Around the turn of the 20th century, several American glassmakers, including the Fenton Art Glass and Northwood companies, attempted to create more affordable versions of the iridescent glassware produced by Tiffany and Steuben. Originally marketed as "Iridell" by Fenton, the sudden flood of inexpensive iridescent glass only succeeded in diluting the public's interest in decorative glass from any maker. Examples of this type of pressed glass later became known to collectors as carnival glass.
Carnival glass is considered a pressed glass, meaning hot molten glass, which may or may not contain color of its own, is poured into metal molds and conforms to their shape. While the glass is still hot, various solutions of metallic salts are sprayed onto the surface and the piece is reheated. The result is a piece of iridescent glassware with a rainbow-hued finish. Many pieces of carnival glass feature a distinctive marigold color with random swirls of other colors strewn throughout the glass.
The original manufacturers of the glassware would never have referred to it as carnival glass, however. When the market for inexpensive copies of Tiffany and Steuben art glass collapsed, companies like Fenton Art Glass and Northwood found themselves with a surplus of almost worthless glassware. When these companies decided to liquidate this surplus, one of their biggest customers was the carnival midway industry, which was always searching for inexpensive prizes for their games.
Instead of investing in stuffed animals or other "blow-offs," carnival managers soon began buying up significant amounts of this inexpensive glassware. The glass still looked like a substantial prize, which would tempt carnival-goers into winning an expensive-looking iridescent vase or dinner plate for their loved ones. The association between the carnival industry and the cheap art glass produced by Fenton, Northwood and others inspired collectors to apply the name carnival glass during the 1950s.
Although the US market for the original carnival art glass collapsed during the 1920s, several manufacturers continued to produce it in overseas glass factories. The European and Asian markets for inexpensive iridescent art glass continued to be strong even through the 1960s, and carnival glassware is still in production, although the truly collectible carnival glass dates roughly between 1900 and 1930.
Carnival glass is one of the most commonly collected forms of glass today, followed closely by the largely monochromatic "Depression Glass" which replaced it in the popular market of the 1930s. Collection quality carnival glass can be found at reasonable prices in online auctions and antique shops, and it tends to hold its value over the years. Few original carnival glass pieces were signed or stamped, although both the Fenton and Northwood companies did create their own distinctive signature stamps when they restarted their carnival glass lines during the 1960s and 1970s.
Because there is so much reproduction carnival glass available, it can be difficult to tell the difference between the valuable original glass and the common reproduction. If you decide to invest in carnival glass as a collection, be sure to have the pieces examined by a glass expert in order to avoid buying modern reproductions. Comparing the piece's pattern to original carnival glass patterns available in company catalogs can also be helpful.