We searched our museum for an out-of-the-ordinary glass feature, and we found just what we were looking for in several unique pieces of carnival glass. Carnival glass is a form of highly collectible pressed glass that comes in a wide variety of iridescent colors. It was made popular in the United States at the beginning of the 20th century. Carnival glass’s glittering, colorful sheen comes from the application of various salts added as the molten glass is beginning to cool from its initial pressing. After these metallic salts are applied to the piece, it is fired again. The result is an enchanting and even magical result.
The first featured carnival glass piece from our museum is a 3-toed bowl from the Grape and Cable pattern by Fenton Glass. It stands 5 inches tall and measures 10 inches in diameter. Large leaves and a rope metaphor are featured as part of the design motif for this vintage piece of art glass. Our second selection is a pitcher and three tumblers from the Paneled Dandelion pattern by Fenton. The pitcher is 12 1/2 inches tall and each tumbler is 4 inches tall. Both patterns feature exotic pressed leaf designs, with colors that change depending on the angle of the reflected light. Sometimes these pieces look blue, other times green, and sometimes marigold!
Since its initial creation, carnival glass has been very popular with glassware enthusiasts. According to “Carnival Glass: The Magic and the Mystery,” one key feature of this type of glass was that it was inexpensive to produce, though it didn’t start out that way. During the mid-1800’s various “iridized” glasswares were made by Steuben, Tiffany & Co., and several British firms. In fact, this same book reports that Queen Victoria purchased a piece of glass from the “Bronze” collection by Thomas Webb and Sons of Stourbridge. She described the glass by saying, “its purple bronze surfaces shine with the hues of the rainbow.” This prototype carnival glassware was originally produced for the extraordinarily wealthy, not the general public.
It was not until 1908 that the first pattern in this category was mass produced. A selection of carnival glass pieces in the “Golden Sunset” color appeared in the Butler Brothers Catalog (a catalog for retail resellers) in September of 1908. This ad, considered by some to signify the birth of carnival glass, included pieces from the patterns “Waterlily and Cattails,” “Beaded Star,” and “Diamond Point Columns.” The ad described “Golden Sunset Iridescent Pieces” as “Entirely new beautiful effects heretofore possible to produce only in the exclusive import items. You can make a handsome profit by retailing at from 10 to 25 cents each.” The ad went on to say, “Heavy, well made and finished bodies, allover metallic iridescent luster in rich rainbow blendings, asstd. waterlily, prism and beaded star designs, all colors burnt in and will not wear off.” This ad also notes that pieces could be purchased by the dozen for 85 cents! No one knew at the time how popular carnival glass would become.
Today, carnival glass is energetically collected throughout the United States. Prices vary from inexpensive to extremely expensive! Identifying art glass can be quite difficult as most pieces do not have a manufacture stamp on them. (This was the case with our own pieces. None of the carnival glass items that we are featuring this month have a backstamp, and our team of expert curators and researchers had to work to identify them before placing them in our museum.
Fenton Glass was a leader and trend setter for carnival glass, with John Fenton and his brother Frank Fenton founding the “Fenton Art Glass Company” in 1905. At first, the company focused on decorating pre-produced glass blanks. Eventually, the brothers found it difficult to acquire the glass they needed and decided to open a factory where glass could be produced and decorated. The first Fenton factory opened on January 2, 1907 in Williamstown, WV. Fenton quickly became known for glass with unusual colors and decorations. Over the next two decades, this would keep Fenton at the forefront of the glassware market. The two world wars and the Great Depression were tough on the company. To get through those difficult times, the brothers began work on practical pieces that could be used in the home, including mixing and serving bowls. During this time, raw materials supplies were limited and there was not a vibrant market for decorated art glass. John Fenton knew though that these troubled times would pass, so he continued to experiment with colors and glazes. Following World War II, Fenton Art Glass began to grow again and was passed down to two more generations of the Fenton family. Today, the company is being run by a third generation. Rumor has it that a fourth generation is in college and prepping to take the company to even greater heights. Fenton glass is wonderful and the museum pieces we feature this month, which you can see starting at the link below, are quite mesmerizing.
While these vintage museum pieces in Grape and Cable and Paneled Dandelion are not offered for sale, we do have a wonderful selection of patterns by Fenton that are quite amazing, and are available for purchase. Come visit us and see these amazing “carnival glass” pieces in person, and leave with an armload of iridescent pieces with which to strategically accent your home or office. Our Showroom and Museum are open from 9:00am to 7:00pm ET, 7 days a week; free tours are available from 9:30am to 6:00pm ET, 7 days a week. The Showroom and Museum are conveniently located between Greensboro and Burlington, NC, at exit 132 off Interstate 85/40. Make plans to visit us soon!