What is Carnival Glass?
General Overview on “Carnival Glass”
Carnival glass is pressed or blown glass, produced in a myriad of colors, patterns and shapes, having a characteristic iridescent, multicolored rainbow-like “oil slick on mud puddle” appearance to the surface, first produced circa 1908.
Carnival Glass was originally produced as a cheaper alternative to the expensive blown iridescent glass by Tiffany and other types of upscale glassware.
Many types of articles, both ornamental as well as utilitarian, were made with the ‘carnival’ finish, and patterns ranged from simple through geometric and ‘cut’ styles to pictorial and figurative. A wide range of colors and color combinations were used but the most common colors accounted for a large proportion of output, so scarce colors can today command very high prices on the collector market.
Carnival glass gets its iridescent sheen from metallic salts having been sprayed on the surface of the glass while it was still very hot. A final firing of the glass brings out the iridescent, “shimmery” look caused by the presence of the salts, giving carnival glass the distinct appearance it is known for.
Its current name was adopted by collectors (probably in the 1950s?) from the fact that it was sometimes given away as prizes at carnivals or fairs. However, most of it was not distributed in this way, but it is likely the great majority of it was purchased from retail outlets including general stores, “dime stores”, or was given away as premiums to encourage the purchase of certain products.
Some carnival glass is still produced today although in much less quantity than during it’s heyday of production. At the height of its popularity in the 1920s huge volumes were produced and prices were low enough for the average, middle class household to afford.
The majority of Carnival glass was evidently produced in the United States, although it also became fairly popular in Europe, with a number of glass companies making Carnival there as well. Nearly all the major European glass-making centers produced some. It was also very popular in Australia.
Carnival Glass Insulators
Glass electrical powerline insulators are also found in Carnival glass, although the intent of production was not ornamental. The application of metallic salts to the surface of power line insulators was practiced in an effort to increase the effectiveness of the insulating properties of the product (i.e., reducing loss/leakage of the electric current to the surrounding environment). Most carnival glass insulators, made by Corning Glass Works [Pyrex] and Hemingray Glass Company, typically date from the 1920s and 1930s. They are avidly collected by both carnival glass buffs as well as glass electrical insulator collectors.
Carnival glass originated as a glass called ‘Iridill’, produced beginning in 1908 by the Fenton Art Glass Company (founded in 1905). Iridill was inspired by the fine blown art glass of such makers as Tiffany and Steuben, but did not sell at the anticipated premium prices and was subsequently discounted. After these markdowns, Iridill pieces were used as carnival prizes.
Iridill became popular and very profitable for Fenton, which produced many different types of items in this finish, in over 150 patterns. Fenton maintained their position as the largest manufacturer and were one of very few makers to use a red colored glass base for their carnival glass.
After interest declined in the late 1920s, Fenton stopped producing carnival glass for many years. In more recent years, due to a resurgence in interest, Fenton restarted production of carnival glass and continued making it until about 2007.
Indiana Glass Company
Indiana Glass Company, Dunkirk, Indiana, produced a lot of the “new” Carnival glass, starting in the early and mid-1970s, including many patterns and pieces in blue carnival, amber, green and marigold. It is very commonly seen in flea markets and antique stores.
Many types of dishes, bowls, compotes, vases, etc, were made in carnival. Their characteristic “Hen on Nest” dish was made in several shades of carnival glass. See this page for more info on that particular type of hen. (An Indiana Glass blue carnival hen is pictured on that page).
For more info on glassware made by Indiana, including carnival, check out this site: IndianaGlass.Carnivalheaven.com.
Most U.S. carnival glass was made before the mid-1920s, with production rapidly declining thereafter. Some significant production continued outside the US through the depression years of the early 1930s, tapering off to very little by the 1940s.
Often the same molds were used to produce clear and transparent colored glass as well as carnival versions, so producers could switch production between these finishes easily according to the current demand / popularity.
