Vaseline Glass has a long history of creating controversy; even its definition has been the source of endless squabbles among enthusiasts worldwide. The American-based Vaseline Glass Collectors, Inc. defines it as “a particular color of yellow-green glass that is made by adding two percent uranium dioxide to the ingredients when the glass is made,” and insists that it will always glow fluorescent green under a blacklight. Collectors in the UK refer to any translucent glass with a greasy luster as Vaseline Glass, and Australians define it as glassware with an opalescent rim. The Germans simplify matters and refer to any glass that glows under a blacklight as uranium glass.
Although there are instances of uranium being used to color glass dating as far back as the Roman Empire, the first major producer of uranium glass was Josef Riedel, who mixed uranium salts into molten glass to turn it a bright yellow-green. He named his creation “Annagelb” (Anna Yellow) in honor of his wife, but it was commonly referred to as canary glass. It wasn’t until early in the twentieth century, when people noticed the glass’s similarity in color and appearance to recently invented petroleum jelly, that the term “Vaseline Glass” began to take hold.
Vaseline glass is mildly radioactive, but does not contain enough uranium to be harmful. It is said that many glassblowers who worked with uranium glass, especially during its heyday in the Victorian Era, died young of lung cancer, but medical experts dismiss the idea that the cancer was brought on by uranium. Still, the controversy remains. Production of uranium glass stopped suddenly during World War II, when governments seized all uranium supplies for fear of it falling into their enemies' hands. The ban was lifted fifteen years later in 1958, but Vaseline Glass’s sparkling reputation had been smudged, and it had fallen out of everyday use. The idea of sipping coffee out of a radioactive mug had become understandably unappealing.
Today, Vaseline Glass is the domain of collectors. Vaseline Glass was used widely for tableware, candlesticks, vases, and decorative items, so collectors have a variety of objects to choose from. Seasoned collectors suggest centering collections around a theme, such as perfume atomizers, to avoid winding up with a mish-mash of random yellow-green glass. While pieces made before 1920 tend to be higher in value, prices are well within the range of what average consumers can afford, so there is no reason that anyone cannot own a piece of this quirky, controversial, glowing glass, if they dare.