The Fenton Art Glass Company is an artistic glass company that was founded in 1905. It got its start in an art glass called carnival glass, and was later known for the production of an art glass called milk glass. One reason Fenton is still so widely-known and respected is because of the fact that it makes every glass item by hand, ensuring that all the glassware it produces is of a high quality. There are currently third- and fourth- generation Fenton family members running the company, and they employ skilled glassworkers and decorators.
Milk glass is named for the milky white hue of its glass surface. It has an opacity similar to what you might get if you poured milk in a glass of water; it is very difficult or impossible to see through. The glass itself is fairly sturdy and durable. Perhaps most interesting of all, unlike many of the other types of art glass produced, this one far preceded the late 19th century and early 20th century types of art glass that were introduced. Milk glass was produced as early as the 16th century in Venice. Early milk glass colors included black, blue, pink, yellow, brown, and white. The modern milk glass, which is opaque and milky white, is often described as opalescent glass because of these characteristics.
Initially, milk glass was introduced to simulate porcelain, especially the kind coming out of China. Milk glass was rarely made in Europe until the 19th century. By the 19th century, the popularity of milk glass picked up as an alternative to porcelain tableware. Early glass firms also used milk glass in their line of glass-pressed dishes. Because of the versatility of milk glass, they managed to produce milk glass items as varied as clocks, inkwells, tableware, and jars.
There is an even greater variety of products made out of milk glass, including dinnerware, lamps, vases, and even costume jewelry. In the latter 19th century, milk glass items were praised for their intricate designs and extreme beauty. They began to lose their elegance around this time in favor of some more interesting art glass designs and types, and when milk glass products were produced in the Great Depression as depression glass, they were far more utilitarian in nature. Nevertheless, depression glass products are still highly valued as collectors' items.
Early on, milk glassworkers used arsenic in the glass mixture, creating a dull, more opalescent hue, while later versions of milk glass are a much deeper and more pure white hue. By the turn of the century, it had reached the peak of its elegant designs, probably because newer and more interesting variations of art glass were being actively discovered and explored. There were very elaborate items, embossed with painted designs or encrusted with gems. In stark contrast to this was the depression glass produced during the Great Depression, which was less about elegance and more about utility. Fortunately, milk glass became more interesting following the Great Depression, especially from companies like Westmoreland and the Fenton Art Glass Company.
In fact, as far as collectors are concerned, some of the most highly prized milk glass items come from the Fenton Art Glass Company and Westmoreland, such as their crested bowls and table sets, respectively. For collectors, Westmoreland was probably the most synonymous with milk glass products in the United States, at least in the minds of modern-day milk glass collectors. Unfortunately, their business peaked in the 1950s and '60s, leaving the Fenton Art Glass Company as one of the leading producers of milk glass products in the world.
The Fenton Art Glass Company's line of milk glass and hobnail glass products in the 1950s and '60s helped them through some tough times. They have come to be very well known for their milk glassware. In fact, it is likely that their continued survival was a result of the huge success that their milk glass products enjoyed.
Milk glass collection and trading is still a thriving and popular pastime today. The National Milk Glass Collectors Society is one prime example of a group dedicated to milk glass education, preservation, and collection. They deal with both old and new milk glass, as well as domestic and foreign. The main way to tell whether a milk glass item is old is in its coloring and the fact that its edges are almost transparent. Some pieces can be traced back to the 1500s, but modern collectors tend to collect milk glass from the 1700s and later.
The reason milk glass is so widely collected might have to do with the fact that it is one of the most versatile types of art glass around. Imagine a milk glass collection that contains dishes and saucers, but also contains glass lanterns, boxes, match and toothpick holders, salt and pepper shakers, or hand-crafted animal, human, or landmark sculptures like bunnies. It continues to be an interesting and entertaining type of collector's item because of the sheer variety, both in terms of the types of milk glass items and in terms of the rich, long history of milk glass production.
Milk glass's versatility also carries over to what kinds of designs can be done with it. Unlike some kinds of art glass, milk glass can be further decorated by using hobnail to emulate a lace kind of texture, or paint to give it more artistic depth. This means that milk glass can practically be treated like a blank canvas to be molded and then enhanced with all sorts of interesting patterns and textures. Anyone familiar with the Fenton Art Glass Company's history will recall that hobnail milk glass items revitalized their business, and it stands to reason that the glassworkers and artists could really shine thanks to the flexibility afforded them by milk glass.
Milk glass is a popular and widely collected type of art glass by people all over the world even today, and the Fenton Art Glass Company continues to be a foremost producer of beautiful pieces of milk glass.