Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Nothing to Get Depressed About

QUESTION: My mother loves Depression Glass. She’s been collecting for over 20 years. I love the colors, but all the patterns confuse me. Other than being made during the Great Depression, why did so many companies make this type of glass and why is it so popular with collectors?

ANSWER: Of all the collectibles out there, Depression glass is one of the most popular with collectors, most likely for its rainbow of colors and its myriad of patterns. Depression glass is far from a depressing collectible. In fact, companies made it in such bright colors to raise the mood of people going through one of the worst times in their lives. They also made it affordable so that this little bit of joy could reach as many people as possible.

The common belief is that this clear, colored translucent, or opaque glassware got its name because it was made during the Great Depression. This is a bit of a misnomer because decorative glass of this type had been around since as early as 1914 and as late as 1960. However, the production of Depression glass did indeed reach its peak during the years of the Great Depression.

During the first half of the 20th century, the Ohio River Valley was the epicenter of glass production. Companies like Westmoreland and Fenton Glass had access to the raw materials and power they needed to keep their glass production costs down. Over 20 manufacturers made more than 100 patterns of Depression glass, some in entire dinner sets.

Although mass production of this low-quality molded glass made it fairly inexpensive at the time, not everyone could afford it. Everyday essentials were far more important, but thanks to glass companies like Indiana, Imperial, Federal, Jeanette, Hazel Atlas, and Anchor Hocking, the wares were available to everyone for a few pennies or nothing.

For instance, a bag of Quaker Oats flour might include a premium piece of dinnerware. The company also made laundry detergent, in which it packaged “a little extra something” to make the drudgery of  wash day more bearable. The pattern, size, and color were a mystery to the user until she opened the box. Collecting the pieces to use became a common pastime and made people’s lives a little brighter.  Other companies followed Quaker Oats’ lead and began using Depression glass as a premium to help sell their products.

Depression glass pieces also lined the shelves at five-and-ten-cent stores like Woolworth’s or if people went to the movies on Tuesday or Wednesday nights when patronage was low, they might win a set of dishes. Some theater owners handed out small pieces just for attending a show.

The Cherry Blossom pattern, made by the Jeanette Glass Company from 1930 to 1939, came in both pink and green. While most collectors of Depression glass favor the color green, it also came in a rainbow of other common colors, including crystal (clear), pink, pale blue, green, and amber. Less common colors included canary (yellow), ultramarine, jadeite (opaque pale green), delphite (opaque pale blue), cobalt blue, ruby (red), black, amethyst, and milk glass (opague white).

Later Depression Glass, made during the 1940s and 1950s, included American Prescut, sold only in clear crystal, and other patterns in ruby and forest green. The top-of-the-line pattern has always been Pink Miss America, made by the Hocking Glass Company from 1935 to 1938.

While over 100 companies made Depression Glass during the Great Depression, by the time it had ended, only half that many were still producing it. And of these, only seven—Federal, Hazel-Atlas, MacBeth-Evans, and U.S. Glass—produced this glass exclusively through the mid-1940s.

The Imperial Glass Company produced the first pattern, Fancy Colonial, in 1914, well before the Great Depresssion began. Westmoreland Glass has the distinction of making the English Hobnail pattern the longest.

The most colors made for any one pattern are 11, done for Moondrop and Rock Crystal, followed by English Hobnail by Westmoreland, Lincoln Inn by Fenton, and Floral by Jeanette, all with 10 colors each. 

Identifying Depression glass by mark can be difficult because few of the companies marked or labeled their wares. The only way to identify a maker is to know which company made the pattern. Using the numerous books and Web sites on Depression glass available today, it’s a fairly easy process. Some of the most common include Adam, American Sweetheart, Block Optic,Cherry Blossom, Dogwood, Floral, Georgian, Hobnail, Lake Como, Manhattan, Starlight, and Windsor. While some of the names reflect the style of the glass pattern itself, most do not. 

The best way to determine a genuine piece of Depression glass is to learn the pattern, dates of manufacture, colors the pattern, and any other known identifying marks. One example is the Cherry Blossom pattern by the Jeannette Glass Company, introduced in 1930 and made until 1939. The set consisted of 43 pieces different pieces, and the company made it in seven different colors—green, pink, crystal, yellow, ruby, jadeite, and dark green.

Depression glass was never made to be durable as it was only made to meet people’s immediate needs. Due to its popularity as a collectible and its breakability, Depression glass is becoming harder to find. Rare pieces often sell for several hundred dollars. Popular and expensive patterns and pieces have been reproduced, and reproductions are still being made, which has watered down the market for some patterns.

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