Do you remember your first piece of red sea glass? I do.
I was walking along the shore, feet sandy and sore after a long day of beachcombing. It was a typical spring day in New England; a warm breeze, the salty air, the faint sound of rustling dune grass... I was about to turn back and head for home. And then I spotted it.
It was blazing like fire. Caught in the sun’s reflection; the most beautiful red I had ever seen. Like a ruby swimming in a sea of gold. My heart dropped.
Since that day, the reds have kept coming, but the excitement has never waned. Even today, a single piece of red can change my day from disappointing dud to roaring success - all in an instant.
But why? What is this magic that red sea glass casts upon beach-lovers? Why has it captured the hearts and imaginations of the sea glassing community for so long?
Today, we’re going to explore those questions and more. Why is red sea glass so rare? What is its history and where are its origins? How is it used today, and how does one find it?
So let’s go back and see how it all started. And like many a prized thing, it begins with a legend...
The History of Red Sea Glass: Ancient Legends
The story goes, a nobleman from long ago was once mixing molten glass. Preoccupied, the careless man accidentally dropped his golden ring into the inferno. His mood changed from outrage to wonder as the glass before him turned a wonderful shade of ruby-red.
The legend has long-since been disproven, with experts saying the experiment would “only result in a puddle of melted gold at the bottom of the vat.” But like all myths, it contains a hint of truth. For, up until modern times, most red glass had its origins in one key element.
No wonder it’s so prized! The ‘gold-standard’ for collectors, red sea glass can be traced back to… well, gold itself!
Over the centuries, the recipe was sought after by kings and metallurgists - repeatedly lost and rediscovered. But it always remained consistent. When mixed with gold (and often trace amounts of tin), glass produced a majestic ruby color. By changing the amount of gold added, one could adjust the color hue, from deep red to bright cranberry.
Gold was obviously a rare and expensive material, meaning red glass was exclusive to royalty and the elite. Glassmakers experimented with cheaper, more common materials such as copper and manganese, but found little success. They were able to produce reddish tones, but nothing like the prized ‘gold-ruby’ of the age. Red glass would remain a luxury of the wealthy, produced only in limited batches.
In its heyday, roughly around the late 1600’s, gold-ruby glass was cherished by kings and queens across Europe. From Venice to Prague to Hamburg, royalty collected red glass vessels to line their tables and halls. Later, in Victorian England the fashion would be rediscovered, as nobles pressed intricate patterns into their prized gold-ruby possessions.
Here in the fledgling United States, red glass was considerably less in-fashion. To common-folk Americans, it was virtually unknown. Not until the late 1800’s did it begin to catch on with the elite, popularly referred to as ‘Cranberry Glass’ and displayed as decorative tableware. But for the most part, high production costs limited the spread of red glass. It was prohibitively expensive to mass-produce, and so remained a rare good.
That was, until a new and innovative company emerged on the scene.
Where Does Red Sea Glass Come From?
Much of today’s red sea glass craze can be traced back to a single source. The Anchor Hocking Glass Corporation. Over the past century, beach-goers have been unknowingly collecting their little castaways from US shores.
In 1938, Anchor Hocking (re)discovered the secret to cheaper red glass production. They called it ‘Royal Ruby’, and it was created by substituting precious gold with common copper.
Without gold, the glass turned a deep, darker shade of red. But copper made red glass commercially feasible for producers. And that meant it soon became more accessible (and affordable) for America’s middle and upper classes. Royal Ruby was soon being mass-produced from Anchor Hocking factories in Ohio, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania.
It spread like wildfire. Royal Ruby would appear in kitchens and dining rooms across the United States. It took the form of fancy dinnerware and decorative household items; plates, vases, cups, platters, bowls, brandy snifters, and more.
It became so popular that Anchor Hocking was eventually approached by an unusual source. And this source wanted to place Royal Ruby in barrooms and refrigerators across the country.
Joseph Schlitz Brewing Company
That’s right; Schlitz, the pride of Milwaukee. Did you know Schlitz beer was once bottled in Anchor Hocking’s Royal Ruby? Long forgotten and discarded, these reds make prized collector’s items for many a beachcomber.
The story goes, with the company’s 100-year anniversary on the horizon, Schlitz wanted to celebrate with a special presentation. They reached out to Anchor Hocking, whose Royal Ruby line was quickly becoming a household name. Agreements were made, along with prototypes and designs, and by late 1949 the first bottles were shipped. Schlitz, the ‘King of beer’, now in dark, Royal Ruby glass.
Between 1949-1950, some 50 million red Schlitz bottles were produced. 50 million!
Unfortunately, the bottles found little success with customers. For beer-drinkers, there was just something off-putting about swigging ale out of a red bottle. They much preferred the traditional brown and clear colors, and the Royal Ruby bottles were discontinued. Thirteen years later, when Schlitz tried to revive the red bottles once more, they met so much resistance that the idea was abandoned forever.
Beer-drinkers may not have loved Royal Ruby, but sea glass fans sure do! Some seventy years later, these reds remain some of the most treasured finds for long-time collectors. This is especially true for the bottle ‘bottoms’; priceless gems occasionally found intact in one circular chunk. Many Schlitz reds feature a unique cursive script embossed on the glass, making them easier to identify for sharp eyes.
But Anchor Hocking and Schlitz Brewing weren’t the only brands to jump on the red glass bandwagon. Some 20 years later, another company hoped to follow suit with a line of their own.
Yep, that’s right. Avon, the iconic ‘door-to-door’ cosmetics brand is another major source of red sea glass.
It was called the ‘1876 Cape Cod Collection’. Avon’s first foray into dinnerware lines, introduced in the mid-1970’s. And it was soon to be a national obsession.
The design was based on a lacy ‘Sandwich’ pattern, a classic style popularized in Cape Cod back in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Produced by New Jersey-based Wheaton Glass, the collection became famous for its dark red hue - reminiscent of the Royal Ruby of old.
Soon, homes across America were filling up with red glassware from Avon. In fact, the Cape Cod Collection was so popular that Avon continued to expand the line for almost two decades, until it was finally discontinued in 1995.
In all, 37 different pieces were designed. There was the classic dinnerware: bowls, plates, platters, cake and butter dishes, gravy boats, creamers, cup and saucers, and mugs. And then there were the decorative items: candle holders, bells, trinket boxes, decanters, cruets, perfume holders, shakers, napkin rings, and more.
If you’re a ‘seasoned’ collector like myself, you probably remember these from your childhood - they were everywhere! If not, you’ve probably seen them at flea markets or garage sales. Over the years, these collectors items found themselves in junkyards and glass dumps along the coast. Eventually they found their way to the sea, washing up ashore - some decades later - as lucky beachcombing prizes!
Signal Lanterns, Tail Lights, and More!
What about the rest of our red sea glass? It can’t all come from Anchor Hocking, Schlitz bottles, and Avon, right?
True! The remainder comes from a variety of sources, manufactured in the mid and early 1900’s. The largest of these include:
By the 1950’s, red glass was being replaced by much cheaper forms of plastic. Over the years, that red glass was lost to the coastal junkyards and ocean floors. Lost to the waves and the swirling currents. Until one day, it caught a friendly tide and washed ashore...
Someday soon, one of you lucky readers will stumble upon a piece of red sea glass. On that day, I hope you stop and reflect for a moment. What a journey that little ruby has been on!
Where did your piece’s story begin? Did it once adorn the tables of the rich and powerful? Did it house a frosty beverage at the local pub? Or did it once sail the high seas with burly sailors?
That, my dear friends, is best left to the imagination.