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Uranium in the China Cabinet

I love glass. And glass seems genuinely attracted to me—especially if it’s radioactive.

When I stumbled upon my first pieces of this strange glass back in the early 90s, I could scarcely believe my eyes. Three nesting bowls glowed fluorescent green from the bottom shelf of a display cabinet in a tiny antique mall booth. I asked to see them and was disappointed when the salesperson handed me an uninteresting set of pale yellow bowls.

“What happened?” I asked, already doubting what I was about to say. “They were glowing.”

What I didn’t know was that the bowls were displayed under an ultraviolet light—you know, the purple bulb that makes your teeth and all the little specks of dust on your shirt luminesce—otherwise known as a black light. The only information the salesperson could give me about the bowls was that they were Vaseline Glass.

I would not purchase the set of bowls on the spot, not that I didn’t want them—desperately. But, I was on a mission. It was mid-December, and I was supposed to be Christmas shopping. I had a long list that did not include my name. The minute I returned home, however, I gave Mr. Lee explicit instructions on where he would find my Christmas present, down to the particular booth and precise location of the display cabinet. “Go now!” I suggested.

Thus began my collection of, and education in, this phenomenal and misunderstood glass. While uranium glass is the correct name, vaseline glass is commonly used. To clarify, only some uranium glass is vaseline glass, dubbed so because of its resemblance to the pale greenish-yellow petroleum jelly product with the same name. But one thing is for certain, all of it contains uranium. I’m told that my china cabinet would most assuredly register on a Geiger Counter.

Should I be worried? That was a concern, especially as the collection grew. I mean, if each piece measures as much as 2% by weight uranium, then what of two shelves full? I’ve learned that these quantities are harmless, especially considering that most pieces these days are for display only. Although, I do admit to having served radioactive mashed potatoes with uranium butter on special occasions.

Vaseline Glass cigarette box in normal daylight

When uranium was first reported in 1789 by a German chemist, it was named after Uranus, the planet well known for being the butt of tasteless childhood jokes—the likes of which you won’t read here.

Rather, I’ll tell you that more than 100 years ago, uranium oxide was being added to glass as a yellow colorant. Back then, unlike mine, china cabinets would not have been rigged with a black light, but the owners of these pieces learned that certain lighting conditions made their pale yellow glass fluoresce. At dusk the sun emits the same ultraviolet light as a black light.

Uranium glass gained popularity between 1880–1920, and continued to be produced until the availability of uranium was sharply curtailed in the United States around WWII.

In 1958 production of uranium glass resumed. American glass manufacturers started filling their existing molds with the radioactive concoction, which explains how the majority of my collection ended up being reproductions from that time period—and, with a decent supply of it still in circulation, you too can start collecting glowing glass from Uranus.

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