Carnival glass was made in a wide array of colors, shades, color combinations and variants. More than fifty have been formally classified. These classifications do not go by the “apparent” surface colors, which can be even more varied, but by the “base” (true, actual) colors of the glass itself, before application of the iridizing mineral salts.
In order to ascertain the actual base color, you have to find an area of the item which had no mineral salts applied, which is usually the base, and hold the item up to the light in such a way that you can see through that area.
This is usually easy enough to do, but it can still be difficult for the inexperienced to differentiate the exact base color between the many possibilities as there are often only subtle differences, as well as variations.
The most common (most abundantly made) color for Carnival Glass is now known by collectors as “Marigold” although that name was not in use at the time it was first produced. Marigold has a clear glass base and is the most easily recognizable carnival color.
The surface colors of marigold are generally a bright orange, yellow, and/or gold, turning sometimes to a rich copper with areas showing accentuated rainbow or ‘oil-slick’ highlights. The highlights may appear mostly on ridges in a pattern, and vary in appearance according to the strength and angle of nearby lighting.
However, variants of marigold such as those based on ‘moonstone’ a translucent white and ‘milk glass’ an opaque white base, can be more sought after. Other base colors include amethyst (a reddish purple), blue, green, red and amber. These basic colors are then further delineated by shade; depth of color; color combinations such as “amberina” (red with amber ….. i.e. lighter yellow, orange or brown edges); color patterns such as “slag”, and special treatments such as “opalescent”.
The basic items produced in Carnival Glass included bowls, plates, vases, jugs, or pitchers and tumblers but many other more specialized items of tableware were made also.
These included large center piece items such as jardinières and float bowls, as well as smaller useful items such as butter dishes, celery vases and cruet sets.
In smaller numbers (and seen much less often) are items having to do with lighting, or associated with smoking and those designed solely for show as ornaments, such as figural sculptures or statuettes.
Carnival glass was produced in large quantities in the US, besides the aforementioned Indiana Glass, by Fenton Art Glass Company, Northwood Glass Company, as well as Imperial, Millersburg, Westmoreland, Dugan/Diamond, Cambridge, and U.S. Glass companies, plus a number of smaller or lesser-known glass manufacturers. Approximately 20 different glass companies located in the United States made Carnival glass at some time in their history.
Competition became so fierce that new patterns were continually being developed, so each company ended up making a range of patterns to give the customer a wider variety of choices.
Different and in many cases highly distinctive carnival glass patterns were designed by non-US makers, most notably by Crown Crystal of Australia, known for their depiction of that continent’s distinctive fauna and flora in their glass.
Sowerby (England) is notable for their use of swan, hen and dolphin figural pieces in carnival finish as well as pieces which have figural parts such as bird figured legs.
German production of carnival was dominated by the Brockwitz glassworks, with mainly geometric patterns which take their cues from cut glass. Other major European producers included Inwald (Czechoslovakia), Eda (Sweden) and Riihimäki (Finland).
Most carnival glass is considered to be highly collectible. Prices do vary widely, with some pieces, (such as certain pieces made in large quantities in a more common color) being worth very little, while other, very rare items commanding thousands of dollars on the open market. Examples of carnival glass are seen frequently in most antique stores, and there is an active market for it on the ebay.com auction website.
Identification of carnival glass is frequently VERY difficult. Many manufacturers did not include a glass maker’s mark on their product, and some did so only for part of the time they produced the glass.
Identifying carnival glass involves matching patterns, colors, sheen, edges, thickness, and other factors from old manufacturer’s trade catalogs, other known examples, or other reference material.
Many of the glass manufacturers who produced Carnival glass copied patterns (with or without slight changes) from their competitors, so it is often very difficult to know for sure where, or by whom, a particular piece was made.
For a comprehensive site all about Carnival Glass, with TONS of great information, check out this website by collector/author/researcher David Doty: www.ddoty.com.
Another great website with gobs of superb information on carnival glass is HOOKEDONCARNIVAL.COM : http://www.hookedoncarnival.com/
Here’s an ebay search on Carnival Glass: Carnival Glass keyword search on eBay
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