Among the trinkets and tools in my kitchen are five (not four, not six) milk glass espresso cups and saucers. The aptly named glass cups have almost laughably small handles, and the saucers are an embellishment from years past. Still, they’re classic and feel dainty and regal in my hands. I feel like a queen sipping tea as I slurp hot espresso while wearing a plush blue bathrobe at 5:30am. They’re from my great grandmothers house, which is why I only have five and not a practical number (however, any number greater than 1 is impractical for me I guess). They were free, convenient and stylish. They serve a purpose for me, a daily espresso drinker.
However, when milk glass originated in the 16th century in Venice, it was priceless. Imagine the purity and creaminess of milk cupped in your hand like a solid cloud. Almost a dead ringer for porcelain at the time, milk glass not only appeared in white but various colors with the same opaque thickness. However priceless in appearance, not priceless in cost. Milk glass was more affordable than porcelain and much of today’s existing milk glass is from the 17th century and later.
Milk glass then appeared in France in the 19th century at a pivotal time for France and Western Europe. The turn of the century saw the birth of modernism and expressionism in art and music as the western world flourished. In my mind there’s a soft glow in these turn of the century scenes, as if the period was shrouded in a milky haze of tan and taupe tones. I picture a woman lifting a cup just like mine to her lips and laughing coyly at a joke that was not too funny. I imagine opulence and delicacy—a pinky out sort of affair.
The Gilded Age in America gave rise to milk glass as decorative vases, jewelry and architectural elements including marquees and clock faces. The ostentatious clock perched atop the information desk in Grand Central terminal has a face made of milk glass. Until the 1930s and 1940s, milk glass was sturdy but the Great Depression caused a drop in quality.
My milk glass is likely from the milk glass craze of the 1950’s when Fenton was producing milk glass items that would’ve topped wedding registries. Think of it as that era’s rose gold. Anything from practical flatware to lanterns made of milk glass became trendy and appealing for young couples in the 50s and 60s. The style became so popular, it nearly saved the Fenton company and became the company’s claim to fame despite existing for decades prior.
How to identify true milk glass? I’m glad no one asked. Held up to the light, milk glass refracts slight opalization, therefore proving it is not fully opaque and can instead allow some light through. The light that passes through illuminates an orangey iridescence unseen unless purposely held up to the light. Despite my espresso cups being fairly thick, I did not expect any light to shine through and yet I was wrong. The opal glow isn’t striking but flecks of orange and even a little red reveal themselves in the light. Beautiful.
Sadly, these cups see everything but a pinky out affair. Daily use and constant clanking against other mugs, pans and dishes definitely don’t scream opulence but it does attest to milk glass’ longevity, and wasn’t that the point to begin with? A delicate appearance with highly practical usage.