Even though the large category of glassware is called Depression glass it did not start in the 1930’s. In fact, according to glass collector experts Depression glass can be broken down into three major time periods. The first 1925-1929, the second 1930-1934, and the last 1935-1939. The period of 1930-1934 is recognized by many experts as the Golden Age of Depression Glass.
Noted expert Joyce E. Krupey in a speech to the National Depression Glass Association meeting in Council Bluffs, Iowa in 2004, noted that Depression Glass "was a logical evolution in the production of glass - I like to call it the industrial revolution comes to the glass industry."
Depression glass was mass produced and was manufactured not to be used only on special occasions, but as everyday dishes. It was inexpensive and came in many styles and different items. The major colours were pink, green, amber, yellow, cobalt blue, yellow, milk white, and crystal.
The major manufactures of Depression glass were located in the United States. There were nineteen different companies manufacturing various types of the glassware which included, dishes, glasses, cups, saucers, candle sticks, candy dishes, cake plates, kitchen canisters, refrigerator items, and many other items.
Even though nineteen companies were manufacturing Depression glass only twelve were major manufactures of the product. The majority of the companies were located in the United States Mid West where labour and the raw material to manufacture glass products was plentiful and cheap.
The seven major companies were, Federal Glass Company, Hocking Glass Company, U.S. Glass Company, Jeanette Glass Company, MacBeth-Evan Glass Company, Hazel-Atlas Glass Company, and the Indiana Glass Company.
Depression glass although mass produced was designed and marketed in many beautiful art deco designs of the period. Many of the pieces were etched to make the piece more appealing even though it was made to be used each day.
Each company marketed dishes along patterns to make the item appealing and to encourage the consumer to purchase their companies dishes or glasses. Just like the sale of fine china, Depression glass companies issued various types of styles and designs. Consumers were encouraged to purchase a specific pattern sold by the company and then to work on completing the set.
In 1929 MacBeth-Evans manufactured one of their important sets entitled "The Thistle" pattern. The "Thistle" pattern was produced in four different colours and a set was complete at seven pieces. The pieces were a luncheon plate, large bowl, grill plate, small bowl, cup, saucer and cake plate. The "Thistle" as the name implies was a floral design. The set was only sold in stores for two years. From 1920-1939 many Depression glass patterned sets were marketed and sold. Some were on the market for many years and others for a very short time.
In the first period (1925-1929) the various companies issued twenty-three different patterns. In the first period pattern sets were usually sold for five years. Many of the patterns were manufactured in three or four different colours and in some cases popular patterns were expanded into six, seven or eight different colours.
The Jeanette Glass Company in the 1920’s became a leader in the new area of Depression glass. In 1924 the company had been described as "One of the most completely automatic factories in the United States." In 1928 Jeanette introduced the "Iris" an Art Nouveau pattern in three colours. The colours were crystal, pink and green. It continued to be produced for over five years and became one of the most popular of the period. The "Iris" pattern is a very large one with over forty pieces in a complete set with many styles of bowls, stemware, and decorative pieces for the home.
Blue cobalt would become a very popular colour throughout the entire period that the glassware was manufactured by the various companies. In 1928 U.S. Glass introduced a cobalt blue pattern called "Aunt Polly". It is a twenty-one luncheon set with an Art Deco design. The "Aunt Polly" pattern incorporated not only the blue cobalt colour, but various geometric aspects to give it a more future type of look.
Moulds to produce the individual pieces of glass were expensive to have made, but once in production thousands of pieces could be produced.
As company sales grew and the expertise gained from the first five years was built upon the various companies moved into the Golden Age of Depression Glass (1930-1934). The pattern sets in this period became more complex with the glass being etched. Forty different patterns were issued in this short four year period. In the first period the majority of glass had been plain, and not very pleasing to look at. With the use of etching the poor quality glass became more pleasing to the eye. The designs were more intricate. The patterns continued to be manufactured in anywhere from three to five different colours.
The Hazel -Atlas Glass Company issued several patterns including one that was named "Ovide" This was the first pattern of any type that had been manufactured with decals. In addition, the colours were more brilliant as they were fired onto the glass. "Ovide" was manufactured in three different colours and a set was complete with sixteen pieces. It was so popular that it continued to be produced for over six years. Six years for one pattern was a record.
With so many different companies making glass many new marketing techniques had to be employed to keep the consumer happy. With each passing year the amount of different items made of Depression glass expanded and expanded. Many types of service sets were produced. A consumer could not only purchase a full dinner service, but there were accessory pieces available. Luncheon sets, party sets, one needed candle sets to match the dishes and holiday candle sticks.
To increase profits companies began to sell boxcars of their glassware. In recorded company documents a Chicago, Illinois department store sold ten thousand sets of Hockings nineteen piece water sets. The price was one dollar per set.
With the real economic Depression underway in the 1930’s the public was drawn to going to the movies and seeing Shirley Temple. In 1934 The General Mills Cereal Company which manufactured Wheaties cereal contacted the Hazel Atlas Glass Company. The request was for the company to manufacture a Shirley Temple breakfast set which could be obtained by mailing in several box tops from Wheaties, and a small amount of money. The cobalt blue cereal bowl, cup and pitcher became the most sought after item of Depression glass. The cereal bowl is inscribed "Hello Everybody" and the Shirley Temples image appears on each item. The Bisquik Company commissioned a mug which could be obtained in the same manner several box tops and a small amount of change. The Shirley Temple items became so popular that each was produced until 1942. Be careful since there are many reproductions on the market. During the Depression many movie theatres had one night where a piece of certain Depression glass pattern was given to those attending. Of course to complete the set one had to visit the movie theatre for several weeks or months. As economic times were difficult several glass companies sold their glassware by the box car and even one could drive up in their car, and purchase a carload.
By 1939 the sales of Depression glass were beginning to decline. In the period of 1935-39 twenty-nine patterns were introduced. After 1940 no new patterns were introduced into the market. Part of the explanation of the slow sales was just the sheer amount of glassware that had been produced in the period of 1925-1939. Second in 1939 and 40 consumers witnessed new products at the New York World’s Fair which included dishes made of the new plastic. Like Depression glass the dishes, glasses, made of plastic were brightly coloured, but unbreakable and lighter, and easier to wash. Lastly World War II limited the production of any consumer goods. Once the war ended new products had been developed and tastes had changed.
For the collector the amount of material connected to Depression glass is so large and many collectors only collect a specific pattern, or from a certain company. Others collect the material that was issued like the Shirley Temple set a give-away item.
As a side note for Canadian collectors there is a whole different area of glass collecting called, Corn Flower. Corn Flower was manufactured in the U.S. Mid West and sold through department stores in Canada. The vast majority of it was clear etched glass with corn flowers. The most valuable pieces are the coloured Corn Flower which was made in very small numbers. If interested the largest collection of Corn Flower glassware is housed and on display at the Dufferin County Museum outside of Orangeville, Ontario.