A selection of cylinder shades for hall pendants in 1906 – including Straw Opalescent on the left – from Catalogue 14 of R. Williamson & Company, Chicago, Illinois. (Rejuvenation archives)
Straw Opalescent glass shades are a longtime favorite here at Rejuvenation, especially for Amy, our Restored Antiques Specialist. “Straw Opalescent” is the authentic period name for a distinctive type of lighting glass with an unusual pale yellow tone and beautiful opalescent translucency. This translucence is achieved through a special formulation and production technique that determines the degree of opalescence. When the glass is reheated (or “struck”) in a furnace, micro-crystals form that result in that distinct cloudiness.
The line-up above includes (left to right): Straw Opalescent, Twist Straw Opalescent, Twist Opalescent, and Pearl Opalescent. Lines or patterns of different thickness that enhance a shade’s decorative effects are called “optics.”
Straw Opalescent is often lumped into the broad category of “Vaseline” glass, which allegedly received its moniker due to its resemblance to petroleum jelly. Both Straw Opalescent and Vaseline glass get their unique greenish-yellow color from uranium in the formulation (which also causes them to glow under a black light). Don’t be alarmed by the uranium: these shades are completely harmless. Vaseline glass was produced for many purposes, and can range from deep acid green to an intense canary yellow, and from fully transparent to semi-opaque. Straw Opalescent, with its specific yellow color and translucent character, was used primarily for lighting glass. A wide degree of variation occurred, due to chemical composition (often glass formulae were proprietary secrets), manufacturing methods (some Straw Opalescent shades were layered or “cased” while others were the same glass all the way through), and striking time (a longer strike time in the furnace would result in a more opaque glass).
This display of original Straw Opalescent “stalactites” – also known as teardrop or bullet shades – demonstrates the huge variation in color, shape, and opacity of the glass (making matched sets a rare and prized find).
An early catalogue image of a Straw Opalescent shade from E.P. Gleason Company, in 1890. (courtesy Klemm Reflector Company)
At the turn of the century, “fancy” lighting glass was a trendy complement to the dim but still cutting-edge carbon-filament bulbs. Most lighting glass was made fancy by decorating with etching, cutting, tinting, scalloping, crimping, and elaborate optic treatments. Opalescent glass was also popular, especially in ribbed, twisted, and dotted (or hobnail) forms, and came not only in the usual flint blue color, but in many others like pink and ruby.
Some early yellow shades, such as in this 1893 catalogue from the United States Glass Company, were called Canary Opalescent – a glass that may or may not have always been the same thing as Straw Opalescent. (courtesy of Museum of American Glass)
Phoenix Glass Company was one of the finest producers of Straw Opalescent glass in the United States. Its 1896 Catalogue No. 7 featured loads of shapes and sizes – including an owl shade that’s a hoot. (courtesy of LABAC)
Following its rise in the mid-1890s, Straw Opalescent glass was often paired with the elaborate cast-brass Empire chandeliers, wrought-iron “medieval” pendants, and seductively exotic Moorish fixtures popular at the turn of the century.
This array of “medieval” wrought-iron pendants and newel fixtures offered by R. Williamson in its 1899 Catalogue No. 9 shows exactly the sorts of late-Victorian fixtures that might have had Straw Opalescent shades at the time. (Rejuvenation archives)
Straw Opalescent glass had its heyday during the transitional decade between 1898 and 1908, when ornate Victorian tastes were giving way to the more substantial, restrained, and “modern” look of the Beaux Arts and Arts & Crafts styles.
The transition away from Victorian to simpler styles had just begun when R. Williamson offered this stunning selection of decorative lighting glass in 1904. (Rejuvenation archives)
This outstanding shade line-up also appeared in R. Williamson’s Catalogue No. 12 in 1904, and features not only some hard-to-find Straw Opalescent shapes, but also a quirky series of grape shades and the highly prized squat opalescent stalactites of Phoenix Glass Company. (Rejuvenation archives)
Interestingly, what the English manufacturers called Straw Opalescent was quite different from the American version, as can be seen in this James Hinks Catalogue of 1907. The English form of Straw Opalescent is more typical of traditional Vaseline glass, with dramatic opalescent figural optics and a much greener color than the American yellow. (Rejuvenation archives)
This page from Western Gas Fixture Company’s c1910 Catalogue No. 9 shows a variety of American colored glass shades available at the time, including a Straw Opalescent shade at upper left with satin etch exterior, optic ribs, and hand crimping. (courtesy of Klemm Reflector Company)
Straw Opalescent shades are a perfect complement for this restored c1900 Romanesque-style combination chandelier by Gibson Gas Fixture Company of Philadelphia. (photo courtesy of Historic Houseparts)