How to Identify Antique and Vintage American Glassware Styles

With eye-catching colors and an alluring array of shapes and patterns, antique glassware offers a unique decorative accent that recalls craftsmanship from decades past. While collectors of vintage glass often purchase these pieces for display, many others maintain them for everyday use.

Glassware produced from the late-19th through the mid-20th century is considered the pinnacle of glassmaking and thus one of the most popular eras to collect in the market. Vintage glassware encompasses many types of decorative and functional objects including glasses, plates, vases, and bowls. They range from simple and affordable to ornate and extravagant. As a starting point for new collectors and seasoned enthusiasts, this guide compiles the most notable styles.

The History of Antique and Vintage Glassware

Although glass objects have been produced as early as the Bronze Age, the more modern technique of cut glass dates back approximately 2,000 years. Glassmakers would hold a cooled piece of glass to a grinding wheel to carve fine grooves, intricate patterns, and compelling designs. The Italian city of Venice became a leader in the craft, as they molded glass into elaborate drinking glasses and introduced colorless forms of glassware.

The “American Brilliant” era of the late-19th century into the 20th century witnessed significant developments in the glassmaking industry. The rise of pressed glass made it possible to mass-produce glassware, leading to the creation of some of the most recognizable styles including carnival glass, elegant glass, milk glass, crystal glass, and Depression glass. Other advancements such as uranium glass were crafted throughout the 1930s before falling out of popularity during the Cold War.

Fenton Glassware

Fenton Glass Company was one of the most prominent glassmaking companies in American history and led to many of the styles discussed in this guide. Drawing inspiration from Tiffany Studios and Steuben Glass, the firm introduced carnival glass in 1907 before going on to create over 150 different patterns in this style. Over the years, they have produced a variety of glass types, including the carnival, opalescent, and milk, as well as other styles like custard and chocolate. Fenton pieces are popular with collectors for their wide variety of glass styles, signature designs, and the fact every Fenton piece is made by hand.

A row of multicolored glass vessels of varying shapes and sizes

Collection of Seven Fenton Glass Vessels. Sold for $350 via O’Gallerie (September 2019).

Fenton glass ranges from bright pieces to twisting spiral collectibles. Items made from 1973 onward are distinguished by an oval-shaped Fenton raised logo. Pieces produced before 1973 were marked with stick-on labels that likely tore away, making it necessary to do further research to verify the maker. Colors, design, and motifs can also determine the value of Fenton glassware. Ebony vases can sell for hundreds of dollars, while some cranberry and carnival glass can sell for thousands of dollars. Despite the high cost of a few rare examples, you can find Fenton glassware for less than $100 each, with many selling for as low as $10 to $20.

“Hobnail” glass, which featured a uniform bumpy surface inspired by Victorian design, was one of the most famous Fenton glass styles. Fenton-made milk glass before 1958 was also distinguishable for its more transparent appearance in comparison to other milk glass. Fenton also saw success with their signature line of glass pieces with ruffled edges called “crests.”

Types of Antique and Vintage Glassware

Antique and vintage glassware is highly sought-after today for its rich history and sheer variety of colors, patterns, and styles. The process of determining the value of these collectibles can be complicated and requires careful research and comparisons. You’ll need to consider colors, condition, patterns, makers, and overall design characteristics. Below are some of the significant vintage glassware styles, explained.

Art Glass

Art glass refers to the innovative work of glassmakers who experimented with new techniques and designs at the turn of the 20th century. Their artistry gave way to an assortment of handmade objects like vases, bowls, bottles, paperweights, and even marbles. Demand for art glass declined in the United States after the Art Nouveau era before experiencing a resurgence in the 1950s and 60s.

 

Many glassmaking companies such as Durand, Tiffany Studios, Quezal, and Steuben stood at the forefront of the movement. While designs and techniques varied between companies, many examples of art glass  featured iridescent qualities, vibrant colors, and nature-inspired patterns. Art glass is generally sought-after by collectors, but the maker of an individual piece can impact its value. Makers can be identified by examining company marks and signatures located on the bottom of the glassware. However, since reproductions are common, it’s essential to study the marks, colors, and styles of genuine art glass to properly identify the maker of a piece.

