The golden tones and milky finish of Vaseline glass had a great vogue around the turn of the century and makes an attractive and affordable subject for modern collectors.
If you hold a jar of petroleum jelly up to the light, it glows a deep opalescent gold. This same milky iridescence can also be seen in a particular type of glass when it, too, is held up against the light. Though purists insist on calling it yellow opalescent glass, most collectors honour the resemblance by referring to it as Vaseline glass.
Glass is coloured by adding metal oxides to the mix. The yellow of Vaseline glass comes from uranium, first used in glass-making in the second half of the 19th century. The milky effect was obtained by adding a substance called cryolite and by careful reheating.
Some vaseline glass was attractively graduated from an almost clear base to a deep-coloured top or rim, with the milky opalescence clearly visible. Other pieces were an overall primrose colour with little or no shading, and the opalescence was seen only against a light. Vaseline glass was extremely popular with the late Victorians and the Edwardians. The centre of production was the Midlands, particularly the area around Stourbridge, and the best makers included Stevens & Williams and Richardson's.
The firm of Thomas Webb, which flourished between 1890 and 1910, produced some of the finest pieces, showing great skill in the making, a high degree of opalescence and an extra depth of colour. Patterns cut in the glass were emphasized by the opalescence. Striped effects helped set off the extended stems and fluted trumpet bowls of the tall flower glasses that caught the public's fancy.
Another popular product was a set of graduated rustic vases to decorate the centre of a table during and between meals. The smallest, just l5cm/6in tall, resembled a tree stump, with knobby protrusions and root-like feet. The next size had a trunk dividing into two or three branches, and they increased in size to a centrepiece, or epergne, about 35cm/14in tall, with six or more branches. The pieces were linked by narrow silk ribbons attached to the projections on the 'trunk' of the vase. Most of the top manufacturers made variations on this theme.
Vases and epergnes were were not the whole story. Posy holders, wall pockets, small baskets, sweetmeat dishes, beakers and glasses were all free-blown or blow-moulded in Vaseline glass, and round or faceted beads of it, separated by pieces of crystal or tiny beads of black glass, made up necklaces.
The appeal of Vaseline glass lies not only in its opalescence and attractive shades of yellow and gold, but also in its attractive moulding and delicate decoration.
Vaseline glass is available at antiques fairs and markets, though specialists in Victorian glass still seem to stock mostly Cranberry glass. It also turns up at auctions and country house sales. If you're planning a collection, it will pay you to visit a dealer and handle a few pieces, asking questions if need be. Once you know what you're looking for, you might find the odd piece at a car boot sale.
Vaseline glass is sometimes confused with other types, particularly an oily green glass with yellow undertones that's sometimes sold as Vaseline glass. The greeny colour should give it away, but if you're in doubt, hold it up to the light. This type always lacks the tell-tale opalescence of true Vaseline glass.
THE PERILS OF PEARLINE
Pearline glass was introduced by George Davidson & Co of Gateshead in 1899 in blue and primrose shades. Primrose Pearline looks a bit like vaseline glass, but they can be told apart when held side by side. Pearline was press-moulded, while Vaseline glass was almost always blown. Primrose Pearline is a vivid, acid yellow, never as subtly coloured as Vaseline glass, with the opalescence showing a thick white at the rim.
A great deal of Vaseline glass, particularly the rustic type, was sold as a set or group to he displayed together. Complete sets are unusual and fetch premium prices, but you can put together a good-looking display from individual pieces at a much lower cost.
If you're thinking of making a purchase, look for a good yellow colour and glowing opalescence, and examine the piece for damage. Be particularly careful with the rustic variety; missing pieces of trunk or the leaf or root-like feet can often be overlooked.
The best way to check is to run your fingers over the glass with your eyes shut, so you can feel the sharpness of any breakage. Cracks can be detected by holding the piece up to the light and turning it slowly in all directions.