How Jadeite Glassware First Charmed Americans During the Depression

For many American households, this milky green glassware was a bright spot in an otherwise dark time. Here’s how this 1930s tabletop trend is still delivering joy today.

Amid the Great Depression, which stretched throughout the 1930s, joy was hard to come by. As the stock market plummeted and banks failed, entire families lost everything they had. Businesses shuttered or were forced to lay off workers, putting millions of Americans out of work and slashing wages for the rest. Bread lines and soup kitchens became lifelines, while crops rotted in the fields of farmers who couldn't afford to harvest.

For those with the means to purchase food, a trip to the neighborhood grocery could bring some modicum of happiness. Upon returning home, a small piece of milky green kitchenware might be buried in a bag of flour or tucked inside a box of fruit. Depending on the product it came with, this hidden treasure could be a single measuring cup, a citrus reamer, or perhaps a saltshaker. Each was made of opaque glass in a fluorescent color that ranged from pale celadon to almost emerald. This material was called jadeite, a reference to the semi-precious gemstone the material resembled.

jadeite mixing bowl with beaters on the cover of 1933 issue of Better Homes & Gardens
Courtesy of Better Homes & Gardens

In truth, these giveaways were primarily a marketing ploy, designed to entice shoppers to purchase other jadeite pieces or to buy the product again in hopes of collecting the rest of the set. But the effect—and the impetus behind jadeite's invention—was to bring joy to American families amidst struggle.

A Colorful Innovation

Although some glassmakers dabbled in green-tinted milk glass prior to the Depression, the Pennsylvania-based McKee Glass Company was the first to mass-produce it in 1930, the company began adding green glass scraps into their standard opaque glass formula to produce a novel color.

Recognizing a need for more cheer in U.S. households, they used this technique to manufacture vibrant jade-green dishware, marketing the color as "Skokie" green. Heatproof and resistant to stains, these sturdy pieces were designed for everyday kitchen use but had a style that was worthy of display.

various Jadeite dishes in white cabinet
Quentin Bacon

As green kitchenware took off, copycats abounded. The Jeannette Glass Company introduced a similar line in 1932 called "Jadite," officially coining the term that came to define the category. Throughout the following decades, other companies co-opted the name with various spellings—another prominent manufacturer, the Anchor Hocking Glass Corporation, added an extra e and a hyphen to their version, for example.

Whatever the spelling, the basic manufacturing process remained largely the same. Most jadeite pieces were made by pouring molten glass into molds, an economical method of production that allowed companies to easily turn out large quantities in a variety of patterns and styles.

Because it was inexpensive to make, jadeite could be sold cheaply at five-and-dime stores or even given away for free. Today, many of those same pieces are prized as collector's items, with some rare objects fetching prices of several hundred dollars each.

Jadeite dishes on white farmhouse shelves
Brie Williams

Collecting Jadeite Today

Much of its current appeal can be traced back to the original influencer, Martha Stewart. The media mogul's extensive jadeite collection was featured prominently in her magazine and TV shows throughout the 1990s and 2000s, which coincided with a steep increase in the popularity and, thus, the price of vintage jadeite.

Some credit is also due to Joanna Gaines, whose 2013 HGTV series Fixer Upper cemented farmhouse style within our cultural lexicon and made the old-fashioned fashionable again. In recent years, green-hued glassware has appeared in Gaines' Hearth & Hand with Magnolia line at Target, making jadeite accessible to—and coveted by—an even wider audience.

For hardline collectors, however, contemporary reproductions don't have the same appeal as genuine jadeite from one of the original manufacturers. To determine whether a piece is authentic, jadeite connoisseurs check for a heavier weight and branded markings, such as McK for McKee or a J in a triangle to denote Jeanette.

Another distinguishing characteristic? Many early pieces will glow eerily green when placed under a black light, a telltale sign the glass contains uranium. Prior to World War II, uranium was often added to glass and ceramic glazes as a colorant, but after the conflict broke out, the heavy metal became critical to the war effort. From the 1940s onward, glassmakers used other, non-radioactive methods to achieve the signature jade-green color.

These days, you're unlikely to come across jadeite goods hidden in your pantry ingredients, but finding an authentic piece at a flea market or antique shop is no less gratifying. The lasting appeal of jadeite serves as a reminder that sometimes joy can be found in the humblest of places.

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