by John Stephen Beers

"Little Red Hen" covered dish, widely know as Hen on Chick Base, late 19th century. Attributed to Flaccus

My fascination with milk glass began at the impressionable age of eight, when my grandmother, Molly Tucker Mitchell, presented me with a milk glass battleship as my first antique. I’ll never forget the creamy texture and luminescent glow in this pressed glass covered dish, almost like a milky white candy. For years I thought this ship was a candy dish, only to learn it originally held mustard, not candy! The precise form and detail of smokestacks, portholes and “cannons raised” gave this third grader a hands-on connection with history. My curiosity was stimulated to know more about milk glass, its grand designs, and to learn about my ship and other brave bulwarks of the sea.
Since then, as a collector, I have contemplated the function and form of milk glass and the lessons in history and art it tells. The earliest known opaque white milk glass was made in Egypt around 1500 BC. The Chinese made milk glass snuff bottles as early as 140 BC, and then, in Persia, milk glass jars for spices and medicines date to the 8th century AD. By the 1600s, milk glass beads were made for trade in the colonies and formulas for milk-white glass were published in Europe. Eventually, in the mid-1800s, popularity in opaque glass propelled development of large glasshouses in the Midwest (several near Pittsburgh), in France (at Portieux and Vallerysthal) and in England (including George Davidson and Sowerby). Milk glass dinnerware, kitchenware and decorative objects reached their heyday in production at the turn of the last century and were mass-produced to meet popular demand. Many of the important American glasshouses of the period produced fine decorative items in milk glass including Atterbury and Company, Dithridge & Company, Eagle Glass and Manufacturing Company and Westmoreland Specialty Company.
On October 4, 1898, a design patent was granted to George A. Flaccus, of the E.C. Flaccus Company, Wheeling, West Virginia, (established 1877) for a “Shipping Vessel”. On the bow of the glass battleships manufactured under this patent are the embossed names Oregon, Wheeling or Olympia, all ships of the US Navy fleet. As purveyors of catsup, mustard, mincemeat, vinegar and preserves, Flaccus designed a large number of their own containers, but he also often commissioned this work to other glasshouses. Flaccus and other glassmakers of this period created figural covered dishes based on famous and heroic figures

"Uncle Sam on the Merrimac" covered dish, c. 1898. Attributed to Flaccus. Civil War memorabilia
(e.g., Uncle Sam on the Merrimac covered dish, The American Hen covered dish, Queen Victoria with Her Royal Emblem covered apothecary jar), serial sets of nursery rhymes and stories (e.g., Little Bo Peep covered dish, Little Red Hen covered dish) and other popular themes of the day.
One prevalent American icon of the early 1900s was the battleship Maine. The famous US warship docked in Havana harbor was on “official business” in a time of high political tension with Cuba and Spain. According to the newspaper headline from The Boston Herald, February 16, 1898, the Maine was “mysteriously” blown up in an appalling explosion killing “two officers and 251 men”. This act, said to have been the precipitous event which started the Spanish-American War, was immortalized in milk glass in at least five distinctively different molds from different makers. One model vents the battle cry of the day, exemplifying American sentiments, “Remember the Maine”. Three others have Maine on the bow and at least one of the models is in blank, but to this day is still known by reputation.
An average price today for an antique ship can range from under a hundred to several hundred dollars, depending on the ship and its condition. Most covered dishes have lost their original glued on labels, but recently, a rare battleship covered dish, the Texas, sold at auction (in mint condition with labels intact) for a final bid of nearly eight hundred dollars.

