The Heyday of Vintage Drinking Glasses

I simply cannot stand drinking out of anything but glass! It drives me up the wall to be served a cold brew at a Blue Jay, Raptor or Maple Leaf game in a plastic cup. It kind of adds insult to the injury of the outrageous prices charged for a pint of suds! A fine glass beer mug or pilsener glass is absolutely the best way to present and enjoy a refreshing pint.

When I began researching glass barware in earnest a number of years back I was absolutely staggered by the sheer volume of products produced and the extraordinary variety of those items. Undoubtedly like many others I began by searching for items that I recalled seeing in my dad’s bar some forty years ago.

One such memory was of a little frosted crystal whiskey tumbler with red lettering and an HA logo on the bottom. Those particular little frosted shot glasses made by Hazel-Atlas Glass Company are not particularly valuable today, but they do bring back many memories for me. This “Say When (Steps)” tumbler was marked with measurements from zero to four ounces with a rabbit at 0, a stick figure gal at the one, toasting the stick figure gentleman with his jaunty top hat on the second step, a pig on the third level, and finally a Hic-Hawing donkey marking the 4 oz shot – what great fun! Stuck in my memory also are the decorated cocktail shakers with recipes, pink pigs or pheasants; and the retro decorated pilsener glasses with geometric forms evoking the ultra modernity of that era. Those were my first memories of Bar Ware.

Like so many before me, I suspect that I have attempted to recapture some of those fond memories through collecting some of that funky bar ware. As my collecting progressed I discovered the sophisticated cocktail ware of the 1940s and the masterpieces of 20s and 30s glassware – from the aesthetic masterpieces to the whimsical. With my modest collection numbering merely several hundred items, I continue to be dazzled by the phenomenal range of ingenuity, innovation and artistry that glass masters of the 20th century were able to conjure up.

The range of beverage glasses produced from the 1920s through to the 1960s is simply astounding. Glass was king. With literally hundreds of glass factories and glass decorating workshops producing items in the 1920s, 30s and 40s the range of possibilities was enormous. Major players in both Depression Glass and Elegant Glass production were churning out massive quantities of glassware.

The great experiment of prohibition in the United States from 1918 through to December 5th 1933 in many ways shaped America. The scheme was a badly flawed one in many respects. There were many ways that the draconian laws could be circumvented, and folks tried ‘em all. Bath tub gin and other sometimes lethal concoctions of hootch were now brewed at home. We Canadians did not follow the same route of outright banning of liquors. Legalized drinking was not a federal matter, but rather one for local or provincial authorities. Even where production of alcohol for local consumption was banned, industrial alcohol could be produced and shipping out of the area. The world’s longest unprotected border also proved to be the world’s most porous border with millions of gallons of liquor flooding across. It flowed across in spite of American anti-liquor laws because there simply were not ample enforcement personnel in place to uphold the law. Local police forces found that they had enough on their plates without putting their finger in this dike. The feds took quite a while to get people in place to stem the tide. Many families, including my own, have tales of granddads, uncles and cousins who made a nice little windfall from bootlegging. (However, we’ll leave the tale of my Uncle Stan from Winnipeg for another time!)

Even if one restricted the main scope of a study of glass drinking vessels to the 1930s, following the end of Prohibition in 1933, the heyday of bar ware, one would find much more than could be shown in any one volume. (It would probably dwarf the monumental Oxford English Dictionary!) In their Crystal Stemware Identification Guide Bob Page and Dale Frederiksen illustrate shapes and patterns from dozens of glass companies including several of the major American glass manufacturers. In surveying one of the bigger firms, the Fostoria Glass Company, one can spot over 550 different listings. The authors state, “While not trying to be a comprehensive pattern guide on any one manufacturer, it represents a vast majority of the most collectible and requested stemware patterns…” Typically, Fostoria produced at least six or eight sizes for each pattern and several different colors. The numbers are staggering. Needless to say…attempting to identify stemware is libel to drive one to drink!

In 1938 the Tiffin Glass Company, a division of the massive United States Glass Company, produced a 32-page booklet suggesting “How to Give Glamour to Your Table.” In it appear table settings resplendent with Tiffin glass ware arranged by decorating guru Lynne Leslie. The section entitled “Your Beverage Glasses” shows a collection of 18 of the correct types of stems and glassware for every beverage and notes:

“When choosing your glassware in the first place, always demand the best. It’s a comfort to know that your taste is unassailable, and besides it’s pure economy. The fastidious prefer clear crystal, because colored glass obscures the color of your wines or liqueurs, and the connoisseur regards the color of a wine as an important part of its virtue. While the oldsters sometimes prefer a hollow stem for their champagne and other sparkling wines, the newest trend is toward the champagne flute or saucer. Whatever your choice, you can obtain it in Tiffin’s exquisite stemware.”

Another one of the finer glass manufacturers of this era was the Morgantown Glass Company (1903-1975). In the late 1930s they issued in a primer for “Shapes and Sizes in Glassware for Beer, Wines and Liquors.” They illustrated no less than 47 different items in their listing. Some bar ware in this listing illustrated two or more styles, for example for cocktail glasses. The following lengthy list names only one of each type and further demonstrates the scope of the possibilities in vintage drinking glasses: Wines: cordial or cognac, claret or burgundy, port wine, champagne tumbler, hock or sauterne, champagne goblet, saucer champagne, hollow stem saucer champagne, American or tulip hollow stem saucer champagne, Roemer, brandy or pousse café, Rhine wine, port or sherry, sherry or medeira.

Beers or Ales: Hoffman house goblet, Fifth Avenue goblet, Milwaukee goblet, Hofbrau pilsener beer, New York goblet, split beer tumbler, Touraine goblet, pilsener beer, ale goblet, ale tumbler, St. Louis goblet.

Whiskies and Brandies: pony whisky, whisky tumbler, bar water or wash glass, old-fashioned cocktail, toddy, hot whisky, Tom and Jerry, hot whisky tumbler, Tom Collins, lemonade tumbler, seltzer Delmonico, fizz tumbler, hi ball tumbler, brandy and soda, crème de menthe, brandy inhaler, cocktail.

Whether you are a teetotaler or an enthusiastic imbiber of the elixir of life, bar ware in glass is gorgeous to appreciate. For a cocktail, a spot of bubbly, a fine wine, or a brew, there is nothing in my mind’s eye that is superior to a beverage in glass. Even without the beverages, whether it be a cocktail glass, saucer champagne or pilsener glass, these are all items that give aesthetic pleasure – vessels that are inextricably tied to our culture, history and identity. Cheers!

Walter Lemiski is the Director of the Canadian Depression Glass Association. Walt’s books “Elegant Glass with Cornflower” and “Glass Barware: Deco & Beyond” are available from the author for $35 each. For more information about the CDGA, glass books, or the Vintage Glass Shows please write or visit