What is milk glass and how valuable is it?
Recently I have been quizzed about Milk Glass: What is Milk Glass? How is it made? How old is Milk Glass?
First of all, the term "Milk Glass" is a fairly new appellation. The original descriptive term for this type of glassware was "Opaque Glass" or, in some cases, "Opal or Opaline Glass." Milk Glass, as it is commonly referred to today, (obviously because of it similarity to the color of milk) originally was made in Venice in the 16th Century, where much of our modern glassware was developed. Technically the manufacture of Milk Glass is achieved through the use of reflective materials that cause the opacity or opaque nature of the glass. What most people do not realize is that this type of glassware is actually made in various colors besides the white. brown, green, blue, pink, even black can be considered "Milk Glass" (or more correctly Opaque Glass) and have been made for centuries. Materials such as tin dioxide, even arsenic and antimony, may be used to develop the opaque nature of this popular glassware. Most of this type of glassware that we see today is fairly modern, made in the 20th Century. There are still examples of the earlier varieties floating around in personal collections, in antique shops, (and in cases of the earliest varieties, in museums).
My first interest in Milk Glass was piqued when a dear elderly friend of mine showed me her Milk Glass Hen Dish, when I was a young unmarried adult, back in 1966. My friend had received this large covered figural hen dish as a gift, and she had this dish sitting on the center of her kitchen table every day. She used it to put in her hard-boiled eggs, to keep them warm for breakfast. I was fascinated with the dish and with her use of it, because one of my favorite things to do as a child on my grandmother's farm was to gather eggs. How cute, and appropriate! I guess that I must have made a rather big deal about it to my friend, for when I finally did marry, my friend bought me a modern rendition of her dish as a wedding present.
This one gesture took me down the merry road of collecting Milk Glass Hens, and later included Roosters and Chicks, as well. I collect both the white and also the blue varieties of "Milk" Glass, and the vast majority of my collection date from the 1880 to 1910 era, but I do have some from the later periods of manufacture. My obsession with Milk Glass has taken me into antique shops, flea markets, and other antique shows all over the United States.
Fortunately, (or possibly, unfortunately for me) my late mother-in-law gifted me with a wonderful Milk Glass piece that was found underneath a tree in her parents' yard back in her childhood. She and her sister were playing in the dirt (perhaps making "mud pies") when their spoon hit something buried under the dirt, and as they continued to dig they realized it was made of glass. When they finally retrieved the item, (which was totally intact, and in perfect condition) they held in their little hands a small 6 3/4" Baby plate. No one ever discovered how the plate got there in the first place, as her parents were the first people to live in this house. This plate is made of Milk Glass and contains a deeply embossed shape of a bunny rabbit on its surface. So, guess what? I now have a very significant collection of Milk Glass Baby Plates, as well. So you can see, giving me an antique for a gift can be a dangerous thing. Many of my antique collections through the years have developed from the haphazard gift of a friend or relative.
Much of the Milk Glass found today is of the most opaque variety---the type that you can not see through at all. Some types that are more translucent (where you can still see light pass through the object) are more opalescent in nature. Many of these pieces were made as cheaper novelty pieces during the 1890-1910 period and these items tend to have a bluish cast to the Milk Glass, and when held up to the sunlight may show a reddish/orange opal appearance. The very earliest types were what we refer to as "Dead-White" and are completely opaque. The formula for this type was lost for many years and was not redeveloped until the 1930s. Companies in the United States that made Milk glass prolifically were: Cambridge, Fostoria, Fenton, Westmoreland, Imperial, Mosser, and Kanawha. Sadly, the vast majority of these companies are no longer in business, beat out of competition by foreign glass makers. Even more sadly, much of this foreign glassware lacks the quality of the older varieties that were made in the United States and Europe. This is a tale that has tragically been repeated over and over in the field of manufacturing, much to the chagrin of collectors in this country.
The good news is that there is still a great quantity of Milk Glass available in our country. White is such a popular color choice amongst the upcoming generation in our country that I have good expectations that Milk Glass will be increasingly made popular by this group of collectors. For more information on Milk Glass there is a society of Milk Glass collectors, and several good books available on the subject. If interested, contact me by phone or on my face book page, or come by the shop to be able to see and handle some of each type of Milk Glass.
Trash or Salvage? No regrets---ask first!
Sharon K. Huegel, a business owner in McCook, Nebraska, is a lifelong collector of antiques and an experienced appraiser of the same. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org, facebook-huegel's hutch antiques, or at (308)-345-2585 or (308)-345-7564.