Vintage View: American Beauty Migrant Mother

American Beauty Migrant Mother by Dorothea Lange. Nipomo Mesa, California. 1936. A woman, almost transparent with wear and worry holds a baby resolutely to her breast, while two exhausted, dusty young children hang limply over her shoulders.

Kya deLongchamps is reflective as she looks at an affordable collectible which holds a story — American Depression glass.

THERE is a series of images illustrating the human impact of the Great Depression in the United States, that just about every adult will remember having once seen it.

A seated woman, almost transparent with wear and worry holds a baby resolutely to her breast, while two exhausted, dusty young children hang limply over her shoulders.

Stranded by pea fields in Nipomo Mesa, California, sheltered under a shard of canvas, photographer Dorothea Lange recorded a mother of seven with little left to smile about.

The series of photographs of Frances Owen Thompson, taken in March 1936, are not simply poignant, they throw into relief the easy life we take for granted today.

These children, frail and hungry were sent out in turn to scratch up roots and catch small birds to eat. The family had just sold the tyres from their broken down car to buy food. They had absolutely nothing left.

Americans shine when their backs are to the wall, and even in the Depression years, efforts were made to cheer up the working class population by businesses and manufacturers determined to survive the economic chaos.

Movie houses, food companies, grocery stores and sales firms were eager to entice people back into spending.

Bright, knick-knacks that could be cherished, and made use of as household ware was perfect bait. Depression glass was an inexpensive pressed glass that appeared in range of colours and was often given away with boxed food products, won at county fairs or bought for a nickel at the local town store.

Poured into tumblers, plates, bowls and compotes, it came in hundreds of patterns and colours. Then as today, people sought out a line that appealed, gradually accumulating entire jewel bright dinner sets in knobbly, high relief in say ruby, chocolate or moonstone.

Before uranium became so valued for diabolical purposes, in ratios of 2% to as much as 25% it was cheerfully added to glass to vary its colour and refractive character.

The amount of these metal ions in the vast majority of uranium glass is negligible, but wave a Geiger counter near a richly coloured piece, and there will be an eyebrow raising flicker of life.

It fluoresces a magical bright green under ultra-violet light. Vaseline glass, gorgeous and loved since the 19th century is opalescent, a creamy white with a red flashes appearing as it is turned.

Another sought after colour is Jadeite, which carries the soft, green lustre of jade stone. Green, amber, red, blue and yellow (canary) are common colours.

The makers assigned playful names to the patterns to ensure they were remembered: Sweetheart, Miss America, Cameo, Mayfair, Floragold — names with a shimmer of theatrical glamour, others culled from the high end creations of Baccarat, Waterford and ‘fancy glass’ houses in the States.

Most American Depression glass was made in the Ohio River Valley, where water power kept costs down. Production was vast and with mass manufacture came flaws straight from the factory.

For many collectors the presence of original mould marks, colour variations and bubbles in this type of glass (excluding real damage such as flea bites, flakes and cracks) just adds character.

Two major names to look for are Hocking (which became Anchor Hocking in 1937) and Fostoria of West Virginia, but there are dozens of others glass firms recorded.

Hocking is known for its deep ruby coloured glass from the 1930s. Fostoria produced the same patterns right through the Depression until their closure in 1983, a measure of the enduring nostalgia of Americans for this inexpensive, folksy treasure.

Join a collectors’ club to get a feel for the rare colour-pattern combinations and to become more educated on the difficult area of reproduction and faking. Glass is rarely marked and notoriously hard to date.

As for Florence Owen Thompson? She carried a warrior’s heart. Florence was destined to not only survive the years of the Depression with nine youngsters but would go on, after years of menial labour to guardian her family in relative security.

A real American beauty, Florence’s gravestone reads: ‘A Legend of the Strength of American Motherhood’

Warman’s Depression Glass Field Guide by Ellen T Schroy is available at Easons for €12.53; eBook, €17.45.


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