By Denise Troy
Of all the treasures I have found on the magical beaches of Seaham, England, over the course of a decade, my very favorites have always been the yellow, blue, green, and, on occasion, red chunks of milk glass. Though I am blessed with incredible multis that I can stare at (and, do) for hours, these pastel gems always find a way to make me squeal in a tone of delight reserved only for them.
Much has been written about the glass factories located in the area of Seaham and Sunderland, England, that operated many decades ago. Products ranged from stained glass to vases, glassware, bottles, and much more. Try to plan a visit to the National Glass Centre in Sunderland (a neighboring town of Seaham’s where much of its sea glass originated) if you are ever in the area. The rich history of the area’s glassmaking that supplied Europe for centuries is on full, gorgeous display.
It was at the Centre during my most recent visit that I started to think about where my pastel milk-glass beauties might have come from. Certainly, there was a vase (above) that could have been the original source of a few blue shards in my collection. Or, maybe, a pink milk-glass candy dish could have been the source of that one milky-pink sea glass gem I found. Centuries of glass-making produces not only masterpieces and multitudes of products, but also endless questions about where individual sea glass originated from.
See antique painted milk glass Christmas ornaments.
Paula Newman, local beachcomber and Seaham sea glass expert, was kind enough to share that some smoother Seaham milk glass began its journey as Victorian toothpaste and face cream containers. However, what I kept coming back to were the pieces of yellows, blues, and greens with the curious ridges on their backs.
I should mention that I am in the process of renovating a 1940s farmhouse. I am researching every historical element of homebuilding in my area during that time trying to find the right balance of old and new. Obsessing over tiling has become a full-time job for me. It was in one particular tile store, while neurotically examining the encaustic tile, that the light bulb finally went off: those ridges must be part of floor or wall tile.
A quick search of Victorian tile seemed to have confirmed my theory. The dominant colors in their tile flooring appears to be the same yellows, greens, blues, and, again, even a small amount of reds. The Victorians loved their encaustic (patterned) tiles. Due to the high cost of real encaustic tile, many people opted for colorful, geometric tiles that were artistically set together to make elaborate patterns resembling their pricier muse.
A more recent discussion with Paula helped to support my theory. She generously added that she believes that these sea glass shards were vitrolite tiles for the washrooms and shower rooms of the local coal mines that were plentiful in the area at that time, as well.
The question remains whether these tiles were produced within the Sunderland region. I need to dig a bit deeper to answer that one. How did they make their way into the water? One thing that can be said with certainty: like all the other treasures collected on the beaches of Seaham, the North Sea worked its magic transforming these tile shards into the breathtaking gems that they are now. And that’s always something to squeal about!
Watch videos about all the colors of sea and beach glass
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This article appeared in the Beachcombing Magazine November/December 2022 issue.