The National Glass Collectors Fair

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Pass The Sugar Basin!

by James S. Measell

A commemorative sugar and cream in 'opal' by Henry Greener & Co.
A commemorative sugar and cream in 'opal' by Henry Greener & Co. Celebrating the landing in Halifax (Nova Scotia) of the Marquis of
Lorne and Princess Louise on 25 November 1878. Image Courtesy of Philip Housden

Some years ago, my wife and I purchased an item described as “a milk glass footed compote dish with much writing and the likeness of Disraeli, the Earl of Beaconsfield.” We were intrigued by the intricate detail of the portrait of Benjamin Disraeli, and we learned that Greener & Co., who operated the Wear Flint Glass Works at Sunderland, made this piece in the late 1870s. The design was registered on 31 August, 1878, not long after Prime Minister Disraeli’s success in negotiating a peace treaty at the Congress of Berlin in July, 1878.  

We have since learned that “milk glass” was originally called opal [pronounced “o-pal”], a term employed by glassmakers in England and in America but seldom used by glass collectors now. More importantly, we also learned that our piece is, in fact, a “sugar basin.” The phrase seems to be distinctively British in origin and generally applies to nineteenth- and twentieth-century pressed glassware.

Glass history researchers Charles Hajdamach and Raymond Slack indicate that the term “sugar basin” was in use as early as 1848 in England, when Thomas Webb II of Molineaux Webb & Co. was describing pressed glass procedures and products. Jennie Thompson notes that the phrase “sugar basin” was often used in the descriptions of glassware designs that were officially registered and recorded at the Patent Office.

Collectors of American pattern glass are familiar with the standard four-piece table set, which consists of covered butter dish, covered sugar bowl, creamer and spooner (incidentally, both the manufacturers and glass workers often shortened these, respectively, to “butter, sugar, cream and spoon”). The British sets generally do not include a spooner, and the creamer and sugar basin are generally paired together while the butter dish stands alone.

A covered sugar bowl in 'turquoise' by Sowerby. Pattern No. pattern 1430 (Crirca 1879)
A covered sugar bowl in 'turquoise' by Sowerby. Pattern No. pattern 1430 (Crirca 1879).
Image Courtesy of Philip Housden

British glassware manufacturers produced both “sugars” and “sugars & covers.” The latter, as shown in Cottle’s book on Sowerby glass, correspond to the American expectation of a standard covered sugar bowl. On the other hand, “sugars” appears to be a diminutive form of the phrase “sugar basins,” for either term may occur in manufacturers’ catalogues or in advertisements in glass trade publications such as The Pottery Gazette and Glass Trades Review.

Some insight into the sugar basin can also be gained from a brief consideration of the history of table sugar. Today, one has a choice among packets of various artificial sweeteners and, perhaps, real sugar (sucrose) that is a fine, white powder that dissolves quite readily in coffee or tea. A century or so ago, real sugar was coarse in texture and rather lumpy. A roomy sugar basin provided space enough to tap the lumps with the underside of the spoon or, if necessary, to employ the spoon’s edge to cleave a stubborn lump.

Raymond Notley notes another factor that influenced the size of sugar basins, namely, the elimination of a tariff on sugar imported into Britain. Notley quotes this 1901 reminiscence: “In the early days of glass pressing, sugar basins were smaller, from the fact that sugar was dearer; but duty-free sugar caused the glass manufacturers in the far north to compete in making the biggest sugar and cream they could to retail for sixpence ....” Manufacturer Thomas Kidd and Co. of Manchester was certainly eager to compete, for this firm’s advertisement in the Pottery Gazette and Glass Trades Review for June 1, 1897, offered sugar basins and cream jugs (and many other items) for just 1p each!

A typical sugar basin may seem rather too large when accompanied by the cream jug in the same motif (Manley’s book, p. 109, shows nine different sets, and this disparity is readily seen). Some original catalogues depict the cream jug positioned above the sugar basin, and some show the cream jug sitting inside the sugar basin! This is impractical for actual use, of course, but the economy of space does make it easier to display one’s collection!


About the Author

Dr. James S. Measell is Historian at the Fenton Art Glass Company in Williamstown, West Virginia, USA. He and his wife Brenda have collected British pressed glass since the late 1960s.

They have enjoyed several recent visits to England and are looking forward to the National Glass Fair in May 2010.

They can be reached via email:


Chiarenza, Frank and Slater, James. The Milk Glass Book (Schiffer Publishing, 1998).

Cottle, Simon. Sowerby Gateshead Glass (Tyne and Wear Museums Service, 1986).

Hajdamach, Charles. British Glass, 1800-1914 (Antique Collectors’ Club, 1991).

Lattimore, Colin R. English 19th-Century Press-Moulded Glass (Barrie & Jenkins, 1979).

Manley, Cyril. Decorative Victorian Glass (Ward Lock, 1981).

Morris, Barbara. Victorian Table Glass and Ornaments (Barrie & Jenkins, 1978).

Murray, Sheilagh. The Peacock and the Lions (Oriel Press, 1982).

Notley, Raymond. Pressed Flint Glass (Shire Publications, 1986).

Slack, Raymond. English Pressed Glass, 1830-1900 (Barrie & Jenkins, 1987).

Thompson, Jennie. The Identification of English Pressed Glass, 1842-1908 (Dixon Printing Co., 1989).


Please note that the content of this article is the sole intellectual property of the author. No reproduction or reference to the text of this article may be made without the express permission of the author.

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