Walk through any tag sale, or your friendly neighborhood antique store, and you’ll probably find carnival glass.
You know the stuff I’m talking about. It’s possible one of the colorful dishes sat on your grandmother’s coffee table, filled with hard candies.
With an iridescent sheen and the occasional flamboyant flair, these glorious, if gaudy, pieces are a popular collector’s item. While a variety of pressed products were made in the early 1900s, you know it’s carnival glass if it reminds you of parking lot oil spots on a wet afternoon.
I’m afraid I’m not making this sound appealing. That it’s been dubbed “the poor man’s Tiffany” doesn’t help, either. Nor that it gained its name because the iridized glass was so cheaply made, it lost consumer value and was given away as carnival prizes in the early twentieth century. But these dishes, with their vibrant but unassuming iridescence and assorted designs are highly coveted by collectors.
Given the proliferation of the glassware throughout the early twentieth century, there are plenty of vintage pieces to go around. But there are enough hard-to-find patterns and colors to seek out, and contemporary reproductions to avoid, to make the hunt thrilling.
So where would a novice collector start? Though Fenton was the most prolific carnival glassmaker of the 20th century, they were certainly not the only one. Cambridge, Dugan, Imperial, Northwood, U.S. Glass, and Westmoreland are among the other large carnival glass manufacturers who, along with many smaller companies, saturated the market, which means there are thousands of designs and myriad colors.
But if you’re hoping to focus on a certain time period, or a certain manufacturer, be prepared to do your homework. All the seasoned collectors have. “When we first started collecting carnival glass, there was no internet.” Barb Chamberlain of the International Carnival Glass Association said in an email. “I think that was probably a plus for us long-time collectors. We had to study books if we wanted to be knowledgeable.”
Identifying pieces can be difficult. Manufacturers labeled their work inconsistently, if at all, and identifier marks changed over the years, For example, Chamberlain said, Northwood used an underlined N to mark some of their early 1900s work, but “some were marked just with a circle and some were not marked at all.” Later, an overseas company started marking new glass with the N-in-circle trademark, making the logo an unreliable indicator of the glassmaker. Chamberlain said the American Carnival Glass Association has since acquired the trademark.
In addition, glass molds often changed hands, so glassware from different manufacturers would come from the same mold. And though manufacturer-specific colors and post-mold shaping could make the final product significantly different, the original logo would remain in the mold, and would have to be updated. Imperial marked a few pieces with an iron cross, and the name spelled out across it. But more recent Imperial glass, was usually marked with an I through a G. When others used the Imperial mold, letters were added in front of the IG markings. “Fenton,” Chamberlain said “used their script ‘Fenton’ in an oval or used a script ‘F’ in an oval if they used a mold from another company for their more recent glass.”
Chamberlain suggested a number of books for an ameteur collector to check out, including Bill Edwards and Mike Carwile’s The Encyclopedia of Carnival Glass and David Doty’s A Field Guide to Carnival Glass. “I recommend that anyone starting to collect, who really wants to learn about glass, study one or more books,” she said.
That is not to undermine the usefulness of the myriad websites dedicated to the collection and identification of carnival glass, which cannot only help with identification, but can offer up-to-date pricing and crowdsourced information regarding the whereabouts of certain pieces.
Perhaps you’ve inherited a few colorful pieces from Aunt Mildred and Uncle Bill. Maybe you remember the dish your mother served cranberry sauce in every Thanksgiving, and want to hunt for that, and pick up a few more pieces along the way. Or maybe you just happened by a shelf of those glorious dishes in an antique store and thought “I want that.”
The reasons for collecting carnival glass are many, as are the tactics for collecting them. Perhaps a certain shade, shape, or pattern piques your interest. I’m considering a collection of my own, and have found myself enamored with the ripple glass vases. I plan to keep my eye out for those during my personal spring estate sale adventures.
They’re so pretty. I can’t wait.
And having a goal in mind will keep me on track. The siren song of estate sales can be a haunting one. Many a sailor has walked out of a tag sale with armsful of things they didn’t plan to buy, smitten with the idea of creating new collections, drowning in an ocean of glass.
So find your focus, Keep your focus. Unless you see something really shiny and pretty, then get that too.
But then immediately put your eye back on the prize.
As you begin your own collection—whatever shape that takes—there are a few things to consider.
Perhaps you are drawn to the marigold pieces. I have good news: those are the most common, and therefore should be easy to find. Amethyst, blue, and green are also common colors. The color is determined by the base glass color—the color underneath the iridization. Hold the item up to the light. (Natural sunlight is best.) Through the finish, you should see the color that lies beneath it. Exceptions to this rule are marigold, clambroth (a light, transparent yellow), white, and some smoke pieces, which are all created by applying iridescent spray onto clear glass.
The very bottom of many early carnival pieces were not iridized, so that’s the best angle to start with when inspecting.
There are more than 2000 carnival glass patterns in existence. About half of them are relatively common, and many are very similar. And because of stiff competition among carnival glass manufacturers, many of the patterns are very similar. Dugan made two patterns that, to the novice collector, could be easily misidentified: Fishscale and Beads and Honeycomb and Beads, seen above. And between glassmakers, there were many similarities. At least three manufacturers produced fleur de lis designs, for example. Several have patterns called “Cherries.” (Millersburg’s and Dugan-Diamond’s can be seen below.) Five companies produced “Smooth Rays” patterns.
You get the idea.
But between the common patterns and the extremely rare and expensive ones, there are patterns that hit a sweet spot in the middle. Take, for example, Farmyard by Dugan (below, left). It’s a coveted pattern, and relatively rare, but not so much that it couldn’t turn up at a local estate sale or auction. Fenton’s Kitten pattern (below, right), on the other hand, is one of the more abundant designs, but it remains in high demand, because who doesn’t love kittens?
No one, that’s who.
As you begin, try to decide if you’re in it for the thrill of the hunt or the simple joy of collecting. This should help you determine what your future collection might look like. There are plenty of options for either type of collector.
Be very aware of the quality of the piece before you make a purchase. Carnival glass, because of the way it’s made, is incredibly fragile. The glassware was often iridized by hand, so there may be differences in the effects from piece to piece. It can also affect a piece’s worth.
Heavy patterns and thick ruffles can sometimes hide a piece’s imperfections. Look closely. Hold the glass to the light: do you see any internal cracks? Does the paint have the level of vibrancy you desire? Is it consistent throughout the piece? These kinds of issues can affect value.
“...New collectors need to realize that condition of the pieces is important in buying either in a shop or at auction,” Chamberlain said. “Chips affect the value, but cracks or parts missing practically devalues the piece to nothing, unless it is a very rare piece.”
If you’re buying the glass online, such issues may not be noticeable. Filters may have been used to make a piece look more vibrant or iridized than it really is. Don’t hesitate to ask questions or request more pictures. At estate sales, auctions, and antique malls, you’ll have a better opportunity to personally inspect the glassware before negotiating a price or bidding on a lot.
If you have the opportunity to talk to a seasoned collector beforehand, do so. As with many collector’s items, there are Facebook groups, local clubs, and regional and national organizations designed to bring together people excited to talk about their passion for pressed glass.
Whether you’re searching for a piece or two that remind you of childhood, or are seeking out a majestic collection of breakable iridescence, the best advice I can offer as far as carnival glass—or life in general—is to find what brings you joy, and see where that takes you.
All photos courtesy of Carnival Glass Worldwide, except for Fenton’s Farmyard, which is from the collection of Christina Katsikas, available for viewing at Carnival Glass Showcase.