Last Updated: Nov 20, 2017 Views: 5
Hello. Thank you for your question about the origins of uranium glass.
K. Tomabechi, in his book Uranium Glass (1995) writes, "It is believed that the first fabrication of articles made of beautiful uranium glass ... began in the first half of the nineteenth century, which is quite recent compared with the entire history of glass handicraft" (Tomabechi, 26). He declares that "the oldest piece of uranium glass with a known fabrication date is at least the one fabricated in 1840" (Tomabechi, 29).
The discussion of the use of uranium to color glass began much earlier. In 1789, German chemist Klaproth achieved the "extraction and discovery of a uranium compound." Klaproth "reported that it was possible to fabricate glasses of various colors by adding a uranium compound to the basic ingredients of glass.... He gave several specific recipes for mixing a uranium compound, called uranium yellow, into the raw materials of glass, such as quartz, caustic potash, soda, borax, and phosphate" (Tomabechi, 26-27). Tomabechi, however, indicates that "there is no evidence to indicate that these recipes were used in the glassworks that fabricated glass articles in those days" (Tomabechi, 27).
Barrie Skelcher, in The Big Book of Vaseline Glass (BBVG; 2002),documents the 60-page description of "Mineralogy and Mining Concerns" in C. S. Gilbert's Historical Survey of Cornwall (1817), which mentions uranium and states, "its oxides impart bright colors to glass, which are according ot the proportions, brown, apple green, or emerald green" (BBVG, 13). Gilbert does not indicate whether glass makers were actually using uranium at that time, so this evidence alone is inconclusive. Skelcher also cites unpublished evidence that Thomas Cock "studied the extraction of uranium oxide from pitchblende and its application to the coloring of glass" between 1800 and 1809, while he worked at William Allen's laboratory.
Both Skelcher and Tomabechi cite evidence that uranium may have been used in glass production as early as 79 CE (BBVG, 14; Tomabechi, 25) based on analysis of a glass mosaic excavated in Italy. Tomabechi explains that "the half transparent and greenish glass used to depict the plants in the mosaic glass contained uranium oxide" (Tomabechi, 25). Tomabechi claims "the tesserae of the mosaic glass must have been either fabricated using imported uranium minerals from one of these regions [England or Spain], or were made elsewhere and then imported to Italy" (Tomabechi, 26). At the same time, he notes, "No other uranium glass piece has been discovered in all of the wide variety of glass handicrafts manufactured after that time, until about the nineteenth century.... On the basis of ... this evidence, one may conclude that the small pieces of uranium glass found in Naples may be rather special and may be from a limited product. However, it remains difficult to conclude that this uranium glass is the only product fabricated by accident in ancient times" (Tomabechi, 26).
Tomabechi claims, "Articles of beautiful uranium glass started to appear on the market in Europe in about the 1830s" (Tomabechi, 27). He explains, "Glass manufacturing knowledge in those days was ... generally the top secret of every glassworks. Consequently, detailed documents with respect to manufacturing uranium glass are very rare and it is unfortunately not possible today to find any details" (Tomabechi, 28). He claims that the "oldest record of colored glass with the addition of uranium is held by a glass piece made by the Count Harrach Glassworks in Bohemia," which was "exhibited as a new product in Prague in 1831" (Tomabechi, 28). According to Skelcher, it is likely that "the use of uranium to color glass developed simultaneously at different places and that no one can justifiably claim credit for 'inventing' the process" (BBVG, 12). He notes that some have assigned credit to Josef Reidel, producer of Annagrun and Annagelb, "a green and yellow uranium glass ... at his Bohemian glass works in the 1830s." Skelcher notes that others have suggested "the process then spread to France in 1835, by means of a delegation that visited Bohemia and took back samples for French factories to copy" (BBVG, 13). Skelcher notes that in 1835, experiments with uranium coloring took place at Whitefriars Glass Works in London, and "by March 1836 the best batch had been worked into candlesticks, a pair of which was presented to the Queen." He suggests that Whitefrairs' "Topaz Glass" was uranium glass in regular production (BBVG, 13). In his book Vaseline Glassware (2007), Skelcher indicates that 1873 to 1875 is the "start of the era when uranium glass became popular," during which "80 different companies or individuals registered designs" (VG, 32).
Tomabechi declares that the "glorious history of uranium glass" ended "abruptly in about 1942, during World War II," though experimentation with uranium in glass began again on a much smaller scale in the 1970s (Tomabechi, 33-34). Skelcher asserts that "by the 1950s the use of uranium in glass was in decline and is now almost extinct" (BBVG, 13). In Skelcher's Vaseline Glassware (2007), however, he suggests that while production of uranium glass has significantly declined, "there are still a few glasshouses currently using uranium in their mixes" (VG, 8).
A note on terminology
According to The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Glass, uranium glass is "A brilliant fluorescent yellowish-green glass produced by the addition of uranium oxide." It "was first made in the 1830s in Germany. Small amounts of uranium oxide have also been used to produce Vaseline glass as well as opalescent forms of orange and brown" (264). The same source defines "Vaseline glass" as "Glass made with a small amount of uranium oxide (usually 1% or 2%) that imparts a light greenish-yellow color (a greasy appearance like Vaseline). Vaseline glass usually glows under black light. Vaseline-like glass was first made by the Romans; however, it was not used in glass production in any quantity until the mid-nineteenth century. The term 'Vaseline' was not used until about 1937. Note that hte English usually refer to Vaseline glass as "Lemonescent" while it has also been called canary, yellow, uranium, topaz, magic, Canaria, Chameleon, Anna Yellow, Annagrun, and Lenora Green" (269). Skelcher, as a collector, takes the following view: "Perhaps because uranium was responsible for the oily, petroleum like appearance of some glass items, some dealers appear to consider that anything with uranium must be 'Vaseline,' irrespective of its color. Thus occasionally opaque ivory, dark amber, opaque blue, and so on will get the Vaseline tag. Not to be outdone, others will describe anything that is slightly opaque or has a milky appearance as 'Vaseline' even if it has no uranium in the mix. In my view, NONE OF THIS IS CORRECT and only glass which has that oily, greenish yellow translucent color should be called Vaseline and that almost inevitably means it should contain uranium.... It is important to recognize ... that uranium finds an application in many other colors and shakes that do not have that oily, greenish yellow look, but which are equally or even more attractive" (VG, 8).
Books consulted from Rakow collection
- Pickvet, Mark, and Mark Pickvet. The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Glass. Atglen, Pa: Schiffer, 2011.
- Skelcher, Barrie W. The Big Book of Vaseline Glass. Atglen, PA: Schiffer Pub, 2002.
- Skelcher, Barrie W. Vaseline Glassware: Fascinating Fluorescent Beauty. Atglen, Penn: Schiffer Pub, 2007.
- Tomabechi, Ken. Uranium glass. Tokyo: Iwanami Book Service Center, 1995.
We have more extensive bibliographies available about uranium/Vaseline glass upon request.
Many of the books held in the Rakow's collection are available via interlibrary loan (ILL). For more information, see the Rakow Research Library's ILL webpage at https://www.cmog.org/research/library/visit/services/loan.
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