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Discovering Above-Ground Artifacts

by Noelle Congdon

What do you think of when you hear the word "artifact"? Does it make you think of archeological sites and workers carefully excavating ancient pieces of pottery, jewelry, and tools? You would be on the right track! An artifact is a man-made object from the past. Usually we think of artifacts as being things from the ancient past, but some historic pieces don't have to be dug up—look at Depression glass! In fact, you may have already seen this distinct, colored glass in an antique store or maybe even in your grandmother's kitchen.

Depression glass gets its name from the Great Depression—you've probably learned about it in your Heritage Studies class(es). The Great Depression started with the Stock Market Crash of 1929 and lasted for about ten years. During that time many people lost all their savings, and unemployment was high. But what you may not know is that despite the economic depression, the 1930s was an exceptionally innovative time for glass making.

In 1928, the development of full automation made molding glass very inexpensive.1 Glass factories that already existed multiplied the number of pressed glass patterns that they could offer. During the 1930s, new factories sprang up in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Indiana, West Virginia, New York, and New Jersey to keep up with the demand for this glass.2 These states were ideal for the glass factories because they had both the energy and raw materials needed for glass making.

With mass-produced glass, the emphasis was on quantity, not quality. Because of that emphasis, authentic Depression glass often contains flaws like minor bubbles and crooked mold lines. Since the glass was so cheap, merchants included free pieces with other sale items. Boxes of detergent and cereal often included part of a set of glassware to motivate the customer to continue buying the product in order to complete the whole set—a great way to encourage sales. Gas stations and theatres gave away glass as prizes. A young bride could confidently include a Depression glass pattern on her wedding gift registry, knowing that her friends and family would be able to afford the glassware.3

Depression glass also came in a nice variety of colors—a nice contrast to the dreary economic times. People could decorate their kitchens, dining rooms, and even bedrooms with inexpensive yet attractive glass. Wild rose pink and apple green were two colors of glass that are more commonly found. But besides the plentiful pink and green, other colors were also made—amethyst, burgundy, canary yellow, and cobalt blue.4

A few years ago I started my own collection with a little pink-lidded container from my grandmother, a Depression-era bride. I was curious to find out what the item was used for since it was too small for a covered candy dish. I discovered that it was a powder jar in the Cubist pattern. This old-fashioned, ultra-feminine powder jar reminds me that at times life may be difficult, but it does not need to be ugly.

Besides its decorative and sentimental value, Depression glass greatly helped the economy recover and develop. At a time when jobs were scarce, people could find work in the glass factories. The desire for affordable, functional glassware kept essential technological skills alive. Have you heard of Corning Glass? (If not, you might want to look it up!) During the Depression, its primary product was dinnerware. Corning Glass is still around but not in the dinnerware market. And it certainly couldn't have survived to this day without making Depression glass.

While we've spent a lot of time focusing on Depression glass in the United States, it doesn't exist only here—it can be found around the world. Ships would use the inexpensive glass for ballast (extra weight needed in the hold). So if you live in the United Kingdom, you might find this humble American export in thrift shops. And a quick Internet search reveals that Australia has a rich horde of 1930s-1940s American-made glassware. Even though economic activity limped along during the Depression era, existence of this glass so far from home shows that the United States economy kept moving in spite of economic hardship. Considering its pretty appearance and its positive effect on future recovery, the only thing depressing about Depression glass is its name.

Want to uncover some Depression glass for yourself? Do some research on this unique glass so that you can learn to spot it in antique stores, yard sales, online, and maybe even in your own kitchen. For the past few years, I used a pretty little dish with a fruit pattern on it that my mother gave me. Only recently did I recognize that it was a kind of Depression glass called Pioneer. If you need help identifying Depression glass, find a manual, such as Warman's Depression Glass Field Guide, 4th ed.5 Your local library may have a copy. Warman's has a handy timeline and full-color photographs. And for more in-depth information you could also check out the Collector's Encyclopedia of Depression Glass, 19th ed.6

Are you ready to go on your own artifact expedition? Print off the Depression Glass Quest sheet below. It has some questions that you can answer by researching Depression glass—don't worry if you get stuck on a question because the answers are included on the second page of the Quest. Let us know what you learned about Depression glass by starting a discussion on our Facebook page. (If you're not thirteen yet, then have your mom or teacher post on Facebook for you.)

Depression Glass Quest
Depression Glass Quest Answers

1 Schroy, Ellen T. Warmans Depression Glass Field Guide, 4th ed. (Iola, WI: Krause Publications, 2010), 14.
2 Ibid, 11-17.
3 Ibid, 7.
4 Ibid, 18-23.
5 Ibid.
6 Florence, Gene and Cathy. Collectors Encyclopedia of Depression Glass, 19th ed. (Paducah, KY: Collector Books, 2010).

About Noelle Congdon

Noelle Congdon is a part-time assistant in JourneyForth.