Just What is Vaseline Glass, Anyway?
By Dave Peterson
It was 1997, and I was looking at some baseball memorabilia on eBay when I
saw the following posting: "Please see my other auctions, including vaseline
glass!" I thought to myself: "Why would someone want to collect those little
bottles that contain petroleum jelly?"
I saw a piece of yellow-green glass
in one photo and another photo of the same piece of glass that was taken in a
dark room with a UV blacklight. Wow! It was bright neon green! I had been
looking for something new to collect other than baseball memorabilia and this
seemed like just the ticket. I figured that even a novice like myself could buy
a blacklight and could verify that a piece of yellow glass was really vaseline
glass before buying it to make sure I was getting the real deal. I had just
officially started "paying for my education."
I started going to antique
stores and continued to roam around the Internet, looking for any information I
could find on this amazing glass that did tricks. In short order, I found an
Internet email group that had about 100 members of vaseline glass enthusiasts,
and my enthusiasm grew as I continued to learn about this amazing glass that
I was able to piece together the history of this glass, and
this is what I found. A Bohemian named Joseph Riedel separated uranium salts
from pitchblende in approximately 1835. He added these salts to glass as a
colorant, and the result was a bright yellow-green glass that he named Annagelb
(after his wife, Anna, and the German word for yellow, gelb). This was during
the Biedermeier Era in Europe. (The word Biedermeier is derived from two
fictional bourgeois characters, Biedermann and Bummelmeier, in the satirical
verses of Ludwid Eichrodt.) It was extravagant glass for the middle classes. The
glass during this time was about 40% lead and was referred to as flint glass.
The decorative cuttings were elaborate and excessive.
This color was just
one more color to add to the palette of the glassmaster. Riedel also made a
uranium-based color he called Annagrun, which was a bright green and is also
reactive to a UV blacklight. Other glass companies took note of this new
colorizing agent, and soon factories in Europe, England and the United States
were making this color. In the United States, the generic name became "canary"
for this yellow glass. During the time period from 1840s to 1870s, the primary
manufacturers of this color were Boston & Sandwich and the New England Glass
Company. McKee also made a few patterns in canary.
Because it is uranium
being used, it will make a Geiger counter click, but 98.5% of the radiation
emitted is beta waves, which dissipate within 18 inches. A person receives about
the same amount of radiation standing in the sunlight. There are old stories
that the glass workers died young from making uranium-based glass, but there is
no documented case of an increase in thyroid cancer when comparing glass workers
and the general public. Exposure to radiation affects the thyroid before
In 1863, William Leighton, working for Hobbs, Brockunier and
Co., invented a glass formula that substituted soda and lime for the lead. This
could be used with colorless glass as well as colored glass. It transformed the
glass industry around the world. One of the main motivations to invent a new
formula was because lead was in short supply, as the United States was in the
middle of the Civil War. This new formula made glass five times cheaper. When
uranium dioxide (depleted uranium salts) was added to the glass batch (about 2%
of the total weight), it did color the glass yellow, but it was not the same
rich color of the leaded canary glass. During the early 1880s, there was a
period of four or five years that all the glassmakers offered their glass in
clear, plus amber, blue and canary. (This has since become known as the ABC
There was also a new petroleum ointment on the market during this
time period called vaseline, and the formula for the jelly at that time was the
same color as this soda-lime formula of yellow glass, so coincidentally, people
started calling the yellow glass vaseline glass. The oldest reference I have
found in print is from N. Hudson Moore's book, Old Glass: European and American
(c. 1924). On page 349, she writes, "All the pieces shown in figure 207 are in
this royal purple and canary yellow, which, by the way, no real collector would
ever call vaseline, a dealer's term."
It is obvious from her statement that
the terminology was in use (at least by dealers) by 1924. Vaseline glass has now
become a generic term that is used in the United States, which goes to show that
the English language is always changing. What was once considered uncommon
terminology has now become the norm. The only worldwide collectors club for this
glass, The Vaseline Glass Collectors, Inc., uses the following
"Vaseline glass is a transparent, yellow-green glass that will
fluoresce a bright green color when exposed to any ultraviolet light source, due
to the addition of a 1%-2% amount of uranium dioxide in the original glass
formula. The transparent quality may be obscured by treatments such as
opalescent, carnival, iridizing, stretch, satinizing, sand or acid etching,
casing, inclusion and cutting treatments. Hand painted and applied decorations
are also acceptable. These treatments do not change the original transparent
quality of the glass. The name vaseline glass is due to the similarity of the
color to that of petroleum jelly as it appeared in 1901."
