Collecting Milk Glass

By Karen Parr-Moody

 

Milk glass was popularized in the United States in the late 1830s as an elegant-yet-inexpensive substitute for porcelain tableware. Today, GasLamp has some beautiful pieces of milk glass that would fit in beautifully with a variety of décors.

 

White glass has roots reaching back to antiquity, circa 1500 B.C., when Egyptians used it as a substitute for alabaster. Not surprisingly, the famed Venetian glassblowers made their own version in the 1500s.

 

When the white glass we now call “milk glass” was first resurrected in England and the U.S. it was called "alabaster glass.” By the time of the Gilded Age it had reached a zenith, and glass from that period remains among the best ever made. To make this pressed glass, manufacturers added arsenic to their glass recipes, which yielded an opalescent effect. Later they would use tin oxide, feldspar, and other additives to create a denser white glass.

 

A variety of companies made milk glass, from the higher end pieces to the reasonably priced. Makers included such firms as Indiana Glass Company, Jeannette Glass Company, Westmoreland Glass Company and Fenton Art Glass Company. The urn in the photo, above right, is from the Indiana Glass Company ($32.95; Booth B-113).

 

Earlier pieces of milk glass can be identified by a fiery opal quality seen in the near-translucent edges of a piece, and this distinctive look can't be reproduced. This opalescent quality can be seen when the light passes through and is due to the presence of the ingredient arsenic.

 

Today collectors find that milk glass adds charm to décor, as it comes in a wide variety of tableware and fanciful dresser sets. This pair of candle holders, photo left, would blend in beautiful with a Christmas tableau of red, white and green ($22.95; Booth B-113).

 

Milk glass followed the trends of the times: During the 1930s and early 1940s, when Art Deco was the rage in the decorative arts, vases and other items took on that genre’s stark lines. During the 1950s, milk glass could be found in various shades of the pale pink that was popular at that time.

 

Throughout the history of milk glass it has been found in a variety of shapes: For example, the dresser set in the photo, right, is thought to have been used as part of a woman’s toilette to hold cosmetics ($45; Booth B-103). Today the set would make a unique gift for a lady who loves horses.  

 

From 1940 to 1985, the well-known Fenton Art Glass Company was the preeminent manufacturer of milk glass wares. Fenton’s Hobnail pattern, which debuted in the late 1930s, has been called its “bread-and-butter” ware in milk glass. Once Fenton created hobnail, it became a pattern that was used by makers all over the country and it included a variety of items, from vases to candy dishes to lamps.

 

Floral arrangements look divine in milk glass, from a modern mix of succulents and moss to a romantic blend of roses and hydrangeas. The tall vase in the photo, left, would be perfect for such an arrangement ($24.95; Booth B-113). This style of milk glass, bearing the motifs of grapes and leaves, is called the Harvest pattern. It was created in the 1950s by the Indiana Glass Company (but was done under the name of Colony Glass due to the company’s restructuring).

 

The compote in the photo, right, is also from the Harvest pattern ($18.95; Booth B-113).

 

For the potential collector, milk glass is a fun category due to the wide range of available items. What is great is that the color is so uniform – even in a stunner, such as Fenton’s arresting Peking Blue – that the patterns can be completely mixed. And the look in milky white is always light and lovely, making for a classic display.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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