NEW YORK – Carnival glass is a bit of a misnomer. While small pieces were sometimes given out as prizes at carnivals and fairs, these examples of pressed glass and molded from patterns, however, were mainly sold at department stores. They were bought by many households as a beautiful but affordable substitute for expensive art glass. Often described as a “poor man’s Tiffany,” carnival glass is instantly recognizable for its colorful iridescence and its ability to brighten a home by reflecting light. Before electricity in homes became standard, a house could be dark, and carnival glass, especially in light and bright hues, was highly coveted.
Collectors today are still drawn to its bright and metallic luster. Many objects were made from plates and vases to compotes, baskets, bowls and more in a dizzying array of colors. Certain color combinations were commonly used, so examples in rare colors and scarce forms bring the strongest prices today. Among some of the most desirable colors are ice blue, ice green, deep orange, electric purple and red. Marigold was one of the most commonly used colors while a “true red” as a base color was rare.
Given the multi-hued iridescent appearance, it can be a challenge to determine what the base color of a piece is. Holding a piece of carnival glass up to a light source (sunlight is preferred) is the best way, advises the Carnival Heaven website. “This should make the carnival finish ‘disappear’ and reveal the base glass color.” If the piece has a dark or heavy finish making it hard to see through, try looking through the side of the collar base instead.
In a history of carnival glass written for the Texas Carnival Glass Club, collectors Jerry and Carol Curtis write that this glass was made when “metallic spray solutions were applied to the surface of the glass once it was removed from the molds.” The glass was then fired again, giving it the beautiful iridescence it is known for.
Carnival glass was made in the early 20th century, circa 1900-1930s, all over the world, but particularly in America. Renowned U.S. companies specializing in carnival glass during that period included Fenton and Northwood, both based in West Virginia, and Pennsylvania’s Dugan Glass Co. The Fenton Art Glass Co., founded in 1907, was one of the first, introducing an iridescent glass that same year that became known as carnival glass. Its iridescent glass wares were available in many colors in over 150 patterns. “Fenton introduces its innovative ‘iridescent ware,’ a popular-priced alternative to expensive products from Steuben or Tiffany. Other American glassmakers soon introduce competitive products, and this glassware dominates the marketplace for nearly a decade,” according to the company’s timeline on the Fenton website.
Among the many types of patterns decorating carnival glass, according to David Doty’s online guide, include beads and dots, flowers, diamonds, fruit, butterflies, basketweave and lattice, buildings, swirls and animals.
Cordier Auctions & Appraisals in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, has seen many examples of carnival glass over the years. Melanie Hartman, Cordier’s director of catalog and specialty auctions, said whenever she reviews carnival glass, there are certain things she looks for. “I first seek out those pieces in more saturated colors, especially blues and amethyst,” she said. “Pieces manufactured by Northwood and Dugan have also retained their collectability. “It is always exciting to find something that was manufactured for the purpose of advertising, such as a particular department store, or as a souvenir, such as from a historic location.” When collecting carnival glass, she added, size does matter. “Larger vases or larger groups such as punch sets certainly draw more attention.”
The market goes up and down for carnival glass and interest declined steeply after the Great Depression bringing production to a near standstill but rebounded in the 1970s after Fenton began reissuing it.
“I am not a fan of speculation, but if you are attracted to carnival glass, buy it now,” Hartman said. “The current buyer’s market, along with the variety currently available, makes it accessible even to the casual collector. Even if it takes a few years for the market to recover from the current downward trend, it is a low-risk investment.”
An object’s appeal is highly subjective and will vary from one collector to another, but overall carnival glass attracts fans for visual appeal. “I think the beauty of the iridescent colors and the elaborate designs is at the heart of carnival glass’s desirability,” Hartman said. “Even the most common pieces are eye-catching and display well. Additionally, the wide variety of forms and styles available means that everyone can find a piece that they love.”