Several American glassmakers, including Fenton Art Glass and Northwood, attempted to create more affordable versions of Tiffany and Steuben’s iridescent glassware around the turn of the twentieth century. The sudden flood of inexpensive iridescent glass, originally marketed as “Iridell” Fenton, only succeeded in diluting the public’s interest in decorative glass from any maker. Carnival glass was the name given to examples of this type of pressed glass collectors.
Carnival glass is a pressed glass, which means that hot molten glass, which may or may not contain color of its own, is poured into metal molds and conforms to the shape of the molds. Various solutions of metallic salts are sprayed onto the surface of the glass while it is still hot, and the piece is then reheated. The end result is a rainbow-hued piece of iridescent glassware. Many carnival glass pieces have a distinctive marigold color with random swirls of other colors strewn across the surface.
The glassware’s original manufacturers, on the other hand, would never have referred to it as carnival glass. When the market for low-cost Tiffany and Steuben art glass collapsed, companies like Fenton Art Glass and Northwood were left with an overabundance of nearly worthless glassware. When these businesses decided to sell their excess, one of their biggest customers was the carnival midway industry, which was always looking for low-cost prizes for its games.
Instead of buying stuffed animals or other “blow-offs,” carnival owners began stockpiling large quantities of this low-cost glassware. The glass still appeared to be a substantial prize, tempting carnival-goers into winning an iridescent vase or dinner plate for their loved ones. During the 1950s, collectors coined the term “carnival glass” to describe the cheap art glass produced Fenton, Northwood, and others.
Despite the fact that the original carnival art glass market in the United States had collapsed the 1920s, several manufacturers continued to produce it in overseas glass factories. Even into the 1960s, the European and Asian markets for inexpensive iridescent art glass remained strong, and carnival glassware is still produced, though the truly collectible carnival glass dates roughly from 1900 to 1930.
Carnival glass is one of the most popular glass types today, closely followed the largely monochromatic “Depression Glass” that replaced it in the popular market of the 1930s. Carnival glass of good quality can be found at reasonable prices in online auctions and antique shops, and it retains its value over time. Although both the Fenton and Northwood companies created their own distinctive signature stamps when they restarted their carnival glass lines in the 1960s and 1970s, few original carnival glass pieces were signed or stamped.
Because there is so much reproduction carnival glass on the market, distinguishing between the valuable original and the common reproduction can be difficult. If you decide to build a carnival glass collection, have the pieces examined a glass expert to avoid purchasing modern reproductions. It’s also a good idea to compare the piece’s pattern to original carnival glass patterns available in company catalogs.