Also known as uranium glass, vaseline glass glows bright green under ultraviolet light, thanks to the uranium oxide added to the glass in its molten state. In natural or indoor light, vaseline glass has a yellow or yellow-green tinge with an oily sheen, which is where its name comes from. Vaseline glass is not to be confused with Custard glass and Burmese glass, which also glow under ultraviolet light. While vaseline pieces are transparent or translucent, these pieces are opaque.
Uranium oxide was first used as a coloring agent in the 1830s; vaseline glass was produced commonly from the 1840s through World War I, though it was most popular from the 1880s onward. A variety of companies produced it, including Adams & Co., Steuben Glass, Cambridge Glass Co., and Baccarat, which released its first vaseline glass piece in 1843 under the name “cristal dichroide.”
Different companies called its distinctive color different names, including citron, jasmine, golden green, mustard, Florentine, and canary. Pieces could also have different exter...
Vaseline glass was produced in a variety of styles over the years, from Victorian to Art Deco. During the Great Depression, some manufacturers added iron oxide (rust) to the vaseline glass mixture in an effort to make the glass look greener in natural light. As a result, vaseline-glass purists exclude this Depression-era glass from the vaseline-glass family, since vaseline glass in the traditional sense does not include iron oxide in its composition. Carnival glass was also produced in vaseline glass varieties, which generally had a marigold, iridescent look.
Although making dinnerware out of uranium may seem like a bad idea today, companies produced an endless variety of vaseline glass dinnerware pieces, including wine servers, water pitchers, mugs, and butter dishes, along with more decorative shapes like candlesticks and paperweights.
Around 1943, the U.S. government halted the production of vaseline glass altogether, as uranium became a heavily regulated substance. In 1958, uranium oxide was deregulated, and the production of vaseline glass resumed. This time, however, producers used depleted uranium in place of more radioactive natural uranium.
Practically since its invention, vaseline glass has carried the burden of a bad reputation. Stories of vaseline glassblowers dying young from lung cancer raised the question of radiation poisoning. On average, vaseline glass pieces are about 2 percent uranium by weight, but some pieces from the beginning of the 20th century are up to 25 percent uranium by weight.
The U.S. Nuclear Regulation Commission studied the health risks of vaseline glass in its 2001 report, “Systematic Radiological Assessment of Exemptions for Source and Byproduct Materials.” This report agreed largely with what collectors had been saying all along—radiation from the glass was equally (or, in some cases, even less) harmful than the background radiation levels we are exposed to every day.
Vaseline glass is still produced today, though in limited quantities—uranium is a highly regulated and expensive ingredient. Current manufacturers include Fenton Glass, Boyd Crystal Art Glass, Mosser Glass, and Summit Glass, in addition to smaller shops like Gibson Glass. All new pieces are decorative and not intended for use as dinnerware.
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