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 changes color.
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 anything else.
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 Period.)
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 definition:
"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.
If one 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 run.
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 collection!