"Standing Rooster" covered dish, c. 1880, signed Portieux

Since most antique milk glass items have no makers’ marks and have lost their labels, it is helpful to know about the composition, the look and feel of the glass and the mold when evaluating a piece. Milk glass is composed of 50% or more sand (silica), which is mixed and melted with alkaline solvents such as potash and then several other mineral and chemical compounds. Upon heating and melting the “batch” to the ideal temperature and consistency, the mixture forms a “frit”. It is then poured into a metal mold which is sealed and left to cool. In older pieces of the Vallerysthal factory in France, arsenic and bone ash were among the ingredients added to the manufacture to create stunning off-white pieces.
Often the older molded pieces have very sharply defined features due to the then-new molds. These rare treasures glow with a shimmering opalescence from ingredients that in some cases have been depleted or no longer available for use in manufacture. Due to a wonderful balance between the careful craftsmanship and artistry of their makers, these fragile, yet durable, items span time with their beauty.
Over the years, in my search for the white ships, I have developed new related interests in collecting, particularly in French milk glass covered figural dishes. The companies of Portieux and Vallerysthal, each originally begun in the 1700s, merged their respective factories in 1872. As the French do so well, these factories had artists and artisans who created “art” out of the ordinary subject matter of everyday life. On the Vallerysthal Dog on Steamer Rug covered dish, c.1908, the dog looks almost patriarchal on his stylish, floral based perch, his nose and ears looking up as if scrutinizing the terrain. This dog dish was also made in several colors at the same factory and has not been reproduced. An early Portieux Standing Rooster covered dish captures a rapturous air of elegance and propriety as if ready to give his morning wake up call, his beautifully detailed feathers shimmering in the light of a new day. This mold subsequently was sold to Westmoreland and was widely reproduced. Both of these subject dishes are well marked in relief on their bases with their factory names.

"Cruiser Battlehsip Oregon" covered dish, c. 1900, Flaccus, (the author's first antique!). Spanish American War memorabilia

While these two dishes are priced to sell in the hundreds, at a recent on-line auction, a Reclining Camel caramel colored milk glass covered dish by Vallerysthal, was reportedly sold for several thousand dollars. Prices are on the rise for the rare and wonderful items, but newly published reference books with prices (The Milk Glass Book by Chirenza/Slater and Collector’s Encyclopedia of Milk Glass by Newbound) are helping identify values in a fairly new “antiques” market focusing on items from the turn of the last century.
Since the late 1800s, on certain items, the same molds have been used to produce clear and colored glass (e.g., amber, green, frosted) generally known as Early American Pressed Glass. Additionally, colored milk glass items (e.g., blue, custard and various slag glass) were made which paralleled their white milk glass counterparts. These items are popular as specialty areas of collecting but are also cross-collected by milk glass enthusiasts.
As with other types of antiques collecting, when acquiring milk glass, securing knowledge of bona fide age, make, provenance and excellence in condition relate directly to the considerations of value. Historical theme dishes in milk glass are sometimes a bit easier to identify as antique than are other figural dishes, but buyer beware that reproductions in certain dishes abound. Replications of antique glass items can appear genuine to the novice collector because, quite often reproduced items are very convincing; they may be made from original molds to look realistic, but sometimes are subsequently sold as old, when they are in fact forgeries. The real market value of these newer items, although still pretty to look at, can be under twenty dollars each. Those slightly older items which were produced in the 1930s to 1950s, known as “Depression Glass”, are considered semi-antique and bring a slightly higher price.

"Deer on Fallen Tree" covered dish, c. 1890, signed The E.C. Flaccus Co., Wheeling, WV

My best advice to collectors who wish to avoid mishap is to stick to and learn the specialties of your interests, be it milk glass bottles, candlesticks, inkwells or figural covered dishes. Seek and study collections at fine antiques shops and museums, learn from books, “surf” the internet, observe auctions, obtain memberships in societies hosting experts (National Milk Glass Collectors Society), talk to other collectors and attempt to deal with reputable dealers who guarantee authenticity of their items. There is a sense of satisfaction and rewarding tranquility that seems to be inherent in collecting and possessing the finer things of the past, the wonderful things that spark our imaginations and encourage us to gain experience through knowledge as we set about acquiring the items we enjoy!

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About the author:
John Stephen Beers is a co-owner of Fleur-de-Lis Antiques, 326 Peruvian Ave, Palm Beach. His mother, Dorothea Mitchell Beers, originally established the shop in 1954. You are invited to visit their elegant shop specializing in French Milk Glass and Opaline, Antique Porcelains and Pottery including Chinese Export, Meissen, Sevres, French Faience, Majolica and Dutch Delft.

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