Glass, it’s everywhere! Everyday tumblers in kitchen cupboards, in cocktail cabinets hosting an array of fancy drinking vessels, on tables containing flowers or fruit, on charity shop shelves crowding against each other: vases, decanters, candlesticks, ornaments, trinket dishes, all trying to outdo the other in gleaminess and decoration.
Some is ordinary pressed glass while some is fine crystal. In charity shops, both seem to be equally and reasonably priced, but cut glass and lead crystal can be quite pricey in some shops bought as new. Also, pressed glass is becoming more collectible in the vintage market, so prices on Ebay, flea markets etc is rising.
But what is the difference between pressed and cut? They’re both glass, aren’t they? I have quite a lot of pressed glass around my home, bought as useful vintage items to do things like hold snacks in sections, or to display flowers in. I also have a bit of the ‘real stuff’ which cost a lot more money and has the distinction of being Waterford crystal among other brand makes.
Cut glass is not made from crystal. Crystal is just the name given to it. Lead crystal is made from silica, lead oxide and potash, and the name refers to the type of glass, not the pattern or design. It has its design cut straight into it so sometimes there can be flaws. Although cut glass can be worked thinner than pressed, it can often be heavier than other glass of the same size.
If lead is used in crystal, it lowers the temperature during glass blowing, allowing longer to be spent on the decoration. However, this process makes the glass more fragile and prone to scratching and smashing. My best crystal wine glasses, brandy glasses and whisky tumblers never get chucked in with the rest of the washing up. We wash them separately in cooler water! I have had it on good authority (good old Uncle Google) that 90% of today’s glass is manufactured from soda lime. Well, I thought, fancy that! And also there is a bit of a ruling on the lead content in lead crystal. Apparently this should be no longer be used for drinking vessels because of the risk of lead poisoning. Oh come on! Health and Safety gone bonkers!
So that brings us to pressed glass. This was first patented by John P Bakewell in America in 1825, initially to produce drawer knobs. The glass is not cut on the surface but poured molten into moulds. This makes it smoother than some cut glass whose edges and facets can be a bit sharper and more rough. As patterns inside these moulds have been perfected first, pressed glass, sometimes known as patterned glass, tends to be more finished.
Apart from the smoother finish, pressed glass can be identified by the seams from the mould which run symmetrically down the sides in pairs, or four. Sometimes these seams are hard to locate if they’re cleverly concealed within the design, as some of mine are.
Pressed glass first hit its popularity between 1850-1910, then went into decline with the affordability of cut glass for a while. It must’ve made a big comeback though, the majority of my stuff dates from the mid 20th century.
Carnival glass is a type of pressed glass famous for its bright colours. Metallic salts are used to give the glass its lustrous sheen. It was developed to imitate more expensive types of blown glass which also used shimmery colours with an iridescent finish. By the 1950’s it was commonly given away as fairground prizes. Also, housewives bought it cheaply during times of austerity to cheer things up when electric lighting was costly for some households.
Having checked some of my glassware, I still have problems identifying pressed from cut in a couple of instances. What I thought was a cut glass fruit bowl (no seams, pattern looks cut) was a bit of a puzzle because it is very smooth. This is possibly because some of the rough facets of cut glass were actually smoothed down by polishing. Doesn’t help much with the ID, but not to worry, I love all my glassware equally, and I use it a lot. What’s the good of stuff being stuck away in a cupboard or cabinet? Use it. Do with it what it’s designed for.