One of the dangers of my job is how easily I become infatuated with collectible items. Pictures of estate sales throughout the country are uploaded to our site constantly, each one with treasures both hidden and uncovered. My home is quickly filling up with vintage tablecloths, blue mason jars, and carnival glass. The only reason we’re not furnishing our house entirely with authentic mid-century modern furniture is that we have pets and are not made of money.
Now I’m clearing off some shelf space for milk glass.
Lucky for me and anyone interested, milk glass makes frequent appearances at estate sales. Local thrift shops often have shelves of white vases that could technically fall under the “milk glass” umbrella, as well, though it’s very low price suggests that it’s not collector-quality.
Because like so many other vintage collectible, not all milk glass is created equal.
And furthermore, not all milk glass is white, which is where my obsession begins.
Though what we consider milk glass dates back as far as the 16th century, it wasn’t until the 19th century that its popularity took off, as it was seen as an inexpensive luxury for those unable to afford fine porcelain. They called the pearly pretties “Opal.”
By the 20th century it was given the name “milk glass,” even after new additives were introduced to give the pieces color. After all, if you add strawberry powder to a glass of 2% milk, it is still 2% milk, right?
Milk glass enjoyed a second swing of popularity in the 1940s and 50s, which is the era you’re most likely going to find at estate sales.
What is “milk glass?”
Milk glass is opaque glass, most commonly the creamy color of milk (hence the name). It gets its opacity through compound additives like bone ash, feldspar, tin dioxide, arsenic or antimony.
The glass is then molded into any number of shapes. Bowls, baskets, compotes, and vases are common. Designs may be simple, or they can have intricate flower or (popularly) animal patterns.
Fire-King/Anchor Hocking, Federal and Hazel Atlas all produced mugs in the mid-century that are now sought out. They feature unique and clever designs, characters from popular culture, or advertising for businesses. There are collectors who actively seek out opaline coffee cups emblazoned with “Ponderosa,” or “Dunkin Donuts,” while others wish to complete their prized set of Peanuts mugs.
Milk glass also comes in colors like blue, pink, green, yellow, or black. The popular dishware called jadeite, for example, is an example of green milk glass. Roseite and azurite also fall into this category.
Identifying the good stuff
Much like carnival glass, identifying authentic vintage or antique milk glass can be difficult. The biggest manufacturers of the glass--Westmoreland Glass Company, Fenton, McKee, Imperial, and the New England Glass Company, among others--did not always mark their pieces clearly or with any regularity.
Come on, glass companies, get it together.
And there are reproductions out there, as well. More contemporary manufacturers, often from China, make glassware very similar in appearance to the vintage designs.
So how do you know if what you’re about to buy is the good stuff?
Those makers who did mark their glassware are also likely to have a reproduction company marking similar glassware in a very similar way. If you’re looking for authentic, be sure to become familiar with maker’s marks, as well as the individual manufacturer’s style. Fenton, for example, frequently made use of the hobnail design in their work. There are a variety of books on the glassware identification, as well as websites--like this one, on McKee fakes, and this, on Fire-King markings.
Pre-1950 milk glass was made with iridized salts, which creates what’s called a “ring of fire” on the piece. Hold it up to natural light, and if you see a ring of iridescent color around the edge, your can date your glass before 1950 with relative certainty.
- Contemporary milk glass will more likely be made with a mix of glass and paint, rather than iridized salts or other opacifiers. The more you familiarize yourself with the glass, the easier it will be to identify the difference.
- Something you might like to be aware of: older milk glass--mostly from the late 1800s--may contain lead. One way to identify such a piece is by giving it a good rap with your knuckle--if it contains lead, it’s likely to ring like a bell.
- Be wary of replacement parts. Those Jadeite salt & pepper shakers you’re eyeing are adorable, but are they capped with the correct lids?
- But a more pertinent question: is that important to you? It’s okay if the answer is no. But if you notice some incongruity between the quality of the glass and the lid it comes with, and the price does not reflect a reproduction, you might be able to get a better one.
- The benefit of shopping for your milk glass at estate sales is that you’re likely pulling from someone else’s collection, at a price lower than you’ll find at antique dealers. You might not know the person who owned it, but you will be able to see from how the personal collection is curated, whether they had discriminating tastes. Does it *look* like high quality glass? Is it a sizable collection, or perhaps just a singular bud vase that was likely just part of a Valentine’s day gift from 20 years ago. The estate sale company may be able to give you insights into the owner’s choices, as well.