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by Steve Mills, contributing editor for Heartland Trails
Many antique markets, malls, and shops are spotted with vividly colored, iridescent glassware in numerous patterns, colors, and styles. This glass, known now as 'Carnival Glass', was once known as simply 'Iridescent Ware', and enjoyed its beginnings as cheap, colorful glassware which was sold for mere pennies or given away in tins of oatmeal or, yes, even given away at carnivals.
Carnival glass has eventually grown into a prized collector's item with a passionate following in the collecting community, and with 2,000 patterns in over 60 colors, from around 40 manufacturers it has proven to be a prolific collectible by any measure. Carnival glass makes for a great beginner's collection, for those who have little experience in collecting or is looking for something to brighten up their home with, but as a collector's knowledge increases, the hunt for rarer and more valuable carnival glass can keep this hobby exciting for decades.
The first mass-produced carnival glass was made in 1907 by the Fenton Glass Company in Williamston, West Virginia. The first line was known as Iridill, and was considered an attractive product that could compete with the more expensive iridescent glass made by the Tiffany and Steuben companies. Though this new style of glass did not take off the way the Fenton brothers had hoped, other manufacturers saw the potential and began to produce their own iridescent glass, as well. Northwood, run by Harry Northwood, introduced its own iridescent glass in 1908, naming it 'Golden Iris'. This glass was notable for its beautiful, glowing marigold color. Later, the Dugan, and Imperial Glass companies were producing glass in this style. Millersburg's line of carnival glass was short-lived, with the company only producing it for two years, though today collectors see Millersburg glass as among the finest examples of the style. Other manufacturers include Cambridge, Dugan or Diamond, Westmoreland, and Fostoria among others. Much of the carnival glass made in America was produced in New England and other north-eastern states, following the trend of many other glass collectibles made from the 1800's through the mid 1900's.
After a bit of a rocky beginning, carnival glass began to take off. It was realized quickly that consumers did not see this glass as top-dollar merchandise, and as prices fell, demand began to rise. Shortly, American carnival glass makers were producing carnival glass to export to Europe and around the world. In an effort to compete in the market, with new carnival glass manufactories springing up seemingly everywhere, the glass companies began to develop their own carnival treatments, and pairing them with new base colors of glass to achieve new, and interesting results. With this, seemingly limitless shades of iridescent glass were produced. This carnival glass was sold in five-and-dime stores for pennies per piece, and even given away with purchases of household necessities like baking soda and oatmeal. How is carnival glass made, though?
The heart of any carnival glass, as with all pressed glass, is the mould. Before 1907, pressed glass had been around for a while, and some glass manufacturers used these same moulds for their first carnival glass lines. These moulds determine the pattern of the glass piece that was formed in it, and names such as 'Waterlily and Cattails,' 'Diamond and Rib,' 'Blackberry Wreath,' and 'Jeweled Heart' are all names for a pattern, rather than a single piece. A single pattern may have dozens of accompanying pieces, from bowls and plates, to tumblers, pitchers, vases, candlesticks, and even lamps. In the heyday of carnival glass, these moulds were hand-carved in reverse by skilled artisans, whose names are rarely attributed to the patterns they had designed.
After the mould has been selected and set up, glass is melted and colored to produce the base color for the carnival glass piece. This base color has traditionally been made with the addition of certain metals to the glass, everything from manganese, iron and lead, to uranium, gold, and other precious metals. After melting and mixing, the glass is balled up onto a rod, and the appropriate amount of glass is cut from the ball and dropped into the mould. The workers would use tools to ensure the glass fills the base of the mould, before a machine would press into the glass, forcing it into the pattern inside the mould. Excess glass was trimmed away, and with the pattern formed, the glass would be removed, re-heated, and shaped by the artisans to add crimped edges, handles, and other stylistic features. After this stage, the glass would be sprayed with liquid metal salts, adding the iridescent glaze. After the glaze is added, the glass is placed in an annealing oven, which slowly cools the piece down to room temperature, to prevent stresses from forming inside the glass, due to uneven cooling.
