by Dr. Lori Verderame
Valuable milk glass and its many colorful cousins like jadeite are collectibles that have stood the test of time in the realm of antiques and vintage home décor. The bright white milk glass bud vase that stood quietly on your mother’s kitchen shelf since the 1950s is actually an object with a history that dates back to the Italian Renaissance era. In fact, milk glass originated in the famous glass furnaces of Venice, Italy and was introduced in the 1500s when objects were desired for their color and affordability. Milk glass, for its white color, was a cheaper alternative to ceramic porcelain while it offered a similar look and color. Porcelain was a highly regarded import product during the Renaissance era and Europeans all over the continent wanted it badly from its Asia where it originated. However, porcelain was expensive and fragile to ship making it highly sought after and desirable.
Porcelain or Milk Glass
Milk glass was a cheaper alternative to porcelain, the highly sought-after ceramic type that people wanted in Europe. Mainly produced in China, porcelain’s bright white color and durable nature was all the rage with the Europeans in the 1500s and 1600s. To produce something similar to porcelain’s color and durability, milk glass answered a global need. Since porcelain was a highly regarded import product which the Europeans wanted badly, milk glass presented a new option for collectors. By the 18th Century, Americans collected Chinese porcelain including famous figures such as George and Martha Washington and used it for entertaining. The widespread interest in porcelain made the inexpensive and handsome look-alike objects made of milk glass a perfect alternative for collectors and salesmen alike.
Many famous and wealthy Americans of the early Colonial period such as President George Washington and First Lady Martha Washington and others were collectors of porcelain. While these prominent Americans were collecting china from Canton, China and other ceramics, porcelain was not available to the masses. Milk glass provided an alternative. Milk glass was both a handsome and inexpensive solution to expensive porcelain and other china types. The milk glass looked a great deal like porcelain as well as being inexpensive and accessible to the masses, not only to big wigs like George and Martha.
If you want to start or add to a milk glass collection, check out online and traditional auctions, yard sales, estate sales. If you are screen connected, you can find great examples of valuable milk glass online. Also, vintage and antiques selling websites like eBay, Rubylane.com, shopgoodwill.com, ebth.com (everything but the house), replacements.com, Etsy.com, and others present a great option for many collectors and resellers in search of milk glass pieces. Many people will offer valuable milk glass at auctions, yard sales, estate sales, swap meets, church sales, etc. I don’t have to tell you that my favorite places to look for vintage milk glass is at thrift stores, antique malls, flea markets, and yard sales.
Some interesting aspects of milk glass include characteristics like various patterns, shapes, sizes and even nuances of color. My YouTube channel videos show you how to tell valuable milk glass items and what they are worth. Also, some of the popular patterns and designs of milk glass impact their value. For instance, a figural rabbit or hen covered game dishes in milk glass are collectibles that date to the early 20th Century. When it comes to valuable milk glass, certain patterns, shapes, and styles are highly sought after such as pedestal planters, embossed pitchers with fruit, particularly grapes and apples, hen game dishes, and items with flower motifs such as daisies, roses, poppies with leaves as well as slim tapered bud vases and pairs of figural candlesticks.
Decorating with Milk Glass
Milk glass was used in homes since the early 20th Century in traditional and innovative ways. For home décor, milk glass offers versatility and timeless look has helped the vintage objects retain popularity over the centuries. For instance, milk glass has retained its popularity because of its versatile style. Planters and vases are the most popular types of milk glass objects. Milk glass pieces can range in value from $15-$25 for a small milk glass bud vase to hundreds of dollars to a large punchbowl set with matching cups in a highly decorative pattern in excellent condition. I like to see décor featuring milk glass in an assembly grouped together on tables, curio cabinets, or open shelves. Milk glass is easy to integrate into an established design. It is also popular with grand millennial design motifs and it goes with established décor like mid century modern or contemporary styles. White goes with anything and gives a fresh, clean and classic look to any space.
