By Rebecca Ruger Wightman
You’ve probably learned by now that most colors of sea glass come with conditions or qualifiers. Yellow sea glass is no exception. Elements such as sulfur mixed with calcium, iron oxidized just right, or potassium chromate can all produce shades of yellow glass. Uranium makes either light brilliant green or yellow glass (Vaseline glass), both of which will glow under ultraviolet lighting. Until recently, cadmium was used regularly to produce certain shades of yellow glass, though many companies have opted to cease cadmium use in glassmaking as it has been found to be a dangerous carcinogen.
Yellow is a commonly used qualifying color of many old glass bottles, such as yellow-olive or yellow-amber glass or yellow-green—meaning, for instance, that yellow-olive glass is actually olive glass with a yellowish hint to the hue. Yellow may actually be one of the more frequently used qualifying color names when discussing historical glass.
There is also sun-turned yellow glass. Just as manganese can produce “sun-purple” glass—where clear glass develops shades and tones of purple over time with exposure to radiation or sunlight—so, too, can clear glass become yellow. Arsenic was once used to create clear glass (before the Second World War) and will turn glass yellow with prolonged exposure to sunlight. Sun-turned yellow glass can often be found in the headlights of very old cars.
Yellow glass was rarely produced en masse for containers such as everyday beverage bottles, though yellow-green or yellow-amber can be found in old canning jars. Serving dishes, dinnerware, toiletry jars, perfume bottles, and art glass were made with yellow sea glass. Depression glass was pastel-colored glassware that was distributed for free or at a low cost during the Great Depression. Plates, cups, salt and pepper sets, and other pieces of this colorful patterned glassware were given out to moviegoers or included in food boxes as an incentive to buy. Although not one of the more common colors of Depression glass, enough Canary yellow glassware was produced that remnants are still found on beaches as small sea glass nuggets.
Yellow glass was also used in automobile, train, and nautical signal lights. When found as sea glass, these yellow pieces often have a telltale ridged or bumpy pattern, which gives a clue about their original use.
“Bright yellow ambers were popular for bottles of bitters, but they were also used for remedies (real or fake),” says Paula Newman from Peblsrock in Seaham, England. “Bright yellow became popular for seltzers and some other drinks, as it wasn’t a ‘danger’ color and so wasn’t used for poisons. If the bottle was squat or unusually shaped, it’s likely to have been an ink bottle or a perfume bottle.”
To find true bright or clear pale yellow glass is rare indeed. Glass collectors and antique professionals will tell you there are dozens of shades of glass that might fall into a “yellow” category, and most of those shades will lean more toward what sea glassers would call “amber.” But the yellow of a sea glasser’s dreams is truly a remarkable treasure, perhaps as unlikely a find as one in 5,000 to 7,500 pieces.