Radioactive pottery and glassware are ubiquitous at antique malls. Most items are affordable, attractive, and retain their utilitarian function for serving food and beverages. Plus, it’s always fun to pass a Geiger counter over a dinner guest’s plate just after the meal is finished and watch his face as the counter roars. The vast majority of such articles can be categorized as shown below. Uranium is present in their composition as a colorant and the radioactivity is merely incidental. Some ceramic quack health products were intentionally radioactive. My collection is by no means exhaustive, but is fairly representative of what a few weekends in local flea markets can turn up.
The red stuff owes its distinctive color to a leaded uranium glaze. This glaze is most frequently encountered in so-called “California pottery” of the 1930s-50s, a style featuring bright, solid colors evocative of Moorish tile. The best-known example is Fiesta made by the Homer Laughlin China Company. Red Fiestaware contained natural uranium from 1936 to 1943, when wartime demand for uranium stopped production. Production resumed in 1959 with depleted uranium and ended for good in 1972. The selection in the photo at left includes Fiesta, as well as items made by Bauer, California Pottery, Pacific, and various unknown potteries. Uranium red glazes can produce up to about 30 kcpm on a 2″ pancake Geiger detector. Some kinds of California pottery are collectible and command high prices (e.g. Fiesta), but many uranium-glazed items of lesser pedigree can be found that cost no more than a couple dollars.
The yellow stuff, glazed with a transparent uranium glaze, is generally much less radioactive than the red (ranges up to about 5 kcpm on a 2″ pancake Geiger detector), and more stylistically diverse. Examples of the California style can be found (the Franciscan Ware cup and saucer at left), but so can fine English bone china (small Paragon pitcher at center back), floral-patterned ware (Hall’s pitcher; Limoges “Golden Glow” plate, center-right) even special childrens’ dishes (front, with romantic verse and decal). In general, the deeper the yellow tint, the hotter the product. Most fluoresce a greenish tint under ultraviolet light.
The green stuff is uranium glass, made by including a highly variable amount of uranium oxide in the melt. Colors range from amber to blue-green; some is transparent, some opaque. Regardless of color or opacity, almost all fluoresces brilliant green under ultraviolet light. Major sub-varieties are known as vaseline glass, jadeite, custard glass, and canary glass. Uranium green glass was especially popular during the Great Depression; “elegant glass” and the cheaper “Depression glass” of a green color frequently contain some uranium. Cullet, tubing, and marbles of modern production are widely available. Uranium glass was also once widely used in making graded glass-to-metal seals because of a favorable coefficient of thermal expansion. Its use in that application is represented by the Eimac 35-TG vacuum tube at right. The hottest specimen in this tableau is the large hand-blown vase. Though not particularly fluorescent, it puts out 5 kcpm into a 2″ pancake Geiger counter.
Quack crockery. “Revigators” made in the 1920s are still surprisingly (frighteningly!) commonplace. They were to Americans of the flapper age what acai-berry weight-loss supplements are to the Linda Litzke types of today. Lined with a porous and highly-radioactive torbernite-charged grout, these jars dispensed drinking water saturated with radon gas and its radioactive progeny. Health benefits were claimed, but the only proven reality of the radioactive water craze was a number of cases of terminal bone cancer. Needless to say, the Revigator and similar offerings from other manufacturers aren’t safe to use as intended! Radioactive quack crockery is highly collectible, so expect to drop a few benjamins on specimens in good condition. My Revigator was a cheap local bargain, but it is missing the matching stand and lid. It blows nearly 50 kcpm on a 2″ pancake Geiger counter placed within.