Vaseline Glass, Radioactive Bowls, and Murder Bottles on Exhibit at the Avery House in Fort Collins

Bowl made with glass containing uranium oxide glows under black light in the collection of Victorian glassware on exhibit at the Avery House in Fort Collins. (Photograph by Richard Gonet)

Richard Gonet | North Forty News

Do you think an exhibit of Victorian glassware sounds dull?  How about one with Vaseline glass, radioactive bowls, and Murder Bottles?  These and other examples of Victorian glassware and 250 other examples of decorative Victorian-era glassware are being shown in a special exhibit at the 1879 Avery House through December 17, 2023. 

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Photograph of child nursing on a ‘Murder Bottle,’ shown next to a photo of an actual ‘Murder Bottle’ in the collection of Victorian glassware on exhibit at the Avery House in Fort Collins. (Photograph of child by unknown photographer; photograph of bottle by Richard Gonet)
Photograph of child nursing on a ‘Murder Bottle,’ shown next to a photo of an actual ‘Murder Bottle’ in the collection of Victorian glassware on exhibit at the Avery House in Fort Collins. (Photograph of child by unknown photographer; photograph of bottle by Richard Gonet)

According to Heather Reid, an avid collector, and curator of the exhibit, the discovery of large natural gas deposits in the eastern states and scientific advancements in the field of chemistry made possible a glassware industry that was unparalleled the world over.  Suddenly, everything from 24-carat gold to recently discovered uranium isotopes was being added to glass mixtures to achieve never-before-seen colors and clarity.  Artists from around the world opened factories to take advantage of advancements in industrial glass mold making.  According to Ms. Reid, glass became to the Victorians what plastics are to us today:  Cheap, affordable, and able to be transformed into almost any shape.

Cabinet holding collection of glassware containing uranium oxide in the collection of Victorian glassware on exhibit at the Avery House in Fort Collins. (Photograph by Richard Gonet)

In the 1880s, a Bohemian glassmaker named Josef Reidel added newly discovered uranium oxide to his glass mixtures. The element colored the glass a vibrant yellow-green shade that seemed to “glow” in sunlight.  It was nicknamed ‘Vaseline glass’ because it had the same color as the high sulfur content yellowish-green vaseline that was manufactured and sold in those days.  More intriguing, though, is the fact that the glass fluoresces with an iridescent green glow when exposed to black light that excites the uranium atoms in the glass.  Technically, the uranium in the glass makes it radioactive, but the level of radioactivity is so weak that it is barely detectable and is considered to be harmless.

Another curious piece of glassware on display is what came to be known in Victorian times as a “Murder Bottle.”  According to Ms. Reid, a newly developed feeding bottle for infants was developed.  A length of rubber tubing and a nipple were attached to the bottles for feeding.  The bottles were difficult to clean because of their “banjo” shape, and the common practice was to wash the tubes and nipples on an irregular basis.  This lack of proper sanitation practices resulted in the deaths of many infants.  Only two out of ten children lived to their second birthday.  Doctors condemned the use of the bottles, but parents continued to buy and use them, thus earning them the nickname “Murder Bottles.”

These and other beautiful and unique pieces of Victorian-era glassware can be seen in the exhibit called Gold & Glow: The Glamour of Victorian Glass at the Avery House in Fort Collins, with paid admission during open house hours:  Saturdays, 11 a.m.-2 p.m.; and Sundays, 1-4 pm. The exhibit ends on December 17, 2023. 

Visit  PoudreLandmarks.org for more information.