Milk Glass Vases: A Primer (of Sorts)

Garden Party

For the Antique Week edition of Garden Party, I thought I'd take some time to sing the praises of my favorite vintage containers for flower arrangements: milk glass vases. They have a nostalgic appeal that is especially well-matched with slightly edgy floral choices like succulents and seed pods. Click through to learn where to look for them, what to look for, and how to use them to make pretty, old-fashioned bouquets at home.
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Milk glass has become popular for weddings, and understandably so; there's something romantic about the feminine shapes of the vases and the slight translucency of the white glass. But these vases are also versatile containers for everyday home flower arranging. Having a collection of a few different shapes makes for a nice centerpiece of clustered vases, and the white looks good with pretty much any bouquet, be it a last-minute gift in need of a vase or a carefully composed bunch of blooms from your garden.

I've put together some info that will hopefully help you shop for milk glass and make the most of it for your home arrangements. Bear in mind, though, that I am neither an expert nor a serious collector, so if you hope to collect these vintage pieces for their inherent value or for their historical merit, you may want to read elsewhere!

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"Florist Quality" vs. The Real Deal

There's a distinction in the world of milk glass that's helpful to understand if you're trying to put together even a modest collection (and especially if you're shopping on ebay, where milk glass is plentiful). Milk glass known as "florist quality" is not actually milk glass at all; it is opaque white glass without that hint of translucency characteristic of the real deal. This glass is often heavier and if you hold it up to the light, very little shines through. With the real stuff, you can see the vague outline of your fingers through it if you stick them inside. "Florist quality" pseudo-milk glass is fine, of course, but it's not quite as delicate and pretty, and it doesn't seem to be much cheaper in general.

Brands and Patterns

Common milk glass brands include Fenton, Fire King, Anchor Hocking, Westmoreland, Imperial, and Brody. Various patterns abound, from an intricate grapevine to a Greek key to a basic lovely hobnail (a pattern of repeating raised bumps); the style depends of course on the era (and the country) in which the glassware was designed. For floral purposes, I tend to favor the simpler, more minimal designs. Hobnail vases are my favorites, though they can be a bit pricey.

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Where to Look

As I've mentioned, ebay is a consistently reliable and relatively inexpensive source for milk glass. Of course it can be frustrating to pay shipping costs, and even more frustrating when the glass arrives broken, which happens more often than it should. I've had better luck, actually, with Etsy sellers; because of the popularity of milk glass for weddings, there's a fair amount of it on Etsy these days too. Thrift stores can turn up pretty good finds, though they're more likely to be of the florist grade. Your best bet, to avoid shipping and handling issues, is of course a flea market. I've found some really unusual pieces at our local flea (including a hobnail pitcher for $5 that's done serious centerpiece duty over the years).

Favorite Shapes and Tips

The shapes of milk glass containers are too numerous to actually list in detail (chicken-covered casserole dishes! tophat-shaped salt and pepper shakers!), so I'll just give you my favorites, the ones that lend themselves best to floral arranging:

Compotes and goblets can look dressy or relaxed, country-vintage or urban-chic. I love to use vines in compotes (attached at the bottom of the cup with a floral frog or foam), winding the loose end of the vine around the base to create a lovely arc.

Cake stands are beautiful for tiered centerpieces. Decorate with a bed of moss and some succulent rosettes from your garden, or use a small piece of floral foam to anchor some loose blooms, disguising the foam with foliage.

Bud vases are great workhorses; you can scatter them around your house for a party, cluster them on a nightstand, or parade them down the center of a long dinner table. Large lots of milk glass bud vases are often available on ebay at surprisingly low prices.

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The fan vase (see above) is a little difficult to work with, but so unusual and dramatic once you get everything into place. They don't hold a lot of water, so you'll have to choose your materials carefully. Try using a couple of heavier blooms or branches to hold the lighter ones in place in the wide mouth of the vase.

Best of luck on your milk glass search! And please feel free to add your own tips and knowledge below.

(Images: Susie Nadler; Lydia Daniller)

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