Though invented in Venice in the 1500s, the opaque glass commonly known as milk glass was post popular at the end of the 19th century. American manufacturers such as Westmoreland, Fenton, Imperial, Indiana, and Anchor Hocking produced it as an economical substitute for pricey European glass and china.
After World War I, the popularity of milk glass waned, but production continued. Milk glass made during the 1930s and 1940 is often considered of lower quality than other periods because of the economic Depression and wartime manufacturing difficulties.
Milk glass has proven to be an “evergreen” collectible. When asked about milk glass, “Warman’s Depression Glass” author and expert Ellen Schroy said, “Milk glass is great. I’m seeing a new interest in it.”
“Milk glass” is a general term for opaque colored glass. Though the name would lead you to believe it, white wasn’t the only color produced. Schroy advises, “Colored milk glasses, such as opaque black, green, or pink usually command higher prices.” Schroy cautions, “Beware of reproductions in green and pink. Always question a milk glass pattern found in cobalt blue. (Swirled colors are a whole other topic and very desirable.)”
The number of patterns, forms, and objects made is only limited by the imagination. Commonly found milk glass items include dishes – especially the ever-popular animals on “nests” – vases, dresser sets, figurines, lanterns, boxes, and perfume bottles. Schroy explains, “The milk glass made by Westmoreland, Kemple, Fenton, etc., were designed to be used as dinnerware. Much of the milk glass we see at flea markets, antique shows, and shops now is coming out of homes and estates where these 1940-1950s era brides are disposing of their settings.”
Schroy follows up with some practical advice: “Care should be taken when purchasing, transporting, and using this era of milk glass as it is very intolerant of temperature changes. Don’t buy a piece outside at the flea market unless you can protect it well for its trip to your home. And when you get it home, leave it sit for several hours so its temperature evens out to what your normal home temperature is. It’s almost a given if you take a piece of cold glass and submerge it into a nice warm bath, it’s going to crack. And never, ever expose it to the high temps of a modern dishwasher.”
Along with new forms, reproductions, reissues and imitations are still made today by companies like Atterbury, Fostoria and Fenton, sometimes making collecting difficult for those searching out genuine antique milk glass. So how do you tell the old from the new? Schroy says many times, getting your hands on it is the only way to tell: “Milk glass should have a wonderful silky texture. Any piece that is grainy is probably NEW.”
She further reveals, “The best test is to look for ‘the ring of fire,’ which will be easy to see in the sunlight: Hold the piece of milk glass up to a good light source (I prefer natural light) and see if there is a halo of iridescent colors right around the edge, look for reds, blues and golds. This ring was caused by the addition of iridized salts into the milk glass formula. If this ring is present, it’s probably an old piece.” She does caution, however that 1950s-era milk glass does not have this tell-tale ring.
Old milk glass should also carry appropriate marks and signs, such as the “ring of fire”; appropriate patterns for specific makers are also something to watch for, such as Fenton’s “Hobnail” pattern. Collectors should always check for condition issues such as damage and discoloration. According to Schroy, there is no remedy for discolored glass, and cracked and chipped pieces should be avoided, as they are prone to further damage.
Whether collectors decide to pursue new or old milk glass, with such an abundant supply and variety from which to choose, they will need to narrow their focus (for example, by manufacturer, form, or pattern). “Milk glass that is not worth a big investment are the vases, bowls, flower pots created for the florist industry in the 1960s/70s,” Schroy advises. “These are pale, usually widely spaced hollow back hobnails patterns. If you find these pieces at garage sales, flea markets, and can pick them up cheaply, they make cute containers for bathroom accessories, etc., but probably will never appreciate much in value.
The milk glass from the 1800s is still desirable and collectors will pay accordingly. Milk glass patterns, like Fenton’s Silvercrest, is holding its values nicely. As more examples of this era come back into the market (because of the aging brides) it might be a great time to find some interesting forms and patterns to add to any milk glass collection.”
With 1940s and 1950s brides now divesting themselves of their collections, the time is right to turn a passive milk glass interest into an active one. A new collector’s first step should be research via the Internet and resources like “Milk Glass,” by E.M. Belknap (Crown Publishing, 1988) and “Collectors Encyclopedia Of Milk Glass Identification/Values,” by Betty Newbound (Collector Books, 1994). Because many of the patterns are Depression era, they can also be found in Schroy’s “Warman’s Depression Glass,” 5th Edition (Krause Publications, 2009), which is available for purchase at shop.collect.com or by calling 800-258-0929.
Milkglass.org is an informational website. It includes historical and identification details, in addition to a collection of categorized links to milk glass items for sale on the Internet (primarily eBay).
The National Westmoreland Glass Collectors Club’s mission is to promote the appreciation for the artistry and craftsmanship of Westmoreland glass and to continue the preservation of this important part of American history.
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