Since 1840, the
glass has been made off and on (depending on popularity and perceived
marketability) by glassmakers, except for the period from approximately
1943-1958. During that time, it was the Cold War, and the U.S. Government banned
uranium salts from any commercial use. In November 1958, the government reversed
that ban, and in 1959 companies such as Imperial, Fenton, Fostoria, and others
went back to making vaseline glass. Today, the companies that batch their own
uranium-based glass are Fenton, Mosser, Summit and Boyd. Pairpoint also makes
some on a limited basis. Other independent glassmakers will also make vaseline
glass, but they primarily use cullet (glass waste) from factories such as
Fenton. Of these independent shops, Gibson is probably the largest.
looks on eBay for vaseline glass, they will find anything that glows labeled
with that name. I have seen auctions for green vaseline, custard vaseline, teal
vaseline and even glass that glows a peach/orange color being labeled in this
fashion. According to the most widely used definition, vaseline glass has to
first be yellow-green and THEN has to glow a bright neon green under a
blacklight. If it does not pass the first condition, then the second condition
does not apply. Another way to look at it: all Camaros are cars, but not all
cars are Camaros.
A few sellers started using the term green vaseline to
sell their green Depression glass (as it got more people to look at their
auctions by word searching), and others started to pick up on it. Full time
dealers are just as apt to show it in their shop as vaseline glass. I cannot
count the number of shops I have gone into that have a blacklight shining on
green Depression glass. There are a lot of different glass types that will glow
neon green under a blacklight: green Depression, some custard glass, Burmese
glass, some teal glass and Bristol (green opaque glass).
To add to the
confusion, every company uses their own marketing names and will change them if
they think it will improve sales. Some names that have been used by various
companies include: topaz, mustard, canaria, jasmine opalescent, yellow
opalescent, Florentine and citron. In England, vaseline glass is a sort of
wispy, opalescent glass. Their "Primrose Pearline" (made first by Davidson, and
then by Sowerby; Greener; Burtles, Tate; and Molineaux & Webb) is what we
call vaseline opalescent. In Australia, anything with an opalescent edge is
called vaseline glass, including blue opalescent. In Germany, any glass that
glows is called uranglas (uranium glass), and they do not differentiate between
yellow, green or teal.
Vaseline glass collectors collect this glass because
of its personal appeal and its novelty, and they can call their own possessions
anything they so desire.
Now that the history has been discussed, let's take
a look at today's marketplace. When true antiques are seen in antique malls or
live auctions, it is one or two pieces here and there. There ARE, however, a lot
of modern pieces being made by Mosser, Summit and Boyd, with more high-end glass
coming from Fenton. At any given time, there are at least 500 pieces of glass
labeled as vaseline on eBay. Fine pieces are a bit more scarce to locate, and
damage-free antique pieces are the most difficult to locate.
More than 50
companies made pressed vaseline glass in the United States during the Early
American Pattern Glass (EAPG) era. Interest in vaseline glass has also been in
cycles. Starting with the 1840s, there were high points in the early 1880s,
1900-1905, 1924-1927, 1941-1943, 1959-1962 and then post 1972. Each time period
had companies that tried to revive the color, and other companies would also
market it at the same time, due to interest. Each factory had their subtle
differences in formula and coloration, inclusive to that time period. For
instance, a piece of Fostoria vaseline glass made during the 1924-1927 period
looks nothing like the yellow opalescent Heirloom pattern that they marketed in
1959-1962. The absolute best way to learn about this special glass is the same
as it is with any other collectible: read, read, and then, read some more! Only
by studying, handling the glass, and getting a feel for who made what and when,
does one begin to appreciate the subtleties of the various companies and time
periods when the glass was made.
Another excellent way to get involved in
this hobby is to join the only club for this glass, Vaseline Glass Collectors,
Inc. At the club's convention (held annually; this year in Pittsburgh, Oct.
7-8), specialties such as Murano, Bohemian, English blown glass, Moser or Tiffin
are apt to turn up.
