One of Prince Edward Island’s most unique features is its abundance of seaglass, and here in Eastern Prince Edward Island we are particularly fortunate to have the best seaglass beaches in the province. In recent years the collecting of seaglass has seen a great increase in popularity, buoyed by an interest in seaglass jewelry, as well as by the calm and relaxing nature of the hobby itself.
Here at Phoenix Antiques we buy and sell quite a bit of seaglass during our summer season, and we also stock and sell an entire spectrum of the glass and bottles from which seaglass is made. With that in mind, we’ve created this handy guide to help share with you the history behind the seaglass, as well as the rarity and value of different types. Read on to discover more!
Green, Brown, and Clear
The most common types of seaglass is the green, brown, and clear sorts, which can be found quite readily on most Island beaches. This type of glass originates from a number of sources: windows, dishware, pop bottles, beer bottles, and even old medicine bottles.
Being the most common it is not of any significant value, however keep an eye out for unique patterns, words, or stamps which may increase the value.
Some interesting patterns and designs on these colours of glass include:
Always stunning, blue sea glass makes for a wonderful discovery. In the antique trade this style of glass is often referred to as cobalt blue, stemming from the makers names of some of these blue bottles. It is interesting to note, however, that there are two primary shades of blue glass: cobalt and aqua. Cobalt is quite dark, whilst aqua is a much warmer shade. The pictures below illustrate this distinction.
The primary source of cobalt blue glass is Milk of Magnesia bottles and Vick’s VapoRub jars. Both of these products were relatively common in Island homes back in the day, and as such many have made their way into the ocean over the years. Blue glass though was much less common than those colours listed above, and to find a piece of blue glass is no easy task!
Another source of blue glass is the rare coffin-style poison bottle. Extremely rare and exceptionally valuable bottles, these macabre artifacts were artfully embossed with skulls and stars, and to find a piece from these historical treasures would be the showpiece of any collection.
Soft Shades: Pinks, Purples, and Light Blues
There is a distinct class of antique glass which leads to soft shades of seaglass colours, as all of this glass was made in the very early years of commercial glass production, and dates back to the pre-Depression years.
Most interesting of these shades, and certainly the most valuable, both as an intact antique bottle and as seaglass, is the rare Magnesium glass. In the quest for crystal clear glass, magnesium became a popular clarity additive in the latter years of the nineteenth century. It did a wonderful job clearing the glass, however it wasn’t discovered until years later that when exposed to the ultra-violet rays of the sun, magnesium reacts in a process called solarization which turns the glass a brilliant purple, with the intensity of the hue dependent upon the degree of magnesium present, as well as the amount of sunlight exposure.
Perhaps the most stunning example of solarization we have ever seen was a glass doorknob off the front door of an old farmhouse. Over 100 years old, the external portion of this doorknob had absorbed decades of sunlight and had changed to a brilliant violet color, whereas the interior side remained crystal clear. Most notable about magnesium glass is the fact that it cannot be faked or hastened by any commercial process: it simply requires time to change color, sometimes 100 years, and as a result it is a rarely discovered treasure.
Another example of these soft shades are the warm and delicate pinks of Depression glass, which rose to prominence in the 1920s and 30s, when money was tight and glass quality declined in order to make it more affordable. Interestingly, many examples of Depression glass actually originated as commercial giveaways, being included in boxes of cereal, soap, and foodstuffs, to serve as a much needed incentive to spur consumption in a slumping economy.
As for the soft blues, which at times seem almost clear, many of these glass examples come from the very early days of bottle manufacturing, in which the clarifying process was not yet perfected. The old style ‘torpedo bottles’, which were stored on their side to prevent explosion, as well old medicine bottles, and common contributors to these rare glass types. One further clue as to the age of this style of glass: look for tiny bubbles and warbling imperfections in the glass. These are evidence of the early and imperfect manufacturing methods.
Even rarer than the soft shades discussed above is the ever-intriguing genre of uranium glass. Gaining prominence in the 1700s, uranium, although misunderstood in those days, was discovered to give off a brilliant “glow” when added to glass, a glow which was greatly amplified when placed under a UV light. The cost and availability of uranium made this a rather prohibitive thing to manufacture on a grand scale initially, and thus led to the rise of uranium glass as a rare and coveted collectible.
By the 1920s uranium glass had become more readily available, although variations of it had now been developed. One more common variation was known as vaseline glass, as under a normal light its colour more closely resembled that of vaseline, however under the UV light it retained its eerie glow.
During the second World War all uranium resources were redirected towards the war effort, making uranium glass no longer economical to produce, and with the introduction of the Atomic Bomb and greater public awareness surrounding the risks of radioactive materials such as uranium, the popularity of uranium glass eventually waned. As a result, it is now highly sought after by collectors, who wish to own a rare piece of early American history.
Some shades of uranium glass, particularly the vaseline styles, are almost impossible to identify with the naked eye, especially in small shards polished by the sea. The only surefire way to identify uranium glass is to shine a UV light on it in the dark, and to see if it glows. Be certain to give any seaglass you find a quick shine when you get home, and you may be surprised by what you discover.
Transferware and Pottery
In almost every antique home or estate which I have ever perused, I have been certain to find fine china transferware, sometimes known as ‘pottery’ (although this is a misnomer). This china transferware, pictured here, was absolutely ubiquitous in the lives of Islanders at the turn of the century, and in all actuality replicas of these patterns are still found in many homes today.
While transferware came in hundreds of patterns and variations, the most oft-occurring style was named “Blue Willow”, and featured a white on blue design of birds and willow trees, beset by an asian-styled background, which was an homage to the earliest styles of the dishes which originated in China proper.
Fairly common along Island beaches, shards of transferware patterns can be found among the seaglass. But despite the common nature of these discoveries, the rarity and value of these pieces lie in those shards which retain a complete image of bluebirds, flowers, or other intricate patterns and designs are highly sought after by seaglass artisans who are skilled in integrating these pieces into their jewelry.
Rarities: Red, Yellow and Orange
No discussion of seaglass on Prince Edward Island would be complete, however, with a nod towards the most valuable of seaglass shades, namely red, yellow, and orange. And yet, despite their value, it is at most a tease to mention them in any great detail, as they remain so elusive to so as to be almost unattainable to the hobbyist collector.
In fact, even as an antique shop owner, I have only ever had one purely red bottle enter my shop, and yellow and orange glass is almost just as rare. These bottles were never made for daily, mass consumption, and instead once held things such as special medicines, poisons, or perfumes. Many types of red glass found in antiques shops are merely frosted or painted red, and are truly clear underneath. Only some of the purest cranberry glass, or Avon glass, remained red all of the way through. One other source of red and orange glass does exist, in the form of shattered tail lights and signal lights from some of the earliest automobiles.
That is not to say that their discovery is impossible, however, it is highly unlikely. To make matters worse, many excitable seaglass hunters have been duped by the supposed discovery of a piece of orange glass, only to find upon closer inspection that their treasure is merely a rusted piece of clear glass.
Whatever your interest in seaglass and antique bottles may be, whether it be hobbyist, dealer, artist, or simply avid collector, each piece is unique and tells its own story, and that story is only made more precious by knowing the history behind the glass.
Have you found a piece that tells a story, or have you discovered some sea glass that doesn’t fit these trends at all?
We would love to hear all about it in the comments below!