As depressing as depression glass might seem, the story behind it is actually one of charity, kindness, and hope. In the Great Depression, when unemployment in the United States was as high as 25% at one point, companies like the Fenton Art Glass Company focused on producing glass that was more utilitarian and less decorative, because they knew that most people simply could not afford to buy fancy glass. In this way, they helped people who were suffering during the Great Depression to have their own glassware.
The Fenton Art Glass Company is an art glass company that was founded by Frank L. and John W. Fenton in 1905. It got its start with a type of art glass called carnival glass, one of just many types of glass that it eventually produced. What is great about the Fenton Art Glass Company is that all its glass products are handmade and expertly designed, and have been for over 100 years. Currently, third- and fourth- generation Fenton family members run the company and employ skilled glassworkers and decorators to make beautiful art glass pieces.
While the Fenton Art Glass Company got its big start in carnival glass, they found that the demand for carnival glass began to decline in the 1920s. It was at this point that they began to sell this type of glass to be used as prizes in carnivals and in promotional giveaways (which, incidentally, is where it got the name). With the Crash of 1929 and a subdued interest in their carnival glass, it only made sense for the Fenton Art Glass Company to change their business model to producing glass items that people could afford and use.
The Fenton Glass Company was not the only company to do this by any means. In fact, there were many others: Federal Glass, MacBeth-Evans, and Hocking Glass, to name a few. What these companies had in common was that they all mass-produced glassware that everyday people could use for everyday situations. Unlike earlier and later types of art glass that are more intended to brighten up a room or add a touch of class, these were made specifically for the purposes of being used. In this way, depression glass has a unique attribute not shared by most other types of glass art.
Of course, this was not without its drawbacks, at least in the perspective of modern depression glass collectors. Unlike the gorgeous pieces of carnival or Burmese glass, for example, which were carefully protected and displayed, depression glass items were actively used from day to day. Not only were they damaged over time from regular use, but they were also of a lesser quality than other types of glass art to begin with, because they were mass-produced. This meant they often came with air bubbles, flaws in the glass, or other inconsistencies. Essentially, they were more cheaply made and then damaged over time through use, so a lot of depression glass is unfortunately of deteriorated quality.
Depression glass came in a variety of colors; the most popular colors collected today are pink, cobalt blue, and green, although these tend to be more rare than colors like clear, pale blue, etc. Depression glass came in colors like amber, iridescent, and opaque white as well. As for depression glass patterns, Cameo, Mayfair, American Sweetheart, Princess, and Royal Lace are all popular among collectors today. Not surprisingly, both the colors and the patterns of depression glass alluded to happier times. It is only natural for people plagued by poverty and devastating unemployment to seek solace in owning something a little bright and cheerful. This is one reason why depression glass is so prized by collectors today: there is a rich and inspiring history behind the depression glass that is unparalleled in other types of art glass.
Even when the glass was brand new, it was priced to be affordable for people. A thrifty mother shopping during the Great Depression might find a complete set of glassware at the dime store, and sometimes for as low as a nickel. Obviously, the quality of these glass items would be lesser than she could find elsewhere, but it was still functional glassware, and this made a big difference to people who would not be able to afford better glass items, or who wanted to use the money they saved from cheaper glass for something else.
Another method of distributing depression glass was through the issuance of premiums. Basically, a seller or manufacturer of another product could offer depression glass for free as an incentive. This was similar to the way that the Fenton Art Glass Company offered their carnival glass items to be used as prizes at carnivals. Shoppers during the Great Depression could find complimentary depression glassware in products like Quaker Oatmeal boxes, or even just for walking into a business to take a look around.
Today, there is a National Depression Glass Association whose chief purpose is to commemorate and preserve American glassware produced during, slightly before, and slightly after the Great Depression. It also seeks to spread awareness and information of depression glass, even to have a museum dedicated to depression glass. They were founded in 1974 and have had yearly conventions ever since.
Depression glass is unique as an item of interest for collectors because it is a special type of art glass. The fact that it was used by so many people and for daily meals and such makes it of a different historical significance than other types of art glass, because it was used by so many people, even people without a lot of money. As for collecting, this poses a bit of a problem, because it is much harder to find depression glass in mint condition than other types of art glass.
Nevertheless, it is a rewarding and fulfilling hobby for many, and while it might be difficult to find depression glass in perfect condition, that merely poses a greater challenge for the eager collector.