At its zenith, carnival glass — a type of pressed glass with an unmistakable iridescent glaze — offered consumers a sophisticated aesthetic at an accessible price point. So named for its notorious delegation as a novelty prize at carnival games, it was manufactured in an array of shapes, patterns and colors. This style of vintage glassware was wildly popular in the early 20th century, peaking in production during the 1920s. The mass appeal of carnival glass in the early 20th century has enabled many surviving surviving examples to be found in the market today — and chances are good that you may even have a piece in your own collection, or know someone who does. Although carnival glass is a common find, there are a few rare and valuable pieces that exist.
A Brief History of Carnival Glass
Before carnival glass received its moniker, iridescent glassware was known as Iridill. This trade name was coined by the Fenton Art Glass Company, the largest manufacturer of handmade colored glass in the United States, who began production of iridescent glassware in 1908. Inspired by popular blown glass pieces made by Fenton’s contemporaries (such as Steuben Glass Works), Fenton created pieces with unique colors and patterns to help distinguish their work from other pieces on the market.
None of their works were more popular, however, than Iridill. These pieces had a luminous effect that captivated collectors regardless of the color, pattern, or design. Iridill remained popular until the early 1930s, and shimmering examples were made in a variety of items including vases, ashtrays, plates, and bowls. Mass production helped to keep overall costs low, making Iridill accessible to a broader audience at attractive price points.
Despite their popularity, carnival glass pieces were often referred to as the “Poor Man’s Tiffany,” as their designs often emulated more expensive glass produced by manufacturers such as Tiffany Studios. The nickname did little to dissuade families from adorning their homes with glimmering glassware, and soon other manufacturers began to produce their own lines of carnival glass, with makers like Northwood, Dugan, and Millersburg favored among early 20th-century consumers.
Interest in carnival glass began to wane amid the booming economy of the late 1920s that encouraged unbridled consumer behaviors. Production slowed significantly, but a select group of manufacturers continued to produce small amounts through to the 21st century. The remaining pieces were sold to carnivals and eventually given away as prizes, leading to the name “carnival glass” that has endured for decades.
In recent history, carnival glass has become a sought-after collector’s item, and while many pieces can be acquired for less than $50, rarer pieces can sell for thousands of dollars. The biggest factor that determines carnival glass value is the limited supply of particularly rare colors, patterns, and pieces with original Fenton authentication.
How to Identify Carnival Glass
Iridescent sheen is a hallmark of all carnival glass, meaning that any piece, regardless of shape or color, must have this glimmering glaze to classify as carnival glass. Beyond the obvious physical attributes, however, other key components that help to identify carnival glass include color, pattern, shape, and manufacturer.
This pressed glass style comes in a variety of bright and muted colors, which are usually determined by the base color of the glass itself. To determine the base color, an unglazed portion of glass must be held to the light, a process used by many decorative art specialists to examine vintage glass. One exception to the base color rule is the most popular color, marigold, which is found in abundance in the market today. The marigold hue comes strictly from the glaze itself, as the glass used to create these colored pieces is clear. Other popular base colors include amethyst, bright blue, green, and amber. Scarce quantities remain of red, aqua, peach, and milk glass, making them more valuable.
Once carnival glass became a mainstream trend, many manufacturers such as Northwood, Dugan, Fenton, and Millersburg began producing their own lines of iridescent glassware. Each glass maker, in hopes of attracting a broader audience, created a wide range of patterns that were often culturally significant. Experts estimate there are about 2,000 different motifs in circulation today, and some of the more unique and scarce designs are highly sought-after. Some of the most popular patterns include:
- Poppy Show by Northwood
- Grape and Cable by Northwood
- Dragon and Lotus by Fenton
- Good Luck by Northwood
- Holly by Fenton
Because of the sheer amount of manufacturers, colors, patterns, and shapes available, it is difficult to determine the “rarest” pieces in the market. A specific color or pattern in one shape might be worth thousands more than the same piece in a slightly different color, for example. Rareness is determined by a variety of factors, including the number of pieces available on the market today, the demand for those pieces, and their age. Popular examples, especially those produced in smaller quantities by their original manufacturer, can appreciate over time as the number of surviving pieces decrease and market demand increases. Some of the rarest patterns available include:
- Strawberry Scroll by Fenton
- Farmyard by Dugan
- Black Amethyst by Northwood
Pieces and Shapes
Carnival glass pieces covered a wide range of decorative and practical uses, including—but not limited to—vases, plates, bowls, pitchers, ashtrays, tumblers, and sculptures. Within each shape there was room for innovation, as pressed glass could be easily modified while in production. The most common variances were changes in the structure of the base and edges. Manufacturers would fold, flare, and crimp the edges as well as create asymmetrical designs to further the exclusivity of their designs.
Carnival Glass vs. Depression Glass
Carnival and Depression glass, a type of vintage glassware that succeeded carnival glass, have much in common, but there are key distinctions between them. While they are both colored glass, carnival is differentiated by its signature iridized glaze and multicolored appearance, while Depression glass has a more transparent and monochromatic look. Both styles of glass were developed in the early 20th century, although Depression Glass didn’t hit the market until after carnival glass had waned in popularity. These two styles are often confused with one another because of their similar appearance and history, as both were developed as accessibly priced glassware that were eventually given away as prizes to consumers when their popularity subsided.
Determining Carnival Glass Value
Although carnival glass can be found readily at antique stores, estate sales, and auctions, determining the exact value of a piece is not always straightforward. This is because it was uncommon for for manufacturers to add a trademark to their pieces, forcing collectors have to rely on color, pattern, and style to determine a piece’s maker.
In fact, some manufacturers continued producing these pieces until the 21st century, adding yet another layer of complexity for collectors looking to ascertain a piece’s exact production date. Below are the factors that are considered when determining the value of carnival glass:
- Condition of the glass as chips, cracks or other forms of damage that can devalue a piece.
- Quality of the iridescent glaze, to make sure there are no worn or uneven sections.
- Age of the piece, which isn’t always determinable. Pieces made before 1940 are generally considered the most valuable examples, as limited quantities remain from the pre-war era.
- Shape and size are taken into account, as some manufacturers made a limited amount of particular pieces in desirable colors. Pieces such as bowls, plates, and platters are rarer finds that traditionally hold more value.
- Color and pattern, which helps identify both the rareness of the piece as well as its manufacturer. Some of the most valuable colors are cherry red, black amethyst, and ice green.
Carnival glass holds a prominent place in the market for vintage glassware, and by taking special care when selecting vintage carnival glass, collectors can create a beautiful assortment that serves as a historic and valuable investment.
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