Souvenir Ruby Glass: Is it flashed or stained?

By Dr. Anthony J. Cavo

Souvenir ruby glass, yesterday’s equivalent to today’s vacation take-home tee-shirt, has long been a favorite of glass collectors as a result of its deep luminescent ruby color and variety of shapes, patterns and sizes. If you’re in the antique business, whether a dealer or collector, you’ve seen it at shows, flea markets, and in shops. Typically the bottom is clear pressed glass while the upper half is a deep ruby color etched to clear with the name of a person, town, city, or event; many bear the date.

Ruby Glass Represents

Cups, tumblers, pitchers, creamers, vases, goblets, sugar bowls, candy dishes, toothpick holders, sherry glasses and salt and pepper shakers in a variety of patterns, shapes and sizes were produced simply as decorative souvenirs rather than practical, utilitarian objects. Those of you who collect or have dealt with this type of glassware may have noticed the long-standing issue I’ve been skirting: What is the actual name of this type of glass? Thus far, I have cautiously used the term “ruby glass,” which, although safe, is not definitive.

There are many different types of glass, produced in very different ways that come under the umbrella term “ruby glass”. This includes: ruby stain, ruby flash, pigeon’s blood, and Bohemian or ruby cut. A discussion concerning the differences of each would be lengthy. This article will be limited to ruby glass that was produced as souvenirs. In discussing souvenir ruby glass the two terms that are used interchangeably and cause the most confusion are “ruby stain” and “ruby flash.”

Flash Versus Stain

Few of you may be surprised to learn that Ruby Flash is not an aging superhero, a silent screen

Ruby stained pitcher

Ruby stained pitcher made in the Jefferson diamond peg pattern is from the Toronto Exhibition of 1913.

star, or even the newest color from Crayola. Most know ruby flash as ruby-colored glass, yet are not sure exactly how it is colored or if it is the same as ruby stain. Most dealers refer to souvenir ruby glass as “ruby flash(ed),” some dealers call it “ruby stain(ed),” others call it “ruby glass”. While still others unwilling to commit play it safe and call it ruby colored pattern glass; at least we all agree on the “ruby,” it’s the rest that has us crazy.

Cups, tumblers, pitchers, and toothpick holders are probably the easiest shapes to find, while other pieces such as boots and biscuit jars are more difficult to encounter. When an article of antique glass has more than one piece, such as a base and a lid, it is always gratifying to find them still together after 100 years; such long-time unity adds considerably to the value of a piece.

As a kid I’d buy souvenir ruby glass for my mom who displayed these wonderful pieces in the many nooks of our Victorian mantel. I called it “ruby flash”; my mother called it “ruby stain.” “But ma, all the dealers call it ‘ruby flash.’” “And if all the dealers jumped off a bridge…,” we all know how this question ends — apparently most parents refer to the same handbook. I often wondered why a bridge, why not a famous building or a hot air balloon, surely they’re higher and more innovative? But I digress, perhaps in an attempt to delay making an actual commitment to either one or the other “stain” or “flash.” 

Polling For Answers

In lieu of canvassing dealers and collectors as to what term they use, I performed the Cliff Notes equivalent and consulted the sellers on two well-known internet sites. In an almost two-to-one sweep, 2,316 eBay sellers advertised this souvenir glass as “ruby flash,” while 1,378 of them listed it as “ruby stain”.Whereas, on Ruby Lane, where most sellers are antique dealers, the ratio was fifty-fifty. As someone who invariably backs the underdog you may guess what’s coming next. I’m going to go out on a limb here (as many of you sharpen your axes) and side with the minority, then I’m going to hold that limb tightly as the ruby glass rattles and the hatchets hit. Brace yourselves for a commitment; ruby stain is the correct name for ruby souvenir glass – there, I said it.

Whereas flashing is done as the piece is being formed, staining is done after a piece, usually pressed glass, is already formed (look for the telltale seam of pressed glass). Portions of the fully formed and cooled glass are painted with a chemical that changes color when the piece is reheated; the resulting color depends on the chemical used. Staining can produce not only a ruby color but amber, green, blue, yellow or rose. Ruby stain souvenir glass is pressed glass that has been spot coated with a copper sulfate solution then reheated. The heat caused the solution to fuse with the glass and the areas coated with this solution turned bright red – the glass beneath the stain remained clear, the solution changes color.

Flash Versus Stain

Flashing is the application or fusing of a very thin coating of colored glass over a gather of clear or a different color glass. These layers are then blown together into the desired form. The gaffer, or glassblower, gathers glass on the end of the blowpipe then dips that gather of glass into molten glass of a different color then blows the two-colored bolus into the chosen shape. It is the same method used in making cased glass where the glass layers are easily discerned.

The etching or engraving process was actually more of a scratching that was initially accomplished by a foot-pedal-driven copper wheel coated with an abrasive paste that scratched off the stain to leave a clear design.

Steps In Staining

Ruby stain glass becomes souvenir glass when it is etched with the name of a person, city, state, event, or date. A piece could be custom etched or bought with generic tags such as father, mother, sister, aunt, etc. They were sold in vast numbers at fairs, monuments, train depots and resorts from the 1880s to 1910 and to a lesser extent through the late 1920s, with each piece commemorating the place or event at which it was sold.

Prized pieces are those from nationally recognized events or locations such as Atlantic City and Coney Island or large cities like Chicago, St. Louis, and New York. Others qualify as cross-collectible, such as a sherry glass from the 1893 World’s Fair that would hold an appeal for both ruby stain collectors as well as those who collect World’s Fair memorabilia.

Global Legacy

Ruby glass Salt and Pepper and pitcher

These salt and pepper shakers, dated 1905, are great examples of personalized pieces that have managed to remain together for 112 years. The pitcher is a souvenir of the “Centenary Columbus Ohio 1919.”

Although the April 15, 1902 issue of the illustrated “Glass & Pottery World Volume X No. 4 identifies the Oriental Glass Company of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (1891-1918) as “the originators of the manufacturer of ruby stained glass in this country,” it is debatable. Ruby stained glass has been available in the United States since the 1880s and the earliest record of the Oriental Glass Co. is 1891. In addition to the Oriental Glass Co., ruby stained glass was produced by a number of companies, including: Heisey, Paden City Glass, New Martinsville Glass, Frank Kriesche of Mackinac Island, Duncan and Miller, Jefferson Glass Co., and others.

It is interesting to note that the same method used for ruby staining of souvenir glass was done prior to the 19th century and was revived as early as 1828. “The London Journal of Arts, Sciences & Manufacturers & Repertory of Patent Inventions, 1846, Volume XXVII states that the art of ruby staining glass had been lost until 1828 when “M. Engelhardt, of Zinsweiler, succeeded in staining glass red by means of a mixture of equal parts of oxide of copper and protoxide of tin,” in the glass manufactory at Hoffurmgsthal, Silesia.

Mom’s Way Is Best

The charm of this glass is not only in its beauty. Ruby stained souvenir glass was affordable when it was produced and is extremely affordable today. The availability and affordability of this glassware offers a great opportunity to begin a new collection or start a collection for someone else – a collection you can add to on every birthday, anniversary, holiday, or achievement.

Ruby flashed glass? Ruby stained glass? It appears, as usual, that Mom was right again – if only I’d listened. 

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