What is Carnival Glass?

Illustration of carnival glass

Illustration: The Spruce / Kaley McKean

Some collectibles have curious names, take carnival glass as an example. Maybe you've seen a piece before, either loved it or hated it as most people do, but we're still left wondering how it got such a fun name.

Well, back in the early 1900s, this iridescent glass was given away at carnivals. Instead of winning a huge stuffed animal, back then you could score a piece of glass to take home to mother as a prize. Not everyone liked the carnival glass though. To the uppity folks in the neighborhood, carnivals were for riff-raff, and these prizes were rejected as being beneath them.

Fortunately, many people valued this type of glass enough to save a few pieces so collectors can enjoy them today. In fact, most carnival glass items were purely decorative, so they tended to sit on shelves as "cabinet" pieces undisturbed rather than being subjected to daily use.

The First Carnival Glass

The process used to make these decorative pieces employed a combination of chemicals applied to the pressed glass before firing. The result was a swirled sheen that was much less expensive to achieve when compared with other types of art glass popular in the early 1900s, such as Tiffany and Steuben.

Fun Fact

Carnival glass is sometimes called the "poor man's Tiffany," which refers to the pricier colorful glass produced by New York's Tiffany Studios between 1878 and 1933.

In 1908, Fenton made the first American pieces we now know as carnival glass. Northwood also began their production in the same year. Other companies such as Millersburg, founded by John W. Fenton after the Fenton Art Glass venture proved profitable, and Dugan also made beautiful carnival pieces. In fact, Dugan manufactured its wares until the company closed in 1931 due to a fire, according to The Online Glass Museum.

The real rage in carnival glass production lasted about ten years through 1918. The market for the glass, along with the production, then moved overseas to countries like England, Germany, and Czechoslovakia where it was made and sold throughout the 1920s and into the '30s.

Notable Marks, Patterns, and Colors

Most of this iridescent glass was not marked with Northwood's pieces being the notable exception. Most Northwood pieces are indeed marked with an underscored capital N within a circle. While another carnival glass produced during the same era is certainly as attractive as Northwood's, it is the presence of these markings or "signatures" that make it one of the most popular carnival glass names with collectors today.

A variety of patterns adorned carnival items, and they came in many different shapes. It's not uncommon to find compotes, candy dishes, vases, pitchers, tumblers, cream , nd sugar sets, and even pin dishes finished with the carnival sheen. These can all be found in lovely patterns such as Fenton's "Peacock Tail" and Northwood's "Grape and Cable." And the colors varied as much as the patterns. Some of the most common colors include marigold, amethyst, green, and bright blue. Discovering a piece in red is considered to be a rare find as are pastel colors like aqua, ice blue, and peach.

The Carnival Glass Revival

The carnival look became fashionable again during the 1950s as early collectors began noticing the older pieces around that time. Glass companies began to recognize the potential for profits and revived the iridescent finish once again. These pieces are sometimes referenced as "late carnival" by collectors.

A good example is Jeanette Glass Company's Iris & Herringbone pattern, which was produced in clear glass during the Depression era. In the 1950s, the company began making the pattern with a look that imitated marigold carnival glass but with a shinier finish in comparison.

Causing further confusion for collectors, several companies introduced new lines of carnival glass in the 1960s using both their original designs and new patterns. Fenton and Imperial were among these manufacturers. Some pieces were marked to help distinguish the older items from, the newer ones, but many were not. Consulting a good guide on this topic can help when sorting out the differences since all these pieces are collectible now (even those made in the '60s) but some are more valuable than others.

One reference recommended by numerous collectors is the Standard Encyclopedia of Carnival Glass by Bill Edwards for Collector Books (now out of print, but available through used booksellers), although there are others on the market that cover the topic equally as well.

It's also wise to keep in mind that there are many carnival glass reproductions on the market today. One of the best online resources for reproduction information is David Doty's Carnival Glass website.