Depression Glass

“Poinsettia” pattern footed tumblers by Jeanette Glass Co.
Attribution: Angela Sickelsmith via Stockvault

Depression Glass is a term used to cover a broad range of mass-produced, inexpensive glassware. It was very popular from the late 1920s, throughout the 1930s during the height of the Depression, and into the 1940s.

During this stressful and difficult era, many Americans lost their jobs. Others, only slightly more fortunate, were forced to take deep pay cuts. Learning to survive on little or no money became the way of life for many families for well over a decade.

These were fairly dreary times for average Americans and the inexpensive molded glassware, mass-produced in a variety of beautiful colors, brought a cheerful accent into the homes of those who could no longer afford very much. 

Depression glass was popular with thrifty homemakers because it was new and affordable. It could be purchased at the dime store. Stores such as Woolworth’s were a source for this inexpensive and useful everyday glassware. A loaf of bread cost a nickel. A piece of glassware sold for the same price.

Even better, many businesses, gas stations and movie theaters gave away glassware as a premium; a glass punch bowl with a set of cups for an oil change, or a glass bowl for the price of a Saturday matinee movie ticket. A free piece of glass might be in a box of detergent, a bag of flour or in a box of oatmeal.  Practical and penny-wise women took full advantage of the “freebies” offered from wherever they came.

A huge quantity of true Depression glass was made in the Ohio River Valley. Manufacturing was fairly inexpensive in the first half of the 20th century due to the relatively free access to raw materials— silica sand, soda ash and limestone— and easily available power sources.

According to an article in the New York Times: “Depression glass was the first glassware in American history to be produced by a completely automated method without need for skilled glass blowers, so the major glass companies could sell complete 20-piece dinner sets for as little as $1.99. This low-priced glassware found a ready market at a time when most people could not afford hand-finished glass.” More than 20 companies designed and produced over 100 innovative and elegant patterns from which the interested buyer could choose.

Major companies producing depression glass during this time included Hocking, later Anchor-Hocking; Hazel Atlas; Fenton Glass Company; Federal Glass Company; Imperial Glass Company, Indiana Glass Company; U.S. Glass; Mac-Beth Evans; Jeannette Glass Company and Lancaster Glass among others. This molded glassware came in colors and patterns to suit every taste. 

The most common and popular colors produced were light to medium green, pink, amber, pale blue and clear crystal. Other less common colors included canary yellow, ultramarine jadeite, opaque pale green and blue, ruby, black, amethyst, and white milk glass.

Fostoria “American” plate.
Attribution: Kdm85 [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)]

The major disadvantage of this inexpensive glassware was its low quality. Being cheaply mass-produced, the pieces frequently displayed air bubbles, mold marks and other flaws in the glass.  It is amazing that so much of it has survived to the present day and is highly-prized as a collectible.

When one decides to either begin or add to an existing collection, look beyond the surface flaws.  Avoid pieces with chips or cracks.  Finding and collecting Depression glass is fascinating and fun. The  pieces seem to be imbued with a wealth of history and add a note of cheerful brightness to a home as they did many years ago.

The most popular colors with collectors today are the various shades of pink, cobalt blue and green. Pattern names favored by today’s buyers include Cameo, Mayfair, American Sweetheart, Princess and Royal Lace.

In a thesprucecrafts.com article on collecting Depression glass, some of the challenges facing collectors today are noted:

Have I learned enough about Depression glass to know what I am buying?

Has the pattern I’ve chosen to collect been reproduced or reissued? Some depression glass patterns have been reproduced. There are many reproductions on the market today, particularly on online auction sites.

Do I understand the issues relating to condition, which can diminish the value of Depression glass?

Do I know how to examine glassware for damage?

All reasons to become not only an enthusiastic collector, but a well-informed one. There are many reference books on glass companies and patterns, newsletters and internet sites, as well as groups such as the National Depression Glass Association. These groups are great starting points for interested collectors. They offer in-depth reference articles, glass company advertisements, upcoming and current glass shows, and tips for shopping and buying.

To find a list of current auctions and prices of Depression glass, the site www.antiquesnavigator.com is a good source of information. The online auction site www.liveauctioneers.com is another source for what is for sale as well as the prices of items that have been sold.

