Carnival Glass | Everything you want to know and more
Dec 6, 2013 | by Becky Oeltjenbruns
That iridescent glow, the vibrant colors, the lovely shine – carnival glass has been a show stopper for generations. Learn more about this iconic house ware staple as we uncover its identifying features and history.
What is carnival glass?
Taking its roots in America, carnival glass is simply press-molded glass with an iridescent finish. First manufactured in early 1905, the intricate pattern work and stunning colors captured the Art Nouveau aesthetic perfectly. Most patterns were inspired by nature or geometry, detailed to hide the seams from the mold. The iridescent finish was applied via a brush or spray technique after the initial firing of the glass. As a result, the special qualities that make carnival glass stand out are not properties of the glass, but rather a finish covering the surface.
Its popularity rose due to a lack of indoor residential lighting and advancements in glass making. With most homes being relatively dark at night, carnival glass was a striking highlight for any parlor. The limited light would sparkle and dance on the glass surfaces, making any space feel grand. Previously glass ware had been hand blown – a very lengthy process – and with the invention of high-quality molds, labor was significantly reduced. Prices followed suit and as a result, this glass became a key feature in most middle-class homes.
Carnival glass was not found exclusively in American homes, shortly after its domestic debut it found fame in other countries such as England, Australia, and Czechoslovakia (to name a few). With the stock market crash and rising prominence of the Art Deco movement, carnival glass dramatically fell out of fashion. But the tale doesn’t end there – it enjoyed a brief revival in the 1960s and is still being produced to this day!
Why is it called carnival glass?
The abrupt decline in popularity actually inspired its namesake. With the overwhelming dominance of this type of glass, manufacturers were stockpiling a large supply. As demand waned, the glass ware was given away at fairs and public events, producing the name: carnival glass.
How do I know if my carnival glass is real?
As you can imagine, such a popular item remains very collectible and has inspired many fake interpretations. Most of the forged items are manufactured in Taiwan and they are getting more clever as the years progress. You may see a legitimate-looking mark on the bottom of the piece, adding confusion to the mix. The best way to ascertain an item’s history: if the base is unusually thick and heavy the piece is counterfeit; if the iridescence is exceptionally overwhelming or the pattern work is off it is bogus; lastly, if it appears too good to be true it is.
Carnival glass shapes, colors, and bases
The process of press-molding allowed for a lot of diversity. While carnival glass was used for many storage/decorative uses such as punch bowls, lamps, paperweights, and hatpin holders – the big three remain bowls, vases, and plates. The item’s edges follow four main profiles (as shown in the illustration), but the bases were more varied. Bases were completed with feet, rimmed, or domed; there is an assortment within these groupings.
There are many colors associated with carnival glass. Keep in mind that there are two components: the base color (which you can see by holding the piece to the light) and the iridescent finish. There are four main categories: standard (like the very popular marigold on a clear base), pastel, opalescent edges, and rare. Within the standards are the major warm and cool tones: marigold, amber, red, amethyst, blue, and green. Note that red is very hard to produce and thus very desirable. Pastels were primarily manufactured by the American factories and like red are very collectible. The color descriptions all sound very delicious: apricot, butterscotch, champagne, to name a few. The opalescent edge grouping is differentiated by a reheating process that lend a ribbon-like edge of radiance. Before you start a serious collection, we advise you purchase a good reference book. With all the color mutations available, this resource will be invaluable as you move forward. We recommend Collecting Carnival Glass by Marion Quintin-Baxendale. It is available for purchase following this post.
Well-know carnival glass manufacturers
Dugan – Pennsylvania 1892
This firm went through a few change of hands before changing its name to the Diamond Glass Company in 1913. Dugan pieces are marked with a capital D inside a diamond. Their patterns are primarily inspired by the natural, organic world. Sadly the factory caught fire in 1931 and the company never recovered.
Fenton – Ohio 1906
Unlike Dugan, the Fenton name continues today. Brothers Frank L. and John Fenton started the firm in Martins Ferry, Ohio and quickly became known for their outstanding design work. This was largely due to their key designer, Jacob Rosenthal, and John’s creation of the Goddess of the Harvest bowl. You can easily identify and date a Fenton piece by their marked logo. John would later go on to found the Millersburg line, praised for its artistic genius, but closed shop a few years later due to financial mismanagement.
Imperial – Ohio 1904
In contrast to their competitors, Imperial focused on geometric designs and practical pieces. They are renowned for the stunning brilliance of their iridescence and innovative base colors, such as smoke. Their factory officially closed its doors in 1985. You can find out more about the company and see an example of its logo emblem here.
Northwood – Ohio 1887
Founded by the son of a famous English glassmaker, Harry Northwood found that even if his company transitioned to new names his creative efforts were still treasured. Known for exquisite natural designs, vivid colors, and rich marigold iridescence on custard glass, it could no longer carry on without its founder. After his sudden death in 1918, the factory struggled until it closed in 1925. Northwood markings are distinguished with a captial, underlined N encased in a circle (either complete or c-shaped).
For our readers: Do you collect carnival glass – tell us about your favorite piece or why you enjoy collecting it!