BY SOPHIA DU BRUL
What is Depression glass? The term gets bandied about in columns on decorating, antiquing, and collecting, every instance defined in so many different ways. In the most general terms, Depression glass is mass produced glass made during the Depression. Frequently, these glass pieces were giveaways for opening a bank account or collecting S&H green stamps. There is lots of it around and most of it is not very special—you probably have some lurking in a cabinet of old glassware that came from your aunt’s house.
But when one mentions Depression glass to a collector, the collector is thinking green, specifically a luminous green that only comes from uranium. These are the pieces that I seek. I got into the green Depression glass because I love the color green, not to mention that it perfectly complements my Adams Calyx Ware by Lowestoft.
Although uranium was not quantified as an element until 1789 by Martin Klaproth and its radioactive properties were first observed only in 1896 by Henri Becquerel, artists and artisans knew about the color properties of uranium going back to the Roman period, where uranium was used to create a bright yellow ceramic glaze.
In the Middle Ages, glaziers, in their quest to create a rainbow of colors for stained glass windows, realized that depending on how hot one heated pitchblende (which contains uranium oxide), one could create custard yellow, canary yellow, chartreuse, lime, emerald, ruby red, and amethyst. Naturally, the use of uranium in glass becomes widespread in the Industrial Revolution, and people loved the brilliant colors. Production ceased in 1942 when all uranium supplies were requisitioned by the United States government.
But what makes it so special? Well, it is radioactive! The uranium ions in the glass react to UV light. If one shines a UV flashlight on a piece of uranium glass, no matter what the color, it glows an eerie green like Kryptonite (which makes it really fun to play with). Yet UV light is present in natural sunlight, so uranium glass, especially the green, always has this beautiful glow and purity of color that naturally draws one’s attention to it. The colors cannot be matched, and they can no longer be produced.
So, what should one know about collecting it? It was widely produced during the 20s and 30s, so it is pretty reasonable in price. A nice pair of candlesticks can set you back just $20 to $80. And there are plates, platters, glasses, salt dips, candy dishes, and ice cream dishes, too. Don’t get suckered into paying too much for it unless you are completely in love with a particular piece.
A lot of this glass is hiding in plain sight, like in that box of stuff inherited from grandma. Using a black light, it is easy to spot, and LED black lights are about $15 from Amazon (they have lots of uses, so they are a good tool to have on hand, regardless). A lot of this glass is also lingering on the shelves of your local thrift store or estate sale; I just whip out my black light and go down the shelves to see what glows, literally.
But didn’t I just tell you that is radioactive? Is it safe? Yes, it is perfectly safe. Follow the same guidelines as leaded crystal: don’t store anything in it and don’t put it in the microwave but feel free to eat and drink off it. The concentrations of uranium are pretty low.
The best places to find Depression glass are thrift stores, estate sales, antique malls, eBay, and Etsy. This is not real high-end stuff, so you can find it everywhere. It becomes more a matter of finding the pieces and patterns that you love. Personally, I love the pieces by Tiffin—they did the most and the deepest greens, so I have read the Tiffin pattern books and keep an eye out for those. Another great resource to learn more is @radioactiveantiques on Instagram—this guy has thousands of pieces, and he loves to show them off and answer questions.
In the end, green Depression glass makes me happy. When I set my table and I see the green glass with my Lowestoft, I am happy! And that is what your collection should do: make you happy.
Sophia du Brul is the owner of Sophia’s Room and conducts estate sales, does appraisals, and deals in vintage and antique décor and furnishings. You can find her at sophiadubrul.com.