This phrase refers to iridescent glassware, usually made as pressed glass, which was first marketed in the U. S. in the early 20th century.
The phrase seems to have originated in the 1950s as collectors and writers heard stories about the glassware having been used as prizes at carnivals in years past. An Atlanta newspaper called Carnival glass “the Cinderella of modern antiques” in 1963, and writers Marion Hartung and Rose Presznick adopted the phrase in their many books describing patterns and items that the glass collectors were finding in antique stores and second-hand shops.
The first “iridescent ware” was produced and marketed by the Fenton Art Glass Co. in the fall of 1907, and the company letterhead stationery said “Originators of Iridescent Ware” for many years thereafter. The glassware created an immediate sensation in the marketplace, and other American glass companies soon began to introduce their own versions.
The colorful pressed glassware was available at prices much, much lower than the fancy iridescent glass made by Tiffany, Steuben, or organizations in Great Britain and Europe. Even today, some refer to Carnival glass as “the poor man’s Tiffany.” The American manufacturers could produce thousands of pieces in a single day’s work. Moreover, they had wholesale showrooms in major cities across the United States, and the glass was exported to Cuba, South America, Australia, and countries in Europe.
The early items from 1907 through the ‘teens were sold to the wholesalers, including firms like Butler Brothers and G. Sommers, and their customers ranged from major department stores to general stores in small towns. In the 1920s, public demand had waned, so companies like Imperial and Fenton sold the glassware through other outlets, probably at deep discounts, to reduce their inventories. A 1924 wholesale catalog from a firm that specialized in cheap novelties and prizes for carnivals shows an Imperial pitcher and tumblers set along with chalkware kewpie dolls and many different papier-mâché items.
As noted earlier, Fenton was first, but the Imperial Glass Co. (Bellaire, Ohio), the Dugan Glass Co. (Indiana, Pa.), and H. Northwood Co. (Wheeling, W.Va.) were not far behind in 1908 – 09. By late 1910, the Millersburg Glass Co. (Millersburg, Ohio) was also in the thick of what quickly became a very competitive market. The Cambridge, U.S. Glass, and Westmoreland firms produced comparatively few iridescent items, and companies such as Fostoria, Heisey, and McKee made relatively small quantities.
The patterns and items made by Fenton, Imperial, or Millersburg in the 1907 – 1916 period are not marked with a manufacturer’s logo, but a few Dugan items may carry a faint “Northwood” in script from older Northwood moulds; the Dugan firm also had a D-in-diamond mark, but it is seldom found. The distinctive Northwood mark (an underlined capital N within a circle) can be found on many items made at Harry Northwood’s Wheeling factory; it’s on the inside bottom of tumblers and the outside bottom of many other Northwood items.
The iridescent effect, often described as “oil on water,” is achieved with a spray of metallic salts (typically tin chloride or iron chloride) in solution. The spraying is done while the glass still remains very hot after the item has been pressed and brought to its final shape by crimping or some other finishing technique. Many Carnival glass bowls have patterns on both the exterior and the interior, and these are especially amenable to the iridescent treatment, and they were sprayed both inside and outside, often with vivid, dramatic results. The iridescence may be very shiny (collectors call this “radium”) or it may have a matte appearance. Interestingly, glassworkers called the glass “dope ware,” and the boy laborers, who were typically 14 – 16 years old, did the spraying.
The manufacturers who started producing Carnival anew in the 1960s (Imperial) and 1970s (Fenton) prefer the term “reissued.” The Imperial items carry the IG logo, and Fenton items have the firm’s name in script within an oval.
There are so many national, regional, and local clubs and interest groups that it would take an entire column to simply list them. Here are my top four (in alphabetical order): American Carnival Glass Association, Heart of America Carnival Glass Association, International Carnival Glass Association, and Woodsland World Wide Carnival Glass Association. Each of these organizations has its own website, so you can find any or all by just a bit of searching.
In addition to the collector clubs, you can visit a super website, www.ddoty.com, where Carnival expert Dave Doty has a well-organized, comprehensive list of patterns and items with great pictures and a wealth of pricing information based on years of recordkeeping. The books by Glen and Stephen Thistlewood (published by Schiffer) are excellent resources and cover Carnival glass worldwide.
Yes, indeed! The Doty website lists more than 1,000 patterns and items. The most significant Northwood Carnival glass motif is called Grape and Cable today. The original name has not been found, but glass industry trade journal reports and photographs indicate that it was introduced in early 1910. The Grape and Cable line was extensive; in addition to the usual berry set, table set, and water set, the range includes these: tankard pitcher and large size tumblers; small creamer and open sugar bowl; open and covered comports; whiskey decanter and shot glasses; several sizes of oval bowls; large bowls on separate pedestals; punch bowl on separate pedestal; punch cups; covered cracker jar; tobacco humidor; several sizes of trays; cologne bottles; hatpin holder; and covered powder box.