OHIO VALLEY — From the time it graced department store windows such as Woolworth’s or was distributed by service stations and movie theaters as prizes, Depression-era glass has found a distinctive place in American homes.
In an era of economic hardship, this glass caught American’s fancy with its affordability and varied patterns and colors.
Depression era glass is historically important; it was the first glass to be made completely by machine in the United States. With advances in manufacturing technology during the Industrial Revolution, American glass making came into its own during the Depression era. The period from 1927 through 1939 is referred to as the golden era of glass making in the U.S.
Glass companies began locating in Ohio, West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Indiana after natural gas was discovered in the early 1900s. This discovery of a more stable and inexpensive fuel for use in glass-producing furnaces helped the industry grow in the Ohio Valley. The area was also a natural source of sand and limestone — key ingredients in glass making.
Another bonus for the area was transportation; an extensive railway system was already in place to transport the glass after production.
Factories that were build before the Depression began in 1929 were in a good position to deliver an inexpensive, useful product to American households and provide jobs in the region.
The glassware produced was low quality, often flawed, with variations in color, bubbles, straw marks and slightly irregular shapes. Never intended to be perfect, the use of color and pattern-etched molds in making the glassware allowed many of the flaws less noticeable.
Even with these imperfections, the glass appealed to many Americans who had been unable to afford glassware for everyday use. During a time of economic troubles, this glass was a bright spot in many homes.
The seven major Depression-era glass-producing companies were Federal, Hazel-Atlas, Hocking, Indiana, Jeanette, Macbeth-Evans and U.S. Glass. They are credited with making 92 patterns during this time period, each in a variety of colors. Each company produced their own designs and these patterns were not usually copied by other companies. The pattern and colors in which each pattern was produced are distinctive to that company.
Table settings were stylish, produced in many patterns and colors, and affordable. Available for purchase at Woolworth’s and other local retailers, it was difficult to resist this colorful glass named for the pattern that was etched into the glass. Customers could select from patterns such as Dogwood, Manhattan, Swirl, Block Optic, Cameo Ballerina, American Sweetheart and Bubble to name just a few.
Depression glass was also given as premiums in boxes of oatmeal and laundry detergent. Service stations gave them away as rewards for customer purchases. Theaters used the glass, often candy dishes, to increase attendance at movie premiers. Sets of dishes were sometimes included with the purchase of a kitchen cabinet and refrigerator sets with an ice box.
World War II put much of glass making on hold, with workers and supplies being diverted to the war effort. American glass production never quite recovered after the war, and the rise in price of natural gas, coupled with the decline in availability, was a blow to the industry.
Aging factories were expensive to maintain and inefficient to operate at a time when overseas production had made imported glassware inexpensive to the consumer. The result was the demise of the glass-making industry in the U.S. Factories began consolidating and closing in the 1970s and most were gone by the early ‘80s, resulting in the loss of jobs in the area.
A few struggled to remain open, but by 2016, only Blenko Glass Company in Milton, W.Va., survived.
Today, Depression glass is recognized for its aesthetic value,unique beauty and design, and the glass has become collectible.
Even the most frugal households in the Depression era had a cream and sugar set or a butter dish on their table, and these pieces have been passed through the generations as people nostalgically recalled the glass in their mother’s or grandmother’s cupboard. Browsing glass shows, antique shops, flea markets and yard sales, shopping has become a treasure hunt for many as they try to recreate their grandmother’s table setting as they recall that pretty glass in grandma’s cupboard.
Reach Lorna Hart at 740-992-2155 Ext. 2551.