For collectors, milk glass offers an exciting and vast array of possibilities. Covered animal dishes, Fenton crested bowls, Westmoreland table sets and Easter eggs from the 1890s are just a few of the specialties milk glass fans pursue.
Victorian Milk Glass
Victorians first used milk glass in the 1840s as an inexpensive alternative to porcelain tableware (though its appearance now seems more quaint than luxurious). Many early American glass firms pressed dishes in milk glass, including such famous patterns as Block-and-Fan, Button and Arches, and Sawtooth. Scarcities include items in Holly, Stars and Stripes, and Ribbed Grape.
The advantages of shaping molten glass quickly led to milk glass items as varied as hatpins and dresser boxes, clocks and inkwells, jars and vases. Figurals were especially popular in the 1880s; Atterbury patented several designs of animal covered dishes (cats, fish, foxes, a dove-in-hand), while other firms blew glass into elaborate bottle molds of Russian czars, Columbus and Grant's Tomb.
Early pieces used arsenic in the batch, making them duller but more opalescent than later items, which are a deeper white. Some of the early opalescents have a fiery cast around the edges, which is prized by collectors.
Typically found in clear, flint glass (containing lead) was cast in mild white as well from the 1840s-1870s, and rings like a bell. This can be important in determining the age of a piece of milk glass, since many firms reused old molds (theirs and others) over many decades of production.
Turn-of-the-century pieces became ever more elaborate, encrusted with embossed designs and painted with enamels. Floral and wreath patterns were popular designs on all types of milk glass; they reached their artful pinnacle in the Wave Crest line of dresser boxes and vases, which were also decorated with transfers of portraits and landscapes.
20th Century Milk Glass
By the early 1900s, milk glass was used in everything from rudimentary store jars to elegant candelabra. Quality could vary greatly; most collectors of the 20th century pieces seem to prefer pieces with dense, even color to thinner, watery looking pieces (which look more like skim milk). Opaque milky blues, shell pinks, soft greens and other non white variations began to appear in many lines.
A number of firms originating around 1900 came to be major milk glass producers. Westmoreland is perhaps the most synonymous with milk glass in the minds of collectors; it was a staple of the firm's 9 decades of production, peaking in the 1950s and '60s with a host of colonial style wares. Table and giftware in Old Quilt. Paneled and Beaded Grape and a variety of lattice edge and lace edge centerpieces graced millions of post-war homes, both in plain white and handpainted Roses and Bows motifs.
Fenton's prolific milk glass lines in the '50s and '60s helped them survive to be one of the few American art glass firms left today. Their Crest series featured milk glass with applied ruffled edges of clear crystal in the more common Silver Crest line, or the scarcer edge colors of Emerald Crest, Peach Crest, Aqua Crest, Amber Crest, and Ivory Crest. Hobnail, their oldest, most popular pattern, also came in milk glass serving pieces, baskets, and even epergnes.
Milk glass mania supported many other 1950s era glass firms. Imperial, Kanawha, LE Smith, Kemple and Jeanette pieces were of high quality then, and are widely available now. Fostoria, McKee, Morgantown, Consolidated, and other noteworthy elegant glass houses all jumped into the field.
Production of milk glass has waned significantly in past decades, such that little is found new today. Fluoride used in the process proved corrosive to the molds, resulting in a short production life. Fenton's pink and white Rosalene, for instance, was pulled from the line after just 3 years due to the cost of continually replacing the molds! EPA regulations regarding fluoride leaching into rivers have also made it hard for American firms to continue making milk glass.
Collecting Milk Glass Today
Unlike many collecting categories, milk glass seems to have something to offer almost any collector. Fans of refined, exquisite Victoriana can find beautiful examples as rare as Wave Crest (priced from $200- $2000+) or as widely available as perforated edge plates from early World's Fairs and famous sights like Niagara Falls. Bristol glass, made in England and America and painted with lovely floral sprays around 1890, is surprisingly widespread and inexpensive for hand-embellished, antique art glass.
Some collectors focus on specific types of glass, specializing in figurals, boudoir items, early American or Depression glass tableware. Covered animal dishes have a loyal following nationwide. General store collectors can amass a variety of early milk glass store jars for little money.
Others stick to a particular firm or line, especially those made by Westmoreland and Fenton. People who remember these pieces Grandma bought in the '50s and '60s are advised to start now, while many are still available at surprisingly low prices.
Molds started to migrate from defunct companies
to other firms almost a century ago. Revivals of some lines were clearly
different from old (Westmoreland and Imperial, for example, often added
their mark or restyled lids); but many are hard to distinguish. Collectors
are advised to carefully research the catalogues of the firms they collect,
join glass clubs and touch and feel many examples as they learn. Shopping
at places which guarantee items to be as claimed is a good idea for the
novice collector of Victorian figurals, which can run into the hundreds
of dollars. -George Higby
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