Beautiful Glass Found in the Margins of the Antiques World:  Hyacinth Vases, Spill Holders, and Glass Valentines

When you think of antique collectibles made of glass, you normally think of the major categories – china, vases, dinnerware, bottles, figurines and others. But over my years of collecting, I’ve been out on the hunt for hidden treasures at flea markets and tag sales, and picked up pieces that I could tell were old, but I didn’t didn’t know exactly what they were. I didn’t know if they had much value, or if people even collected them; however, I would hold on to them until I could figure out exactly what they were.  Then again, sometimes I didn’t, and I’d find out after the fact, that I had passed up on something really good.

Hyacinth Vase

This collection of late 19th century hyacinth vases sold for $840 in April 2016.

One such item is the Hyacinth vase. I cleaned out an estate that had a couple of these vases in a china cabinet. One was deep violet, the other was cobalt blue. They were very nondescript, and the colors and features just didn’t look old.  But I was thumbing through an auction catalog of Victorian glass, and there was a vase identical to those I had found. I assumed these vases were worth a couple of bucks, but it turned out these simple vases (if they are genuine and old)  were valued by collectors, and typically brought more than $100 a piece. 

Spill Holder

This piece might look like an ice cream sundae dish at first glance, but a “spill holder” is a wonderfully historical find!

A couple of years ago, I was scuba diving in a river near a very historical town in Massachusetts.  I was near a little cove with a Colonial home along its bank and I found a spot where the homeowners had regularly thrown their trash.  I was sifting through the muck on the river’s bottom, and  found broken shards of bottles and early redware pottery.  I was frustrated that I couldn’t find anything intact. Near the end of the dive, I found something down in the mud that felt whole. I pulled out something that looked like a clear glass sundae dish. It had hobnails lining its side, and a pedestal base, and honestly wasn’t much to look at.

But when I got it home and really cleaned it up, I got a feeling it was something really different. Because I found it at such an early site, and I knew there were dense pressed glass items made at some of the early glass houses in New England as far back as the late 18th Century, I was suspicious.

This gorgeous antique blown and cut amethyst spill holder sold for $100 in January 2017.

After some research, I finally discovered that I had found something called a “spill holder.” A spill holder was something used to transfer a flaming splint, or at least one that has glowing embers enough to light a lamp or candle, when multiple things needed to be lit. Rather than use matches, which were a prized commodity in the early 1800s, one lamp would be lit, and then a hot splint would be carried from spot to spot in the home, to light other things. If the folks were poor, this might be just a plain pottery cup or something similar. But in a wealthier home, something fancy, but made of heavy glass was used.  And that is what I had here! 

They are not worth thousands of dollars, but they have more value than an ice cream sundae dish, which is what it looked like at first.

Glass Valentine

I found one of these at a garage sale, and figured it was a contemporary piece, but upon further inspection…

Another one of these “easy to miss items” was something I came across at a garage sale.  It was actually in the garage, and the home, and everything in it, was generally new, bought at the mall kind of stuff.  When I saw one of these oddballs sitting on the edge of a metal table in the back, I didn’t think much of it.  I asked the homeowner if they had any antiques, and she said “oh that thing over there was my grandmother’s, I know it’s old.”

I picked it up and didn’t think the one I had was especially pretty at first glance. It was about 10″ tall, with a clear glass dome, covering some very faded tiny flowers, and  a few hand written words, like ” sweetheart” and ” love.”  It was obviously hand made, and the more I looked at it, the materials looked very old, like maybe Victorian era. She said it was $5.00, so how could I pass it up?

When I got it home, I started hunting online for what it might be.  After lots of scrolling through multiple category searches on Ebay, something caught my eye that was for sale, and the little picture in the listing looked very similar to what I had.  It turned out to be a “glass Valentine,” which is something I had never heard of!

This antique Valentine diorama sold for $150 in October 2015.

Evidently, a very, very fancy thing to give your sweet heart would be a glass Valentine.  They would sell the glass dome, and the stand it came on, and the inside part could be personalized, and meticulously put together for your one and only sweetheart.  I could picture someone arriving at the door, with a box wrapped in paper with a bow on top, and fresh flowers, then opening the box, and finding one of these wrapped in tissue paper. What an extravagant gift that must have been at the time!

I have to admit, that all three of these items were recently things that I could easily have turned down on the dollar table at my local church bizarre. But take it from me,  there’s always more to learn !


Bram Hepburn collects 19th-century New England bottles and glass, having spent the last 30 years digging and diving for bottles in New England and upstate New York. He has just founded an estate liquidation company and auction house, Hepburn and Co. Antiques in Eliot, Maine. You can send an email to him at askus@hepburnandcoantiques.com.

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