The new collector invariably buys anything that glows and
within a short time realizes that he/she has accumulated a lot of glass, but
there is no theme or direction to their collection. This is what one collector
once told me was "paying for your education."
A collector (new or advanced)
needs to also decide what direction they want to take their collection. It may
be a particular pattern or company. One might become enamored with toothpick
holders, Victorian novelties or salt shakers. Another direction is figurines,
such as dogs, cats or even frogs. I know of one collector who has over 200
toothpick holders, all in vaseline glass. Another one collects candlesticks. Yet
another collects mugs made from vaseline glass.
When shopping for vaseline
glass, notice the color differences. New vaseline glass is generally a very
bright, almost chartreuse, color. Old EAPG is a very pale yellow. Primrose
Pearline is a deep yellow with a buttery rich opalescent rim on it. Look for
honest wear on the bottom. If your interest is in pressed glass, look for sharp
detail in the mold work. Quality glass will eventually speak to you, if you
handle enough of it. True canary (pressed) flint glass from Boston and Sandwich
almost feels soft and warm to the touch, as compared to a piece of daisy and
button pattern from the EAPG era.
Before buying (especially on eBay),
comparison shop with other dealers. If it is a new piece (1980s to present),
there will be other dealers carrying the same item. Read the ads carefully.
Sometimes it is not what they say, but what they forget to say that matters. The
word vintage has come to mean anything made before yesterday. Some dealers will
tell you it was made by an active glass factory and will price it accordingly.
Others will refer to it as "damage-free, vintage and marked 'Westmoreland'." All
of that is true. However, the dealer forgets to mention that it is a
reproduction of a Westmoreland piece that was never made originally in vaseline.
As with any collectable, studying your topic pays off in the long
Collecting vaseline glass can be a rewarding hobby and the interest in
collecting this "glowing glass" grows yearly. It can be rewarding as a hobby
whether you collect old or new glass. Hopefully, this article has given some
insight or intrigued the reader enough to start his or her own
About the author: David A. Peterson is a founding
board member of Vaseline Glass Collectors, Inc. He is also the editor of
"Glowing Report", the official publication of VGCI. He is the webmaster for www.vaselineglass.org
and the author of two books: Vaseline Glass: Canary To
Contemporary, copyright 2002 by Antique Publications, Marietta, OH, and The Lost
Chapters, the addendum to Canary to Contemporary, copyright 2004, self
published. The author can be reached at email@example.com.
photos by the author from his personal collection.
Buddha, Gillinder & Sons,
5 1/2", $350-$400. Cambridge Glass
also made two sizes of a Buddha figurine, 4 1/2" and 6 1/2" with a top knot
and earrings, absent on the Gillinder version. Summit Glass used the larger
Cambridge mold to make reproductions.
Marmalade or finger bowl, made by Pairpoint Glass Company. Etched grapes and
grape leaves designs, $150-$200.
Petal and Bullseye master salt, Boston and Sandwich Glass Company, made
between 1845-1855. Also known as "uranium glass," vaseline glows under black
Cut glass perfume bottle, probably Bohemia or Germany, 19th c. About the size
of a silver dollar with its original clear satin stopper and cork wrap,
Russian dessert coupe with
underplate, marked with Russian impressed marks
on the foot, $300-$400 per set.
Beer stein, .5 liter mark etched near top, 1920s-1930s, $250-$300. Believed
to be German or Czechoslovakian, the gold decoration is original, but
Fish cream pitcher, made by Central Glass Co., 1886. Extremely rare piece
made in clear, vaseline, amber and blue. 6 1/2" long, $450-$550.
Salt spoon: the vaseline glass shaft has a spiral wrap of red and blue glass
capped with a milk glass knob. English, 1900s, $100-$150.
Two-color puff box, Val St. Lambert; part of an extensive dresser set, the
base glass is vaseline with a ruby outer layer cut to expose the yellow layer,
Horn whimsey (or "frigger")
probably made at Stevens and Williams in
Stourbridge, England, 19th c. Wrythen decoration and slightly opalescent where
the horn was reheated; $400-$500.
"Peacock" posey vase with holder attributed to Thomas Webb & Sons,
England. Vaseline glass cased over a pink gather of glass, $175-$200.