A number of years ago, the president of the Long Island Depression Glass Society remarked on the one reason for the popularity of this glassware is that it comes from a period in our history many people remember with nostalgia. Also, since this glass is not yet considered an antique, pieces can still be found for reasonable prices, although as the availability of desirable pieces decreases, prices are definitely on the rise.

Sources

Kitchen Glassware of the Depression Years Identification and Values, 6th Edition. Gene and Kathy Florence, Collector Books, Schroeder Publishing, 2001

Collectors Encyclopedia of Depression Glass, 13th Edition. Gene Florence, Collector Books, Schroeder Publishing. An excellent resource. Full-page illustrations of many popular patterns and colors.

What is Depression Glass? Newsletter Article in glassbottlemarks.com

Antique Depression Glass. Newsletter article in CollectorsWeekly.com

Depression Glass Daze (Monthly Newsletter)

Collecting Depression Glass.

Depression Glass. Price Guide and Pattern Identification.

Articles in thesprucecrafts.com

Antique Depression Glass Price Guide. kovels.com

The National Depression Glass Association   ndga.net

Historical Glass Museum, Redlands, Calif. The largest collection of American made glass West of the Rockies.   www.historicalglassmuseum.com

Green Depression glass, various patterns. Attribution: holly from asheville, NC [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)]

Art Nouveau – Masters of Ornament

During the years 1890 to the beginning of the First World War, Art Nouveau, or the “new art” movement encompassed graphic arts, interior design, architecture, the use of technology and new scientific discoveries, as well as many of the decorative arts including textiles, jewelry, silver, ceramics and glassware, tile, ironwork, lighting, and the fine arts. It was considered a “total art style”, more of a movement than a style, which promoted the philosophy that art should be a way of life. In the words of William Morris, “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.” It was rooted in the Arts and Crafts movement of the mid to late 19th century which called for a closer union between the fine and decorative arts and away from the academic styles of the overly fussy and conservative Victorian tastes of the time.

Designs were inspired by all things in nature, employing flowers, vines, and other flora and fauna. Intertwining curvilinear forms, asymmetrical and dynamic, flowing one into another, always striving for harmony. It was described in 1894 as “sudden, violent curves generated by the crack of a whip “. Through exhibitions in Europe and the U.S. in the late 19th-early 20th century, Japanese woodblock prints became popular and were an important influence in Art Nouveau designs with their many references to the world of nature.

Art Nouveau designs have a distinctive appearance, instantly recognizable.  The artisans of the Arts and Crafts movement frowned upon the use of the machine as an aid in creating their art forms. Their ideal was to create a more humane and just society through their artistic endeavors. The artists of this “new style” enthusiastically adopted new materials and new technology in developing innovative, imaginative, and fanciful designs, particularly in jewelry, glass, and the new medium of cast iron, which was artistically utilized in architectural interiors and exteriors. It was truly “art for art’s sake” and beauty, grace, and harmony were the desired results.

In the United States, Art Nouveau is often referred to as “Tiffany style”, although there were several other well-known and highly regarded American design studios. Louis Comfort Tiffany (1848-1933) and his studio were most famous for their lamps. He experimented with the processes of coloring glass, and in 1894 patented favrile glass, which used metallic oxides to color the interior of molten glass giving it an iridescent effect. Among Tiffany’s most notable designs was the dragonfly. Gossamer-winged dragonflies, mysterious and ethereal, are admired in many cultures. They are a symbol of agility and purity because they are always found hovering and darting about near water. To the Chinese, they symbolize harmony and prosperity. Dragonfly lampshades became one of the Studio’s most popular designs, and were produced in many colors and styles. The most valuable and most highly prized by collectors have a matching base inset with mosaic glass. Tiffany lamps can be worth anywhere from 4000 to several hundred thousand dollars.

On June 6th, 2017, Sotheby’s will feature the estate of Carol Ferranti: Masterworks by Tiffany Studios.  On June 16th, James D. Julia, Inc. will be featuring lighting from Tiffany studios in their upcoming auction of Rare Lamps, Glass, and Jewelry. Among other designs, a dragonfly lamp and a remarkable wisteria leaded-glass window will be highlights.  Another resource, Liveauctioneers, is an excellent free website to view realized prices from various auction houses.

In my travels last year, I was fortunate to go to the Art Nouveau and Art Deco Museum in Salamanca, Spain.  Among their collections are wonderful examples of glass by Loetz, Galle’, Daum and Lalique.

