It’s debatable whether the original manufacturers of what would become known as Depression glass ever imagined a day when pieces would sell for four figures.
A lot has changed in the 80 years since the delicately patterned glass first appeared as giveaways in grocery stores, movie theaters and gas stations. In a recent online auction, a Sharon Cabbage Rose covered cheese dish in pink sold for $2,000. When that cheese dish was introduced between 1935 and 1939, $2,000 bought a five-bedroom, electrified home on a full acre of land in Hammond, Ind.
“Depression glass didn’t get its name until much later,” said Ellen Schroy, author of the newly published Warman’s Depression Glass, 5th edition (Krause Publications). “When the first manufacturers decided to give this new glassware a try, they were hoping to start new trends, and they succeeded until the world started falling into the Great Depression. They called their glassware by names, such as Adam and Windsor, Cracked Ice and Pyramid, hoping to draw buyers in.”
The history of Depression-era glassware is fascinating in that one must thoroughly investigate the histories of many American glass houses to more fully understand why this glassware captivates so many collectors. By exploring how these companies developed new patterns, new technologies, merged, and sold their wares, the story becomes clearer.
The glassware is still called “Depression glass” because collectors generally associate mass-produced glassware found in pink, yellow, crystal, or green with the years surrounding the Great Depression in America. Actually, the major manufacturers involved in making Depression-era glass, such as Federal, Hazel Atlas, and U. S. Glass, had established their businesses well before the Depression set in. In the case of U. S. Glass, many smaller glasshouses formed a consortium in the late 1890s and combined factories, companies, and technologies for producing early American pattern glass.
Later, some of these factories went on to produce the glass patterns associated with the Depression era. The Tiffin (Ohio) Glass factory may owe its longevity to the fact that it was part of the U. S. Glass consortium during some difficult times and later survived again as an independent glass factory after the consortium was dismantled.
Federal Glass Company opened its Columbus, Ohio, plant in 1900. After switching to automation, Federal soon began production of tumblers and many Depression-era patterns, as well as restaurant wares, allowing its diversification to get it through some difficult financial times. Collectors cannot easily pick a date and say this is when Depression-era glass started; rather it was a gradual easing of the American glassware industry into modern mechanical advancements, allowing for the creation of inexpensive, quickly made, colorful glassware.
The housewives of the Depression era were able to enjoy the wonderful colors offered in this new, inexpensive glass dinnerware, often because they received pieces of their favorite patterns packed in boxes of soap, or as premiums given at “dish night” at the local movie theater. Merchandisers, such as Sears & Roebuck and F. W. Woolworth, enticed young brides with the colorful wares that they could afford even when economic times were harsh.
In her book, Schroy draws a line between pre-Depression-era glassmaking processes to the more elegant styles made during and after the crisis. These makers, such as Heisey and Fostoria, eliminated inconsistencies found so often in inexpensively mass-produced glass and found a way to add a touch of class to the nuclear family’s dinner table.
Schroy says the phrase “Depression-era glassware” can sometimes be a large umbrella term to describe patterns produced between 1920 and the late 1970s.
“Some more readily found items command lofty prices because of high demand or other factors, not because they are necessarily rare,” Schroy writes in her introduction. “As collectors’ tastes range from the simple patterns to the more elaborate patterns, so does the ability of their budget to invest in inexpensive patterns to multi-hundreds of dollars per form patterns. Depression glass collecting depends upon a collector finding a piece they wish to add to their cupboards and a dealer willing to sell.
One of the challenges Depression glass collectors face is assigning the proper name to similarly styled patterns and understanding the piece’s original usage. It is easy to confuse the differences among berry, dessert, fruit, sauce, and cereal bowls.
Combating fakes and reproductions
Reproductions of Depression-era glassware have greatly impacted the market. Writing a book just about Depression glass requires some attention to the flood of cheap foreign imports that are diluting the American market. To ensure authenticity, photos for Schroy’s book came from Ron and Julie Madlung, longtime collectors who are respected among the nation’s top dealers.
“Whole patterns have fallen in value because collectors are wary of continuing to invest in patterns beset by reproductions,” Schroy writes. “Some patterns, like Miss America, are now experiencing reproductions of reproductions. The chore to identify the well-known clues of the Miss America butter dish is now being compounded by having to recognize the second-generation reproduction and its identification clues.
“Adding the section on reproductions by expert Mark Chervenka allows readers to see the differences between the good and the bad,” Schroy said. “Mark’s serious work in this area is the most reliable information we can offer readers.” Chervenka is the author of Antique Trader’s Guide to Fakes and Reproductions, 4th Edition.
Schroy also employs a timeline that highlights the beginnings, major events, and endings of American glassware manufacturers, as well as a “color timeline” to help identify colors and when they were manufactured.
Another tool to combat reproductions is six pages of pattern silhouettes, showing line drawings of the most popular designs. “The pattern silhouette concept was born out of my desire to sort the patterns by some identifying characteristic,” Schroy said.
“Artist Jerry O’Brien thought the idea was a good one and sometimes drove me a little crazy getting the details just right. He preferred to work off an actual example, so I had to find plates for him for every pattern. There were many trips to antique shops and flea markets in search of this pattern or that.”
Today’s collectors use their glassware
Schroy writes that she learned through her relationship with collectors and dealers that buyers of Depression-era glassware tend to use their treasures.
“Whether it’s for everyday use or just special occasions, most collectors reported they enjoy their collections and use them,” she writes. “Some noted that they mix and match patterns, although most seem devoted to one color in a particular pattern.
Many collectors consistently look to each other for support, sharing of knowledge, and searching. This is one area where the Internet has answered a need, in that some collectors correspond daily about their collections, sharing experiences and dreams.
During Depression glass antique shows, it is common to see a dealer or collector offering his/her opinion about the source of a particular piece, what colors are available, etc. This is certainly one area of the antiques and collectibles marketplace where knowledge is freely shared.
Perhaps this helps to explain why so many young collectors are drawn to this colorful glassware, Schroy said. There seems to be no end in sight for the hobby, either.
For those who truly seek out vintage Depression glass, there are still forms being found in patterns not previously identified in the standard reference sources, she said.
Antique Trader’s first Depression Glass Webinar Nov. 5
What’s a Webinar, you ask? Short for Web-based seminar, a Webinar is a presentation that is transmitted over the World Wide Web.
Each participant sits at his or her own computer and is connected to other participants via the Internet. The presentations are interactive, and the audience can engage in question-and-answer sessions with the presenter.
In some cases, the presenter may speak over a standard telephone line, while pointing out information being presented on the computer screen.
Collect.com and Antique Trader magazine are teaming up to produce their first Webinar on Depression Glass. Hosted by expert Ellen Schroy, the conference is scheduled for 8 p.m. EST Nov. 5. The cost of the Webinar is just $15.99. You won’t want to miss this chance to have one of the nation’s leading experts answer your questions about Depression glass.
Participants will need a connection to the Internet and a phone line. A toll-free number will be provided to each registered participant.
To learn more about the conference or to sign up, visit www.antiquetrader.com/webinars.