Before I started researching the different types of vintage glassware that I inherited, I honestly didn’t know there was a difference between “Depression Glass” and “Carnival Glass”. And I guess the distinction for some people is fine enough that it could all fall under the same label. But, it isn’t the same thing, not really.
Around the beginning of the 1900’s the Tiffany Glass Company was producing a very beautiful fine art glass that was iridescent. Their process, that involved mixing the iridescent solution in with the molten glass, was very expensive and result in a product only the very wealthy could afford.
Better than a goldfish!
However, in 1908 (I have also seen 1907 listed for this date), the Fenton Art Glass Company, in West Virginia, found a much cheaper way to make iridescent glass. They poured the liquid glass into the carved molds and before it set would spray the piece with iridescent metallic salts, called ‘dope’, then re-fire it. And thus began the grand age of Carnival glass!
Carnival glass is a little bit of a misleading name. This beautiful shimmery glass was popular long before it earned that tag. The Fenton Glass company itself called the glass kaleidoscope glass, Iridill glass, and Rainbow Lustre. The Millersburg Glass Company, which was founded by one of the Fenton brothers, called their version Radium Glass (yep, this glass does have a small amount of a radioactive isotope to make the color). The Northwood Glass company called it Golden Iris and that was the most common color, marigold. There are actually over 50 different colors of carnival glass identified and 2000 patterns!
Since Carnival glass was relatively affordable it became increasing popular from around 1910 to the 1920s. Newly established department stores like Woolworths and McCrory’s carried everyday glassware. Other companies, like Quaker Oaks, added carnival glassware as an extra gift with their products. Carnival glass was also used as “packers” or the container that household goods like baking powder were sold in. This was so common the iridescent glass was sometimes called “baking soda glass”. Just a little bit of 21st-century hindsight, I’m not too sure about the idea of packing food items in glass that might have radioactive isotopes. But I have not yet found any stories of large amounts of people dying from radioactive baked goods.
Not Carnival Glass, this is Stretch Glass
Believe it not, I can add another reference to my favorite Dr. Seuss story, The Sneetches, in here! As I mentioned at the beginning, Carnival glass was inspired by the super expensive Tiffany Glass. In fact, it was often called the “Poor Man’s Tiffany”. As wealthy Americans began to notice that the “help” possessed glassware that was very similar to their own glass art, they began to lose interest in iridescent glass. And it wasn’t long afterward that the average American also lost interest in this type of glass. Oddly enough, it was just beginning to take off in Europe and other countries. But in America, manufacturers were stuck with large quantities of the last of the hand-shaped, carved molds, mass-produced glass. They had to sell it off at seriously reduced prices, like $1 for a barrel of items! This is where the name Carnival Glass comes from. Carnival owners and others bought the now really cheap glass to give away as prizes for games of chance.
There was a resurrection in Carnival glass popularity in the 1950s when it was “rediscovered” by new collectors. There were some reproductions made at this point and they are technically “vintage Carnival glass”. Collectors differentiate between the two eras as “old carnival” which was produced between 1907 and 1920 and “late carnival” produced after the 1950s. Carnival glass is often confused with stretch glass or depression glass. Stretch glass has the iridescent salts added before being put in the mold. They do not have elaborate patterns. Depression glass is colored mass produced glass that is not iridescent. It was made after the Carnival Glass era. I will probably do a post on it someday as well.
Meanwhile, I hope you enjoy Carnival glass. Besides being pretty, it is slightly dangerous because it is a little bit radioactive! Ok, you won’t die from it, but it might glow under a black light! Maybe I should put my Halloween candy in my Carnival glass candy dish!