What Is Pressed Glass?
Pressed glass covers glassware made by an industrial process involving moulds and this process was invented in the USA during the 1820s. Before this time, articles of glass had to be free blown or blown into a mould and then cut or decorated by a skilled craftsman. This made them expensive and beyond the means of ordinary people.
The industrial process which created pressed glass changed all that. Now a single workman could make hundreds of the same article every day. Suddenly the expanding middle class could afford to have beautiful household items for many functions. There followed an explosion of Victorian ingenuity in England which led to a vast number of items, some weird but many beautiful to our eyes today.
For a while, English pressed glass manufacturers dominated the world of glass articles, exporting hundreds of tons of glass a month all over the globe. This has left plenty of antique glass or vintage glass still in use for us to collect and enjoy.
Pressed glass has been the unloved sister of many other glass techniques, unappreciated compared with other more “artistic” methods of glass making such as art glass. However, some pressed glass is beautifully designed and beautifully produced in amazing colour, providing items both pleasing to the eye and very functional.
How Is Pressed Glass Made?
After the initial design had been decided, the main part of the whole process was the creation of the mould. Moulds were made from metal and were often in three parts, being clamped together to allow the casting process. Not much is known about the mould makers who were perhaps the true craftsmen responsible for the amazing articles which have come down to us. They cut the pressed glass patterns into the metal. Many moulds were melted down to supply the industries involved in war production in the 20th Century.
Once the mould was ready it was heated so that the molten glass would not get a thermal shock once it was introduced to the mould. One of the workmen would dip a long pole known as a gathering iron and collect a “gather” of molten glass. They then placed the gather on the mould and allowed it to flow it, cutting it off when the correct amount of glass for the article had been reached.
Once the molten glass was in the mould a plunger was lowered from above and pressed into the mould, squeezing glass into all the indentations of the design on the mould. Once this was done, the mould was opened and the article removed. Often the surface of the new article was dull so it was taken to the furnace and exposed to the heat for a few seconds to make the surface more brilliant. Then it was readjusted if it had lost some of its structure in this reheating.
The next process the glassware goes through is annealing, a process which gradually cools the glass from very hot down to room temperature. If the glass cools quickly then it will become very fragile and break with little force. The newly pressed glass items are placed in a leer, or annealing oven, and progress steadily through it as the temperature reduces until they are cool enough to handle.
Some items needed extra work when they came out of the mould, for example to fold over handles into positions which could not be achieved by mould production alone.
The last process is washing and packing which in those days was done exclusively by women.
How Do You Identify Pressed Glass?
Pressed glass is relatively easy to identify. The moulds, even though the parts of them were tight fitting, had seams where they fitted together. These seams left mould lines, either minor or really quite obvious, on the glass item. Many items were made in a tripartite mould so there are three sets of mould lines.
Some items carry the registration diamonds or the registration numbers which were current in England in the second half of the nineteenth century, but many did not so this is by no means a foolproof method.
Knowing the patterns which each glass manufacturer produced is a really good way of spotting the genuine article when you see it. Trade marks may also have been used and can be helpful in identifying Davidson Glass, Greener Glass and Sowerby Glass.
Modern articles are usually lighter in weight and the glass is very pure, while Victorian glass often has inclusions and irregularities inside the glass and on the surface.
Is Pressed Glass Worth Much?
The value of antique pressed glass varies greatly with the specific item, the condition and the fashion of the market at the time. Flint glass, in other words clear glass, is usually less valuable than coloured glass. The particular colour and the manufacturer responsible for the piece also strongly influence the price.
One of the best ways of getting some idea is by seeing what typical items are selling for on Ebay, although that is different to what is being asked in some cases! Items with registration marks on them are easy to place in time and with a particular maker, other items should be checked so they don’t seem too new, as they should have had some use for over a 100 years.
Should You Buy Something Damaged?
I’ve changed my mind about this. In the past I bought damaged articles if they were very cheap and interesting. But now I don’t buy any glassware with any damage as I think there is plenty of undamaged glass around. Chips or cracks really do affect the price of an article and I check items very carefully before deciding to buy. Now only a perfect item will do and this I feel is a good strategy for starting a great collection.
One thing I do when examining a piece of glass is to close my eyes and feel around it. This way the chips or cracks can be felt without the eyes confusing matters with all the light and colour of the piece.
Where Can Pressed Glass Be Found?
There are many places where you can find vintage pressed glass although it was a lot easier ten or fifteen years ago. Since then many people have woken up to the charm and value of this kind of glass, which is not overly expensive to start a collection with.
Charity shops, bric-a-brac shops, auctions, antique fairs and Ebay are fertile areas for searching out pressed glass, although much is uninteresting and damaged. Twice a year the National Glass Fair is held in the UK and these concentrate mostly on more expensive and rarer pieces.
I have bought quite a few items via Ebay and had very few problems. People may not know the identity of the piece they are selling so it can be an opportunity to grab a bargain.
How Do I Start A Pressed Glass Collection?
There are many ways of amassing a pressed glass collection. One way is to buy only a few expensive and perfect items you really like for as much as you can afford each time. Another is to concentrate on a particular type of item such as sugar bowl and cream jugs, animal figures, carnival glass, commemorative articles, a particular glass maker or a type of glass such as pearline.
Always buy the best item you can afford and leave the many, inexpensive items which are neither beautiful, useful or valuable. That way you will be proud of your collection and with luck, it will become more valuable with time.
Do Fakes and Reproductions Exist?
As with all fields where valuable items exist, there are fakes and other problems. Sometimes moulds were bought by other manufacturers when glass houses failed (which was often) and then the items were produced anew.
Continental glass houses reproduced many items which were initially made in England, especially popular designs which would by definition sell well. You can check out items like this for newness, very clear glass and lack of wear marks which may help indicate something which is not old and original.
Some of the books about pressed glass have sections about fakes and reproductions and it is worth studying these so you get your eye in for what’s good and what’s not.
What Books Cover Pressed Glass?
A number of books on pressed glass exist although many are out of print. The accuracy of information in some of the older books may also be questionable in parts. It is worth, however, building up a library of books covering the field you are interested in as a book will always have something to teach you.
I have reviewed some of my library in the Glass Books section of the site.
Where Can I see Collections Of Pressed Glass?
Although the majority of pressed glass was manufactured in the north-east of England and in the Midlands, museums in the north do not have large collections of this type of glass.
The Victoria and Albert Museum in London is the best place I’ve found to see pressed glass. There are a couple of cabinets on the main floor and a packed cabinet on the upper level up the glass staircase. They have a flint glass Punch & Judy amongst other nice items. Mind you, one or two of my items are better than some of their examples so it’s not a comprehensive collection by any standards.
The National Glass Fair mentioned above can also be a great place to see the rarer and more costly pieces, as only good quality and expensive pieces are likely to be on display there.