Some of the most notable art glass comes from Louis Comfort Tiffany’s award-winning and famous line of “Favrile” iridescent glassware. Pieces from this top-shelf company often go for thousands of dollars on the market. Art glass collectors also favor works from Steuben Glass Works, which featured colors like gold, brown, red, and green in their iridescent glass. Durand vases, in particular, are famous for their “King Tut” pattern of coiled glass that ranges in price from $2,000 to $3,000.

Carnival Glass

The first carnival glass was introduced in 1907 as an economical alternative to Tiffany’s Favrile. Since it was inexpensive to make, consumers often refused to pay high prices, which caused them to be given away at carnivals as prizes (hence its name). By 1925, carnival glass fell out of favor in the United States before experiencing a revival in the 1950s, when collectors began to seek out its decorative qualities.

Carnival glass is known for a multicolor sheen that changes colors when viewed at different angles—the result of spraying the hot glass with metallic salts before firing. The swirly “oil slick” appearance incorporated glimmers of color like black, purple, blue, and green. Factors like age, item type, size, colors, and condition affect the value of carnival glass. Pieces dating before 1940 are more valuable, as are complete sets of items and larger objects. Colors like ice green (which is sold for over $16,000) and marigold are rarer and highly prized.

Fenton, an influential American glassware company, was credited with the creation of the first carnival glass piece. They were known for detailed scalloped and crimped edges that outlined many of their creations. Fenton’s strawberry scroll, a sweeping pattern featuring raised strawberries, is exceptionally rare and desirable in the antique market.

Crystal Glassware

While similar in appearance to standard glassware, crystal is a high-quality glass crafted with lead. Wealthy collectors were attracted to crystal for its light-reflecting qualities, and it became a popular serving option during the 19th century. Crystal produced during this era is considered antique by collectors, while those created after World War I are generally regarded as vintage glassware.

Because of its lead content, crystal glassware is stronger, heavier, and smoother than standard glass. The quickest way to identify crystal is to examine its look and sound. When held up to the light, crystal should reflect light and cast soft prism-like rainbows. Tapping genuine crystal emits a musical “ping” sound. Well-known crystal manufacturers typically marked the bottom of their wares with a signature or company name, which can help determine their value. Another factor is appearance: the more intricate a piece’s cuts and stems, the more value it holds.

The value of older and more highly decorated crystal glassware can range between $1,000 and $4,000—sometimes even more, depending on its condition and design. The most famous crystal glassware came from Waterford during the “American Brilliant” period, recognized its for “bright glass,” rhythmic patterns, prism-shaped stems, and elaborate cuts.

Depression Glass

The stock market crash of 1929 led to the creation of inexpensive Depression glass. Its lower price point made it accessible during the Great Depression for entertaining guests, everyday use in kitchens, and overall brightening homes during a bleak time. Although it is of lesser quality than other forms of antique glassware, Depression glass still attracts collectors with its vibrant colors and ornate patterns.

Large service of blue glass tableware

Blue Royal Lace Depression Glass Collection (128 Pieces). Sold for $675 via Mebane Antique Auction (March 2020).

Depression glass was produced in varying hues, some very light in color and others opaque and iridescent. Etched details, opalescent trim, and geometric shapes were the hallmarks of this favorite glass style. Because of lesser-quality production techniques, Depression glass often featured imperfections such as air bubbles, raised rough spots, and heavy mold marks. These “common” flaws, however, do not affect its value and are some of the attributes specialists look for to verify its authenticity. Value is also dependent on the pattern, color, object type, and condition. Intricate patterns, uncommon objects, pink and green pieces, and well-kept items are generally more valuable. It’s also important to uncover any “critical” damage that can impact the value of a piece. To do so, run your fingers across the edges and hold the glass up to a light source to look for cracks and chips. While it’s common to find Depression glass for less than $10 to $15, more intricate patterns and unique items can be significantly more valuable.

Jeannette Bottle Works was one of the primary producers of Depression glass. They were recognized for creating a variety of dinnerware, including the unique color ultramarine and cherry blossom pattern. “American Sweetheart” is another favorite Depression glass pattern, notable for its sunset pink hue and etchings of scrolls. Pitchers and salt-and-pepper shaker sets in this pattern can bring in $350 to $750 per piece.

Elegant Glass

While pressed glass techniques of the 1920s made it easy to produce inexpensive glass, a few companies were determined to continue creating high-quality glassware. Produced through precise handiwork by skilled craftspeople, this glassware, known as “elegant glassware,” was notorious for luxury prices and was often sold in high-end stores.

