Milk glass is a type of opaque glass that first originated in Venice in the 16th century. Despite the name, not all milk glass is white—even very old pieces can be found in alternative colors such as pink, blue, or brown. Although the genesis of this type of glass is quite old, the milk glass that is found in the collectible market today tends to date from the 19th and 20th centuries, and much of it was produced in America.
White milk glass became popular during the Victorian era because it was a beautiful and economical alternative to porcelain, which it resembles. (This is also the era when the term “milk glass” was coined to describe this type of glassware.) A wide variety of decorative pieces were made out of this type of glass, including glasses, dishes, vases, perfume bottles, and decorative boxes. During the Great Depression and into the 1940s, milk glass went out of vogue somewhat, only to enjoy a revival in both popularity and production in the 1950s and 1960s.
Because milk glass has enjoyed such a long history, the value of pieces can vary considerably depending on their origin and condition. Milk glass that dates from the 19th century is more valuable than that of more recent manufacture, and pieces that feature unusual patterns will fetch a higher price than more common ones. Some milk glass pieces were designed to commemorate historic events or highlight patriotic themes, such as dishes featuring the likeness of George Washington or memorial pieces for Presidents Lincoln and Garfield. These types can be quite valuable, depending on their rarity.
Different patterns of milk glass have become associated with particular manufacturers, such as Fenton’s Hobnail pattern, which it introduced in 1939 and soared to popularity in the 1950s. However, many iconic designs were copied and made by multiple manufacturers, such as covered dishes designed to look like nesting hens. Written guides and identification websites can help interested collectors learn about the variations in design and production during milk glass’s heyday.
The long history of milk glass can make it tricky to definitively identify an individual piece as being authentic. This has been complicated by the fact that as some glass manufacturers have gone out of business and their molds were sold off to other companies, some of which continued to produce new pieces with them. Some experts suggest looking through a piece of milk glass in sunlight to detect the iridescent color around the edges known as the “ring of fire,” which is supposed to distinguish older pieces from more recent ones. Makers’ marks on the glass can also help you pin down the date when a particular piece was made. However, if establishing an exact positive ID and value on a piece is important to you, you should take it to an appraiser for an expert examination.
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