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Depression Riches : Colorful period glassware that once sold for pennies is now a collectible worth considerably more. Many pieces are on display at Cal State Northridge.

September 03, 1993|NANCY KAPITANOFF | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Nancy Kapitanoff writes regularly about art for Valley Life.

There is a collector for everything, from buttons and baseball cards to teapots and tobacco pipes. Cal State Northridge engineering pro fessor Bonita Campbell and speech communications professor William Freeman were "eclectic collectors of this, that and the other thing," says Campbell, when in April of 1990, having known each other for several years, they decided to marry.

Depression Glass was not a passion for either of them, at that time. But a burglary at their newly combined household led them to become serious collectors of this colorful glass, which delights many people who wistfully remember their grandmothers' pink plates and green bowls.

Among other things, Campbell's great-grandmother's garnet pin from the early 1900s was stolen.

Her insurance company asked her to figure out its value. The couple went to a few antique malls to look at similar kinds of jewelry.

"In the course of that and going to the bookstore, I saw this book and happened to open it up, and I said, 'William, there's your mother's bowl!' " she said. "So while I went on obsessively about Victorian garnets, we started picking up glassware and learning and studying."

Within the past three years, they have amassed thousands of pieces. About 200 of them, representing more than 90 patterns, are on view in CSUN's South Gallery in the show, "Glassware for the People: Depression Glass, 1929-1939."

Campbell and Freeman demonstrate their fascination and extensive knowledge of the subject in their thoroughly researched presentation of objects, depicting the different styles, colors and forms of all the major lines of this mass-produced, machine-made American glass.

"Some of them are somewhat scarce. A number of them are quite common. Some of them are hardly ever seen because the line is so obscure," Campbell said. "Color had hit as a rage in the mid-'20s in all of the expensive stuff. Somebody needed to manufacture something that the average person could afford."

During the '30s, Depression Glass was sold in massive quantities at dime stores or through catalogues for as little as 3 or 4 cents per piece.

It was also given away as a premium in cereal packages and other groceries, with purchases of furniture and at movie theaters.

"In '39, I was 7 years old. I was going to the movies regularly," Freeman said. "You'd walk in, and they'd give you a bowl. As soon as the lights came up after the movie was over, you'd hear crash, crash, crash all over the theater, because people had it in their laps, and they'd forget about it and get up and start to move."

The CSUN exhibit begins with a display of dishes from the inexpensive "Cameo" pattern, produced by the Hocking Glass Co., juxtaposed with the finer, handmade pieces of the Fostoria Glass Co.'s "June" line.

In the "Cameo" pieces, "you can see the bubbles, and the color washes out here and there, versus the finer, more elegant glass and its color. The pattern itself is borrowed from the elegant glass," Campbell said.

A rainbow of small plates and saucers on one wall gives viewers a good idea of the range of Depression Glass colors and patterns. Pink, green and crystal were the most prevalent colors, making up almost 80% of Depression Glass patterns. Amber or yellow accounted for about 13% of the patterns. White, blue amethyst, red, black and other colors combined made up less than 10%.

In the center of the gallery stands a table set with the Federal Glass Co.'s "Madrid" pattern.

The 19 items, including grill plates, soup bowls, candlesticks and a covered butter dish, all in the Golden Glow color, reflect "what Depression Glass was all about," Campbell said.

"It's etched, cheap, in this amber color that was highly popular during that time--it wasn't highly popular before and hasn't been popular since. And it has all these weird pieces--who ever heard of having a special jam dish?"

Like other ardent collectors they know, Campbell and Freeman had to start selling pieces so they could afford to buy others. They have a retail space in the Cranberry House, an antique and collectibles mall in Studio City.

"The really fun part is finding it, the treasure hunt," Freeman said. "Anybody who does this has a whole series of war stories. I was driving down the street--It says yard sale. I usually hate yard sales. You drive all over and see a bunch of junk. But I turned off. I walked up, and within a matter of a few seconds, I picked up this little bowl. There was an under-plate for it as well. I said how much? She says 50 cents for both of them. It was a Fostoria piece that had a book value of over $100 at the time. Those are the ones that sustain you."

While Freeman enjoys the hunt and a bit of bargaining, Campbell said she is much more interested in the history of the glass and how it was made.

"A lot of it looks really classy, and it sparkles," she said. "It's not just a dead slab of glass. It really comes alive."

Where and When What: "Glassware for the People: Depression Glass, 1929-1939." Location: CSUN South Gallery, Fine Arts Building, 18111 Nordhoff St., Northridge. Hours: Noon to 4 p.m. Mondays, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays through Sept. 16. Also: The Arts Council Gallery store is offering a selection of Depression Glass for purchase during the exhibit. Call: (818) 885-2226.

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