By the end of the 1920's, carnival glass had unfortunately fallen out of vogue. At one time they were desirable pieces, used to brighten up drab, dark home interiors, but the once-prized collections of carnival glass were all but forgotten over the years. The renewed interest in carnival glass began in the 1960's or 1970's, and as the public rediscovered this colorful, eye-catching glassware prices began to soar in collector's markets. Numerous lines of carnival glass are being made today, some by manufacturers who simply want to enable people to have beautiful iridescent glassware in new condition, and some carnival glass is made by unscrupulous companies who intend to sell them as old pieces in good condition. It's unlikely that authentic, old carnival glass will be in brand-new condition after a hundred years— though examples do exist— and it's best to educate yourself thoroughly on carnival glass before shopping for it, so you know what to look for, and what to watch out for. It takes time, and research, but the end results are well worth the means.
To judge the value of any carnival glass you may come across, begin by using a flashlight to shine through the glass. This will reveal the base color of the glass, essentially making the iridescence disappear so you can judge its color. Carnival glass sold as 'purple' or 'amethyst' is referring to this base color, and not the color of the iridescence. Common base colors are amber, blue, purple, green and clear, though rarer, and much more desirable colors such as red and persian blue are occasionally found. Clear glass is typically known as 'marigold' due to the golden color given to it from the coating. Knowing your patterns, colors, and makers does help, but identifying, and valuing carnival glass is much like detective work— assembling clues from here and there, and researching your way to the truth in an ongoing process. Checking the base, which is commonly un-iridized, can tell much about the quality of the glass. It's important to examine the patterns closely for chips, cracks, or broken off bits on the rims of ornately shaped pieces, as well. Iridescence should be striking, though it comes in many forms due to being hand-applied during manufacture, and which you collect is more a matter of personal preference.
Carnival glass, depending on the color and rarity, as well as the condition, can be worth anywhere from $15 to $100,000, so it is very important to know what you're getting yourself into. It tends to be that the darker colors, those showing deep blue-green iridescence and purple glass, tend to be worth more than the more commonly available marigold iridescent glass. Most carnival glass is unmarked by the manufacturer, though some exceptions, as always, do apply. The pattern is the best tool with which to determine the maker, and to get an idea as to the manufacture date of a specific piece. Of course, this information is readily available in dozens of collector's and valuation guides.
To find carnival glass, anecdotal evidence implies that antique shops and malls are not the places to look, as they are thought to often mistake one pattern for another, or misidentify newer pieces as antique carnival glass. Stories even tell of 'matched' sets being found, with a lid and container from two entirely different manufacturers! The top places to buy carnival glass are specialized collectible glass shows, carnival glass conventions, and...believe it or not...eBay. On eBay, hundreds of pieces of carnival glass are offered each day, and reputable sellers will be happy to provide additional photos of carnival glass to help you identify it for yourself, and will also readily answer any questions you may have about each piece. If you must shop in flea markets and antique shops, carry with you a book on the identification and values of carnival glass, with lots of photographs to help you identify what you're looking at. Collecting societies are scattered throughout the world, and these groups are eager to help new collectors build their knowledge and share reliable sources for carnival glass, as well as providing information and 'required reading' for any new collector.
Thankfully, caring for carnival glass is simple, as with most old glass. When bringing home a piece of carnival glass for the first time, it may have sticky residue left over from price stickers, and a simple application of orange oil, coupled with a little elbow grease, can take this off, as can numerous commercial adhesive removers, as long as you're careful and refrain from using nasty solvents or chemicals. Never wash it in the dishwasher, and use only tepid water and mild detergents, with a soft rag, to wash each piece. It's best to use a plastic wash bin to prevent the glass from clunking around in the sink, as well, and make sure to only wash one piece at a time. If you have a vase or pitcher with built up 'crud' in the bottom, denture tablets can be used to break this up. It's a wise idea to not pick up pitchers or cups by the handles, as these are often the weakest point in pressed glass pieces.
Keep your carnival glass out of direct sunlight when storing, as sunlight has been known to discolor all sorts of glassware over time, and carnival is no exception. If you must store the items, double-boxing with plenty of padding between the inside and outside boxes are a worthwhile measure to take to ensure the protection of that precious glass inside. In the inner box, wrapping each piece in soft, well-padded and preferably white cloth will protect the glass from clinking against its partners, and save you from having to clean the glass again when it comes out of storage to go back on display. For wrapping, fleece is a great material, and is cheap, thick, and soft enough to get the job done. After the appropriate measures are taken to ensure its safety, this timeless glass collectible can be handed down, and enjoyed for generations to come, just as much of it already has, for over a hundred years.