There's good news for summertime antiquers left high and dry in hot collecting fields. Collectors thirsting for good values and available merchandise are licking their lips over vintage drinking glasses and toasting an extraordinary new exhibit at the Corning (N.Y.) Museum of Glass, "Liquid Refreshment: 2,000 Years of Drinks and Drinking Glasses," which helps make crystal clear the sometimes cloudy history of cups, tumblers, pilsners, cordials and flutes. From rare ancient Roman glass drinking "horns" suitable for a bacchanalian feast, to the millions of comic character glasses given away by fast-food chains or gas stations, there are collectible glasses to suit any taste.
The Corning Museum's ambitious survey reveals the wide variety of drinking-glass shapes, colors and decorations, while examining mores surrounding beverage consumption. "We want people to appreciate all the different forms glasses have taken over the years and their context in social history," said the show's curator, Jane Shadel Spillman. For example, lemonade sets and water tumblers gained popularity in late 19th-century America not just because they were pretty, useful, and inexpensively mass-produced, but because the temperance movement was heating up.
Glass is a window on manners and taste through the ages. On display at Corning is a European blown-glass beaker from the 13th or 14th century, with applied glass spikes around the middle resembling rows of nipples. The reason: For centuries glasses were rare, expensive and owned primarily by the elite who banqueted Henry VIII-style, using their hands. The spikes ensured that the mealtime mood wouldn't be shattered by greasy fingers loosing a grip on costly glassware.
During the Middle Ages and Renaissance, when wine production flourished in Italy and France, the Venetians dominated the glass trade, making wine goblets, decanters and ewers. Their hallmark: extremely thin, nearly colorless glass called "cristallo" because it resembled rock crystal. The exhibition's three circa-1600 cristallo footed goblets on simple baluster-shaped stems, with flaring bowls, are timeless with their clean lines and unpretentious appearance.
In Central Europe, where the climate was conducive to beer production, German glass makers created large cylindrical glasses for holding a quart or two of beer. On display is a hefty 1719 German beer glass called a "pasglaser," because it would have been passed from drinker to drinker. It's engraved with horizontal lines and a verse that the person who drank to the first line would be "as drunk as a woman," and the one who drained the vessel would be "as drunk as an old pig."
By the 18th century, England dominated production, exporting lead glass to America and throughout Europe. Often the only way to determine the beverage a vessel was intended for is to examine its decoration. For example, some small 18th-century goblets resembling modern wine glasses were engraved with barley or hops designs if meant for beer, and apples if used for cider.
Anthony Stout of Washington has spent years amassing 17th- to 19th-century European goblets and decanters "on a budget." He says, "It takes persistence to find the goodies, but that's half the fun, and sometimes museum-quality rarities show up at antiques shows." Last month Mr. Stout discovered a late 18th-century English goblet with a 1763 coin embedded into the knop of its stem, for which he paid around $1,200 at a York, Pa., antiques fair. Mr. Stout says he's sure "It's very rare and worth a good deal more than I paid."
Seeing and handling as much glass as possible and learning about production techniques through the ages, are keys to finding treasures and avoiding fakes. "Collectors need to understand which forms, shapes and colors were used in which decades," said Dorothy-Lee Jones, director of the Jones Museum of Glass and Ceramics in Douglas Hill, Maine. "We spend a great deal of time showing people the differences between originals and forgeries," she said.
Francis Allen, president of the National Early American Glass Club, which has many regional chapters, cautions: "If you're collecting antique glass you have to be aware of repros and copies." Club members not only learn about and trade vintage glass, but also share tips about fakes. For club information, write to NEAGC Membership Chairperson, P.O. Box 8489, Silver Spring, Md. 20907. Annual dues, which include newsletters, are $15.
Although some old glassware remains precious, there's lots of affordable and collectible 19th- and 20th-century glass, much of it mass-produced in the United States. Pink Depression-era glass is hot, says dealer Fran Jay (10 Church St., Lambertville, N.J. 08530,  397-1571). Particularly popular patterns include Royal Lace, Cherry, Mayfair, Sharon and Princess. Prices start as low as $6 for small plain juice glasses in these patterns and can rise to $50 for Sharon footed ice tea glasses.
McDonald's and Burger King comic character premium glasses from the 1970s are in demand and can fetch $5 to $15 each in good condition, she says. For real winners, bet on vintage mint julep glasses served up as souvenirs at the Kentucky Derby. Ms. Jay says some from the 1930s in good condition can sell for hundreds of dollars each. World's Fair glasses also are popular and attract cross-over attention from exposition enthusiasts.
According to dealer Barbara M. Lessig of Pleasant Valley Antiques (21000 Georgia Ave., Brookeville, Md. 20833;  924-2293), fine wine goblets sell faster than anything else in stock. She recently sold for $450 a turn-of-this-century American cameo glass hock wine goblet by Dorflinger of White Mills, Pa. Real sleepers for lazy summer days are lemonade sets. A circa-1880s, inverted-thumbprint-pattern, straw-colored, molded glass lemonade pitcher with six matching glasses is priced $90 at Pleasant Valley.
Collectors have varying interests, says dealer Donald H. Robertson, of Robertson and Thornton (4092 Route 202, Doylestown, Pa. 18901,  794-3109), noting that pattern glass collectors generally are looking to assemble usable sets of drinking glasses, while collectors of blown glass want rare individual pieces. Mr. Robertson currently is offering Bellflower pattern water goblets, circa 1855, for $48 each; sherry-size "free blown" glasses, possibly English, circa 1800, are $68 each.
Americana dealer Gary Stradling of New York says good glass looks and feels sensuous. His advice: "Pressed glass goblets are dirt cheap. You can assemble a decent set of 1820s to 1830s wine glasses and tumblers for not a lot of money." He adds, "It's a good investment for the future. It has nowhere to go but up."
IF YOU GO . . .
"Liquid Refreshment: 2,000 Years of Drinks and Drinking Glasses," through Oct. 17 at the Corning Museum of Glass, One Corning Way, Corning, N.Y. 14830-2253; (607) 937-5371.