Milk glass is often associated with weddings as its white color symbolized purity. White milk glass items have been found to add style to wedding receptions and outdoor parties. Milk glass often makes an appearance during early summer when party decorations and wedding décor require white bud vases. Wedding season is one of the most popular times to resell or collect milk glass objects, too. Of course, while white goes with any décor and milk glass in particular will give a clean and fresh look to any space or party table. In the summer, particularly for a June or July wedding, milk glass has been known to adorn mantles, shelves, and tables. Milk glass refreshes any indoor space and is also right at home outdoors on a picnic table for a casual gathering. It is versatile, pretty, and classic.
In addition to weddings, milk glass objects have adorned baby nurseries and family or play rooms because its white color references innocence and children too. Milk glass pieces are integrated into nurseries or play rooms as catch alls and vases. Small trinket boxes, trinket trays, and candy dishes of milk glass are great for keeping track of those small items like game pieces, pins, barrettes, and other items.
What to Look For
When it comes to seeking out valuable and decorative milk glass, look for certain, special, and popular patterns, shapes, decorative elements, and shapes when you are shopping for milk glass. Pedestal planters or jardinaires, pitchers and glass sets featuring fruit or flowers, tapered bud vases, candlesticks, and chalice goblets are all on the “must have” list. The timeless white look of milk glass has made the collectible pieces especially pitchers, compotes, and vases.
Milk Glass goes by other names such as Opaque glass, Opaline glass, or Opal glass. Milk glass may be blown or pressed into shape. Some pieces of milk glass are completely opaque or less so. Collectors call the fully opaque milk glass “dead white” glass which means there is no light allowed to penetrate the glass object. While white is the most popular shade of milk glass, milk glass comes in other colors such as blue, green (jadeite), teal, yellow, pink, amethyst, lavender, beige, maroon and black. Many collectors look for milk glass and other colorful opaque glass pieces to add to an existing collection or to establish a new collection without breaking the bank. Many of my fans tell me that they have added to an existing milk glass collection started by one’s mother or aunt in decades past or they are starting their own collection featuring milk glass to honor someone who once had such a collectible assembly.
Milk Glass Manufacturers
The three best known manufacturers of Milk glass include some of the most prominent names in glass producing of the late 1800s and early 1900s: Boston & Sandwich Glass Company, of Sandwich, MA, Atterbury & Company, of Pittsburgh, PA, and Challinor, Taylor & Company, of Tarentum, PA. Other manufacturers include McKee & Bros or McKee Glass Company of Pittsburgh, PA Dithridge & Company also of Pittsburgh, PA, Eagle Glass & Manufacturing Company of Wellsburg, WV; Gillinder & Sons of Philadelphia and Central Glass Company of Wheeling, WV.
Not to be confused with slag glass, milk glass was manufactured and distributed to many by the early to mid 20th century, including collectors. Some of the best-known milk glass firms are big glass manufacturers such as Fenton, Imperial, Westmoreland, L. E. Smith, Kemple, Eagle Glass, Hazel Atlas, Anchor Hocking, E. O. Brody Company, Jeannette, L. E. Smith, Indiana Glass, and others.
The Golden Age of Milk glass was the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Popular decorative shapes and designs included lacy edge, open border, or lattice edge. These decorative motifs were commonly integrated into the designs of pitchers, sugar bowls, candlesticks, lamps, goblets, compotes, cake plates, vases, perfume bottles, etc. Milk glass was also used for commercial products in addition to home décor items. For instance, in the early 1900s, milk glass was manufactured as useful jars for cosmetics and creams, hair products, etc. An interesting aspect of milk glass, like carnival glass and slag glass, is the patterns, designs, and decorations on the pieces. For instance, the Westmoreland Glass Company’s Paneled Grape pattern was introduced circa 1940. It was a highly sought-after pattern that collectors look for. And, what’s more, the Fenton Art Glass Company’s Hobnail pattern from the mid 20th century; introduced circa 1950 is another popular and interesting pattern of milk glass.