On a recent trip to Columbia, PA, at Bootleg Antiques, I purchased some uranium—not weapons-grade, just 1930s dinnerware glass. The opportunity to own a piece of radioactive material, plus a quick Google search telling me I should be safe, was too tempting to pass up as my imagination filled with thoughts of the Manhattan Project and flux capacitors.
Knowing nothing about this mysterious glowing ceramic, I have done some reading over the past few days. Together, let’s take a luminous journey into the history of uranium glass. This unique glassware has captivated enthusiasts, collectors, and novices (like myself) for generations. What sets uranium glass apart is its remarkable ability to glow under ultraviolet light. This feature has earned it a special place in the world of vintage and historical items.
The Birth of Uranium Glass
Uranium glass first made an appearance in the 1830s. Josef Reidel is often credited with inventing it, naming it after his wife. He called the yellowish-green uranium glass Annagruen and the yellow Annagelb. Between 1830 and 1848, his factory in Bohemia made this glass.
Over time, the glass was made at more factories, including the Choisy-le-Roi factory in 1838 and Baccarat in 1843. Later in the 19th century, uranium glass began to be made with heat-sensitive chemicals that turned a milky white color when reheated. This glass became known as vaseline glass because of its yellow color.
There was a considerable rise in popularity in the 1880s, and London-based Whitefriars Glass Company was one of the first companies to bring uranium glass to the mass market.
The scarcity of uranium between 1942 and 1958 meant that production paused in many areas and was stopped entirely in the US as the government confiscated uranium supplies for the Manhattan Project.
The Glow Factor
The magical property that makes uranium glass so intriguing is its fluorescence. When exposed to ultraviolet light, such as that from a blacklight, the uranium emits a radiant, glowing green or yellow light.
Versatility and Production
Uranium glass was used to create a wide range of items, from tableware and decorative items to jewelry. I’m unsure what’s scarier—eating off uranium or wearing it.
Collecting uranium glass has become a popular hobby for many, and collectors often seek out specific patterns, brands, or colors. Some uranium glass items are pretty rare and valuable, making it an exciting endeavor to hunt for these treasures.
While uranium glass is generally considered safe to handle, most websites recommend not eating or drinking from it as you can ingest small fragments of radioactive material. ☢️
I was curious just how radiative my tea cup was, so I asked the Lampeter-Strasburg Science Department for some The following screenshot shows readings from a carrot (2 counts per second), iPhone 15 (6 counts per second), and my uranium glass (193 counts per second). While this was still considered safe, I wouldn’t be resting the glassware on my lap for extended periods.
A Luminous Legacy
Whether you are an avid collector, a history buff, or simply someone who appreciates the fluorescent beauty of this unique ceramic, uranium glass is a luminous piece of the past and an ever-glowing testament to the enduring allure of the antique world.