Depression glass was made roughly from the late 1920s to about 1941, covering the Great Depression of the 1930s. Glass makers developed mass production techniques that allowed them to make attractive glass cheaply and without hand work, making it so inexpensive that companies used depression glass as premiums and giveaways in everything from oatmeal to soap to flour. Movie theatres gave away glass each week and patrons could accumulate sets over time.
Glass companies such as Federal or Jeannette developed pretty patterns and designs and colors such as amber, topaz (yellow), green, blue, aquamarine (turquoise), rose and red. Much of the glass came in a wide variety of shapes, often including dinner sets, lunch sets, serving pieces, decorative bowls and plates. This glass was not high quality; glass was not as clear as fine crystal produced by firms like Heisey or Fostoria and the seams were often raised. Many pieces had little bobbles or wrinkles.
The term "Depression Glass" refers to glass made from about 1928 to 1940, mass produced, and available in colors and often in crystal or white. Depression glass is particularly popular to collect because it is beautiful and it is fun to select a pattern, and then seek out all the pieces you need to have a full dinner set or one of every item.
The term "Etched" means a recessed design on glass. Etchings apply a design to glass where the glass is coated with wax and a design is traced through the wax. The glass is treated with acid. The acid can eat through the glass where the design was traced on the but it cannot dissolve the wax. When the wax is removed the design shows as inset into the glass surface. There are many ways to make the designs. The common point is that the design is recessed into the glass.
Some depression glass patterns have fanciful raised designs, such as Hocking's Mayfair (pictured above) or Jeannette's Cherry Blossom. These pieces look etched at first glance, but they are actually mold etched. Remember, depression glass was mass produced by machines that pressed molten glass into molds. To make the pretty designs the glass companies coated the molds with wax, and then applied a design on the mold - not on the glass - treated the molds with acid, then removed the wax. Just as with etched glass, the design was inset into the mold.
With the design being inset in the mold, the finished pieces of glass will have the designs raised above the surface of the glass. One way to distinguish "depression glass" is to check whether the design is above the surface. If it's above the surface then you have "mold etched depression glass".
Not all depression glass is mold etched. Some patterns had geometric motifs like spirals, raised diamonds, dots and ribs that were pressed designs. The molds were shaped to quickly produce these by normal pressed glass techniques. Examples are Hocking's Waterford/Waffle or Jeannette's Windsor. These patterns also came in sets for dinner or lunch and are collected as patterns.
So to summarize: Depression Glass was made during the Great Depression, came in patterns that may be mold etched or geometric, was made in dinner or lunch or other sets and came in colors such as pink, amber, blue, green or purple. It was mass produced, inexpensively made and generally lower quality.
What is Elegant Glass? Elegant glass is "good glass", made by companies such as Cambridge or Fostoria, that was finely detailed and often included signifant hand work. Often elegant glass will have ground base rims that were finished by hand. Elegant glass may be etched, cut or simply pressed. The glass is better quality, more transparent and usually better finished with less-visible seams and fewer imperfections.
Let's look at some common myths about depression glass.
Myth: All depression glass is colored. Not so. Many patterns were made in crystal as well as colors. Clear depression glass is called "crystal" although it is certainly not fine quality lead crystal! Crystal depression glass can be very attractive as it gathers the light and sparkles on your table.
Myth: All colored glass is depression glass. Unfortunately not. Hand houses such as Cambridge or Fostoria made beautifully colored elegant glass during the depression. Although this glass passes the test for date, patterns, sets and colors, it was hand made and expensive at the time. Also, people like colored glass and it has been made at almost any time period since the depression. You may find pink glass in a spiral pattern that was made in France by Arcoroc during the past 30 years. This is definitely not depression glass although people may unknowingly list it under that category.
So what do glass sellers mean by "etched depression glass"? Read the listing and look at the picture. You may find a hidden gem! Sometimes they mean "mold etched" depression glass and sometimes their glass is actually high end elegant glass with detailed acid etches. And sometimes the glass is decent quality but more modern with etched, cut or pressed designs. If you can't tell from the picture or description then ask questions.
Buying glass is a lot of fun, and it's fun too to figure out what you have. Many of us have glass that was handed down and has a family history. Wouldn't it be nice to have a full set or enough pieces that you could use them?
Your best assurance of having fun buying glass online is to educate yourself and know a little about the patterns you like. There are good reference books available on depression glass and elegant glass. Your library can probably get books by Gene Florence, which are excellent to start learning about glass. Or look online at sites that specialize in glass and compare patterns and pictures.
Buying glass online can be safe and fun!
Webmaster's NOTE: The NDGA wishes to thank the author for permission to use this article. Kathy is a dealer from Midland, Michigan. Her web site is Cat Lady's Glass.