By James Measell
As its name implies, milk glass is opaque white glass. Such glass is usually made as pressed ware, although some pieces are blown. Milk glass is often decorated by gilding, handpainting, or other processes, and the contrast between the applied colors and the white glass can be very attractive. The raw materials for milk glass are the typical silica sand, soda ash, and lime that comprise nearly all glass batches, but fluorine compounds called “opacifiers” give the glass its opaque character. Most milk glass is a dense opaque white, while other pieces may have a translucent quality to them; some dealers and collectors employ terms such as “clambroth,” “moonstone,” or even “skim milk” to refer to the latter. Milk glass items made more than a century ago tend to vary in the strength of their color, more so than the pieces recently produced.
Although the glass industry has always called this glass “opal” (pronounced “oh-pal”), the term “milk glass” seems to have originated among collectors and dealers as far back as the 1920s. Interestingly, there are some folks who refer to all opaque glass hues, regardless of color, as milk glass! In doing so, they speak of “blue milk glass,” “green milk glass,” and, yes, even “black milk glass!” However, this article will deal exclusively with the well-known opaque “white” milk glass, and the other colors, interesting though they may be, will be saved for another of these columns at some future time.
The famous Hobbs-Brockunier firm in Wheeling, W.Va. and the Sandwich and Mt. Washington companies in Massachusetts were likely producing opaque white glass as early as the late 1860s, and manufacturers in England — such as Edward Moore, Greener and Co., Molineaux Webb, and Sowerby — were certainly making their versions in the 1870s. The 1880s and 1890s were a peak period, as manufacturers in the Pittsburgh area began to make milk glass in great quantities.
In the early days in the U.S., the names that most come to mind are Atterbury and Co. and McKee & Brothers, both of which were in Pittsburgh in the 1880s-1890s, as well as Challinor, Taylor and Co. in Tarentum, Pa., and the Westmoreland Glass Specialty Co. in Grapeville, Pa. In the 1950s, Imperial Glass of Bellaire, Ohio, capitalized on growing collector interest in old milk glass with its line of reproductions in milk glass. Some Imperial milk glass items were satin finished and called “doeskin” by the company. Fenton Art Glass marketed its milk glass Hobnail line for more than 40 years, extending from the late 1940s into the 1980s. Some small manufacturers, such as Dithridge or Eagle in the 19th century and Kemple Glass and Lornita Glass in the mid-20th century, are also worthy of note. In addition to the firms in England mentioned earlier, milk glass collectors are well aware of the Vallerysthal organization in France and some glass manufacturers in Germany.
Atterbury pieces are found with patent information embossed in them, and McKee items, such as the highly collectible covered animal dishes, often bear a distinctive signature mark. Westmoreland used a “W” within a keystone as a mark when milk glass was made in the early 20th century. It may be a source of frustration to realize that not all old milk glass will be marked, but seasoned collectors who have studied original catalogs and other sources such as glass industry trade publications come to understand what was made at various times and by whom it was made.
There are some famous old patterns in milk glass, such as Hobbs, Brockunier & Co.’s Blackberry or Block lines, but the most sought after articles are novelty items, especially covered animal dishes. The Philadelphia-based Gillinder firm made some commemorative souvenirs for the 1876 Centennial celebration, and Atterbury or McKee animal dishes are quite desirable. The Indiana Tumbler and Goblet Co. at Greentown, Ind., made relatively small quantities of milk glass in the late 1890s and early 20th century, but items in its Dewey or Teardrop and Tassel patterns are hard to find, and novelties such as the Buffalo paperweight are rare. Glass manufacturing counterparts in England also made many political or royalty commemorative items during the 19th century, including articles celebrating the 1887 and 1897 Jubilees of Queen Victoria.
Imperial Glass created its “IG” mark in the 1950s so that collectors would not confuse its milk glass reproductions with old pieces. Fenton did not begin to mark its products until the 1970s, so Fenton milk glass Hobnail prior to that time will not have the distinctive oval and “Fenton” in script type within it. Kemple and Lornita products are generally unmarked.
The National Milk Glass Collectors Society was formed in the mid 1980s, and this organization is an active one, indeed. A quarterly publication, appropriately called Opaque News, always contains much information, and the group is especially helpful to newcomers and to those seeking information on reproductions of milk glass. A yearly convention, usually in September, brings collectors from across the country together. For more information about this group, visit the website: www.nmgcs.org.
Like all antiques and collectibles, milk glass is subject to market trends, but there seems to be much enthusiasm today. Of course, there is always strong interest in rare and unusual items. As mentioned earlier, Fenton milk glass Hobnail has status as a “classic” in the annals of American glass. More than 300 different milk glass Hobnail articles were produced at Fenton, and the top rarities sell for hundreds of dollars.