Milk glass, also known as "opal glass," has been around since the 16th century, but the term "milk glass" was coined in the 20th century to describe the opaque plates, goblets, serving items, and decorative glassware objects that became popular in the late 1880s. Unlike typical glass, milk glass scatters light by the Tyndall effect, making some opal glass appear bluish from the side and reddish-orangeish in the pass-through light.
To make this type of glass, opacifiers like bone ash, or tin dioxide and arsenic and antimony compounds are added to the glass-melt mix. White glass not produced in this manner is not considered real milk glass. True to its name, "milk glass" is generally milky white, but it may also be blue, pink, yellow, brown, or black. Milk or opal glass tends to be ornate and whimsical in decoration, while other types of white glassware are often utilitarian.
France was the first place milk glass came into vogue, and antique 19th-century French opal glass is highly collectible today. By the early 1900s, opal glass was a symbol of the style and taste of American households enjoying the fruits of the Gilded Age. These privileged individuals filled their homes with white milk glass produced by 19th-century U.S. glass manufacturers, including New England Glass Company, Bryce Brothers, Gillinder & Sons, and Atterbury & Company.
Antique milk glass plates are one of the most popular collectibles from this era. One particularly rare plate features the face of George Washington and has a border of thirteen stars. Other antique milk glass plates sport relief portraits of Christopher Columbus at their centers, and in 1908, plates were produced to help spur the presidential campaigns of William Jennings Bryan and William Howard Taft.
Regardless of the imagery at its heart, whether it was relief flowers or painted birds, the borders of antique milk glass plates were often pressed or molded to resemble latticework or pinwheels. Some plate edges are scalloped, others were beaded like frosting on the rim of a wedding cake, and a few were even smooth and round, with undecorated centers to go with these uncharacteristically understated edges.
Antique platters are a step up from milk glass plates—unlike dinnerware, which demands a certain minimum level of functionality, platters can go all-out when it came to decorative effects. The relief on a rare, antique Lincoln platter from the late 1800s is so great that it must have been used exclusively as a commemorative object. At the other end of the utility spectrum are antique waffle platters, whose white, gridded surfaces resembled those of the popular breakfast item they were designed to carry. Somewhere in between is the antique retriever platter, which depicts a three-dimensional dog head breaking through cattails at the bottom of the platter.
For objects such as white serving dishes, compotes, and bowls, milk glass was often pressed so that its surface had a diamond-cut pattern—collectors refer to these as Sawtooth pieces. Manufacturers known for Sawtooth patterns include Imperial, McKee, and L.E. Smith.
One of the largest makers of antique milk glass was Atterbury, which made so much of the stuff that the company’s Pittsburgh factory was often referred to as the White House. Starting in the 1870s, Atterbury began making figural opal glass bottles in the shapes of ducks. Realizing it was onto something, the company began to produce covered dishes in the shapes of animals in both translucent and milk glass, with glued-in eyes of a different color of glass. For some of these dishes, like the popular Atterbury duck patented in 1887, the top and the bottom dish make a whole figure. Others, like the fox covered dish, have the animal resting on the cover, which fits into a standard glass base, often with lacy edges.
At first, Atterbury made these covered dishes, which could be used for everything from candy dishes to tureens, in the shapes of familiar American animals like cats, rabbits, ducks, fish, chickens, owls, bulls, boars, and swans. But, according to researchers, one Atterbury designer was sent to a zoo for new inspiration, which is how the company came up with a lion covered dish patented in 1889. A particularly amusing antique Atterbury opal glass piece is a novelty mustard jar in the shape of a cow with the end of the mustard spoon forming its tongue.
Sometimes people were honored by having a bust of themselves cap a casserole dish, although the ones made for Thomas Dewey failed to elect him president. Another popular antique Atterbury covered dish design in white milk glass features a lid with a human hand holding a dove. Atterbury also made mustard jars, jelly jars, barware, tableware, and salt and pepper shakers in opal or milk glass.
Jugs and pitchers were another favorite form for antique and vintage milk glass. Geometric and basket-weave reliefs graced the outsides of these handsome objects, and Hobnail patterns were very popular on everything from vintage flower vases to syrup jars.
During the Depression and into the 1940s and ’50s, milk glass lost some of its luster as a symbol of domestic status. Respected glass companies such as Akro Agate, Fenton, Westmoreland, Northwood, and Fostoria made milk glass, but the style seemed a throwback to an earlier, fustier age.
Akro Agate made powder jars, whose lids were in the shapes of Colonial-era women wearing billowy dresses. Fostoria made a pink version of milk glass, while Westmoreland made things like covered dishes, similar to Atterbury's animals, whose tops and bottoms formed a kneeling camel. Westmoreland in particular was known for its Flared Sawtooth and Old Quilt milk glass patterns. It was all very charming but seemed out of step with the evolving styles of the day.
Despite this, some companies actually made a name for themselves with milk glass. In particular, Fenton’s vintage line of Hobnail milk glass—from fan-shaped vases to toothpick holders to candlesticks—became the company’s flagship pattern in the 1950s. Indeed, the company’s prodigious output and success with Hobnail milk glass contributed to a resurgence of interest in this retro form during the early 1960s.
While Anchor Hocking's Fire-King and Corning's Pyrex brands of vintage heat-resistant opaque glass are sometimes confused with milk glass, those lines use a different type of white glass. Starting in 1936, Hazel Atlas made a limited line of Newport Platonite White, which was a semi-opaque white glass similar to milk glass.