms in both blown and solid glass emphasizing the technique of the glassworks, in addition to the use of updated classical engraved decoration. Waugh in particular became well known internationally for his finely engraved pieces, often depicting mythological and allegorical scenes; several of his early designs were acquired by major museums and institutions, including the Gazelle Bowl at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. The new style was typified by the company's flagship store located on 5th Avenue Manhattan, a building in the International Style with wide expanses of glass.
In the mid-20th century, Steuben continued to establish itself as an important glass house, and examples of their designs in crystal were frequently given as gifts by heads of state; another important example of Waugh's work, the Merry-Go-Round bowl, was presented as a wedding present to Queen Elizabeth II by President Harry S. Truman in 1947.
Steuben also produced utilitarian glassware in crystal including tableware, stemware, vases and bowls in a wide variety of patterns which became increasingly popular after a successful display at the 1939–40 "The World of Tomorrow" World's Fair held in Flushing, Queens.
Beginning in the 1970s, Steuben began to produce solid crystal objects which were strictly decorative, including sculptures with engraved decoration and figural pieces depicting animals. The company increasingly partnered with famous artists, architects and designers to produce limited edition objects in their brilliant crystal. Steuben introduced a line of smaller sculptures known as “hand coolers," symbolic pieces, often in the form of animals, inspired by the small ovoid porcelain, glass and stoneware objects used by ladies in the Victorian era to cool their hands at social events.