The ideal of this movement can be summed up in the words of Christopher Dresser, a botanist, and a strong influence on American Art Nouveau design: “…nothing is too mundane to be transformed into a thing of beauty”  if it was from nature.

REFERENCES

 American Art Nouveau. Diane Chalmers Johnson.  Harry N. Abrams Inc., NY 1979

The Art of Louis Comfort Tiffany.  Donald L. Stover. The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco 1981

Louis Comfort Tiffany.  Alastair Duncan. Harry N Abrams, Inc. NY 1992

Art Nouveau and Art Deco Jewelry: An Identification and Value Guide. Lillian Baker

 Essentials of Art History. George M. Cohen, PhD.  Research and Education Association

INTERNET RESEARCH

Art Design and Visual Thinking

Antique Reporter

Nature and Art Nouveau

The Aesthetic Movement

Art Nouveau – Wikipedia

Caring For Cut Glass

The American Cut Glass Association has a very informative website.   In addition to membership information there are tips on identifying cut glass, dating and patterns.

There are several free articles from past issues of their journal “The Hobstar”.  Among them are two articles by Vickie Matthews.

The Care and Cleaning of Cut Glass” has tips on handling, washing and displaying.  Since I’m located in an area prone to earthquakes, I especially like the suggestion of using a neutral wax or gel product sold at antique shops, hardware stores or on-line.   These products can be removed without harming the glass or signatures.

Packing and Shipping of Cut Glass” has tips on wrapping, boxing and using various shipping services.  Many of these tips can be used for transportation of glass, china or collectibles in general.

One of the best places to view cut glass in Southern California is the Historical Glass Museum in Redlands.   They have an entire room dedicated to American Cut Glass.  Located in a Victorian house, they have many other types of American made glass; the largest collection West of the Mississippi.  Check their website for upcoming lectures.

50th Anniversary of American Studio Glass

2012 marks the 50th anniversary of the American studio glass movement.  To celebrate this occasion, over 165 museums, universities and arts organizations throughout the U.S. are presenting exhibitions or programs relating to contemporary glass.  The movement began at the  Toledo Museum of Art:

In 1962, the Studio Glass Movement was born in a garage on the Museum grounds. Harvey Littleton, a pottery instructor, received the support of then-director Otto Wittmann to conduct a workshop to explore ways artists might create works from molten glass in their own studios, rather than in factories. A prototype “studio” furnace was built in the TMA garage, but for the first three days of the workshop all attempts to fuse molten glass failed. Finally, Dominick Labino, then vice president and director of research at Johns Manville Fiber Glass, showed up with advice on furnace construction, and with glass marbles that melted. Harvey Leafgreen, a retired glassblower from Libbey Glass, was then able to demonstrate his craft. Later that summer, many participants returned for a second workshop.

As an appraiser specializing in art glass, I am always looking for opportunities to view art glass and gain education.  Last Fall I attended the Sculpture Objects and Functional Art (SOFA) Show in Chicago.  I enjoyed the opportunity to view contemporary art glass and meet many artists, including Lino Tagliapietra.

The Art Alliance for Contemporary Glass (of which I am a member)  has a calendar of events and celebrations for 2012 at http://contempglass.org/2012-celebration/events.    While you’re at the website, check out “A Visual History of Glass” and “Featured Glass Art Videos”.

Pile Up by Harvey Littleton
Pile Up Harvey K. Littleton (American, b. 1922) United States, Spruce Pine, North Carolina, 1979 Kiln-formed glass, cut glass base

The Glass Art Society is having their annual conference from June 13-16, 2012 in Toledo, Ohio, the birthplace of studio glass.

The Corning Museum of Glass is having their annual seminar on glass October 18-20 titled “Celebrating 50 Years of American Studio Glass” in conjunction with exhibits featuring Harvey Littleton and Dominick Labino, founders of the studio glass movement.

If you have a chance, I encourage you to attend some of the programs and special exhibits celebrating the studio glass movement this year.  It is a rare opportunity to view such a large amount and wide variety of contemporary art glass.

Gold and Green Implied Movement by Harvey Littleton
Gold and Green Implied Movement Harvey K. Littleton (American, b. 1922) United States, Spruce Pine, North Carolina, 1987 Hot-worked barium/potassium glass with multiple cased overlays of colorless and Kugler colors, cut Assembled (six elements)

 

Images used with permission, courtesy of the Art Alliance for Contemporary Glass.