Similar to vintage Depression glassware, elegant glass features varying colors and intricate designs of flowers. The primary difference is dependent on how the pieces were created. Whereas Depression glass was produced with molds (and thus are more raised in appearance), elegant glass designs were etched and have a more recessed look. Objects were often hand-pressed, hand-molded, and hand-blown. As with other styles of vintage glassware, value is determined by  assessing the pattern, color, age, and object type. Items such as candle holders can run for around $16. However, an entire collection of elegant dinnerware in one color and in the desirable “American” pattern can cost thousands of dollars.

Cambridge Glass Company, Imperial Glass Corporation, and Fostoria Glass Company were some of the leading elegant glass companies at the time. While Imperial was known for their Candlewick line of glass beaded pieces, Fostoria’s distinct clear-colored geometric glassware was hugely popular during the era and with collectors today.

Kitchen Glass

Kitchen glass was a branch of Depression glass also produced during the Great Depression era. Similar to Depression wares, they were inexpensive to make, and their economical price made them popular to use in kitchens and dining, which gave them their name.

Kitchen glass was made in a variety of glass types such as Delphite, Fire King, jadeite, and Platonite. Delphite is an opaque blue glass used for novelty items and tableware. Fire King is an opaque green glass that was re-popularized in the 1990s by Martha Stewart. Jadeite, while similar to Fire King, is a lighter opaque green glass that recreates the look of the mineral jade. Platonite is a white glass that many people commonly associate with kitchen glass items, often used in refrigerator dishes, shaker sets, milk pitchers, and mixing bowls. Prices for kitchen glass have stabilized over the years with standard objects like dinner and salad plates running between $8 and $15. However, rare items like ball pitchers, measuring cups, canisters, and large mugs are often sold for in the hundreds.

Jeanette Bottle Works was also one the notable makers of kitchen glassware. Known as “Jennyware,” these objects were often made in pink, clear, and ultramarine colors. Platonite was used in a rare kitchen glass line called Ovide Platonite, featuring black Art Deco elements that created a dramatic contrast with the white glass. Moderntone, a simple banded pattern, was also used in many kitchen glassware.

Milk Glass

Opaque glass, commonly known as milk glass, reached the height of its popularity in the 19th and early 20th century when it was produced as a more economical option to European glass and china. Like other glassware, milk glass underwent a revival in the 1940s and 1950s and has been considered an “evergreen” collectible since.

Despite its name, white wasn’t the only color produced: opaque black, pink, and green were some of the more expensive variants of milk glass. Generally, pieces dating from the mid-19th through the early-20th century  are considered the most valuable. Referred to as “old” milk glass, these objects showcased motifs such as dolphins, animals, birds, and ships, and featured molded edges resembling latticework. Older pieces usually have an opalescent quality and bear sharp mold lines and silky, smooth texture. Old milk glass also possesses a signature “ring of fire;” a halo of iridescent colors around the edge that appears when the piece is held up to a light source.

Most of the milk glass collectors encounter today were produced by American manufacturers such as Westmoreland, Kemple and Fenton. Patterns such as Westmoreland’s “Beaded Grape” (which featured grape motifs and beaded edges), and Fenton’s “Silvercrest” hold plenty of value in the vintage market. Atterbury & Company was also another major milk glass maker, known for incorporating animals into their designs.

Over the last two centuries, antique and vintage glassware have experienced a range of rapid growth, sharp decline, and renewed interest based on social, political and economic trends. Today, as with all collectibles, understanding common makers and the hallmarks of their designs enables collectors to make more informed buying decisions. Antique and vintage glassware, in particular, have many value determinants such as colors, designs, and object type that impact their value and sale price. Familiarizing yourself with these features will give you a better sense of the nuances between makers, types, and eras. Whether you prefer the top-shelf beauty of art glass or the iridescence of carnival glass, you can be sure to find a beautiful piece to add to your collection.


More from In Good Taste:

A Collector’s Guide to Depression Glass

A Collector’s Guide to Carnival Glass

Sources | Spruce Crafts | Antique-HQ | Antique Central | Britannica | Collectors Weekly | Antique Trader | SFGate | LoveToKnow | Rachel Rossi | Manifest Auctions | Hunker | Dusty Old Thing | David Doty