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Milk Glass versus Porcelain
Knowledge of milk glass goes back to the days of ancient Egypt when it was used for cups and ointment jars as a substitute for alabaster. Roman craftsmen worked with it as early as the beginning of the Christian era, obtain ing whiteness by the use of oxide of tin. Sometimes they added a white outer layer to blown colored glass and by cutting through achieved such beautiful cameo effects as in the famous Portland vase.
Then milk glass was forgotten for some fifteen hundred years. In the eighteenth century when European and English potters were searching for the secret of fine Chinese porcelain, milk-glass making was revived by the Venetian glass blowers. Opaque but with a delicate translucence that somewhat resembled china, it was produced in imitation of the more expensive material. Tableware and ornamental objects were blown in the ceramic shapes then in vogue and decorated with gilt and colored enamels in designs similar to those used on fine porcelains.
Between 1750 and the close of the century, milk glass dishes were produced in factories both on the Continent and in England. The English milk glass more successfully duplicates china. That of continental make is often of a bluish-green cast; English-made milk glass, especially that of Bristol, is of a creamy tint. Apparently toward the end of the century there was some effort to court the American market, for an occasional mug or similar object is sometimes found with the patriotic decoration of eagle and stars.
Not until the making of pressed glass in the late 1820's at Sandwich and Cambridge, was any milk glass produced in America. Deming Jarves who introduced this glass at his factory on Cape Cod referred to it as "alabaster glass" and used a formula different than that of the eighteenth-century glass blowers. Where English and European glass metal included tin, the American recipe contained a phosphate and a derivative of magnesia or manganese. With certain combinations an opalescent quality was achieved; with others, a clear white, not unlike certain types of porcelain. At first, small items such as salt dishes and cup plates, were made of this opaque glass. Pressed glass drawer pulls were also made for use on American Empire chests of drawers and desks.
As the nineteenth century progressed, candlesticks, lamp bases, tableware, and small novelty dishes with animal or fowl covers were made of milk glass. The high point, both in quantity production and variety of patterns, came in the 1850's. It was then that milk-white dinner services were turned out by pressed glass makers in various sections of the country.
Decorative effect was achieved by mold patterns rather than by the colored enamels that had characterized English and European milk glass of the preceding century. The M'Kee Brothers of Pittsburgh, designed fine examples of the prism pattern. Another popular design was the loop pattern of which the spoon holder in the center is an example. This piece is opalescent in tone. Both patterns were in vogue during the 1850's. Plates with openwork rims date from the latter part of the century.
There seems to have been no conscious attempt to imitate contemporary china. American pattern glass was a substitute tableware. The opaque or milk white was just another form of a ware that was even cheaper to manufacture than earthenware and lent itself to an endless number of pleasing patterns.