Fenton Butterflies bonbons (bonbon is the name collectors give to this 2-handled bowl) from the classic era of Carnival and a contemporary example. These two pieces were made from the same mold, but some 50 years apart.
What is Carnival Glass?
Carnival Glass is pressed glass that has been iridized with a metallic spray. It was introduced by Fenton about 1908 and other glass manufacturers soon followed suit (for a brief history of Carnival, click here). It is still being made today. To see how the glass was made, click here. One of the first things you’ll learn is that more recent Carnival, made after about 1960, is not as valuable as the early glass is. How do you tell the difference? It’s not always easy. It takes a lot of study, but the Contemporary items on this site show many of them. Carnival Glass received its name because it was used as prizes at carnivals after the end of the classic era and manufacturers could still make it cheaply enough for this purpose.
The quality of iridizing is critical in Carnival Glass. These two Imperial Heavy Grape chop plates sold at the same auction. The plate on the left, with heavy iridescence, brought $250; that on the right, with weak silverish iridescence, just $90.
What is iridization?
The metallic spray gave the glass a multi-color look with a finish that resembles oil on water. It is this characteristic that distinguishes it from other glass. There are other types of glass, however, that are iridized, primarily art glass. Remember though, that if it isn’t iridized, it isn’t Carnival. As the iridizing spray was hand applied, it varied considerably from piece to piece. You can see in the photos above that these two pieces are quite different, even though they came from the same mold. Both could be described the same way–Heavy Grape chop plates in purple. You can’t always tell from a description about the quality of the glass.
Imperial’s Fieldflower in marigold, Northwood’s Grape Arbor in amethyst/purple, Fenton’s Blueberry in blue, and Northwood’s Acorn Burrs in green.
Why so many colors?
When glass manufacturers first began iridizing glass, they used a clear glass over which they applied an orange spray which we have come to call marigold–although they used different names then. This color worked very well to brighten the interior of the rather dark homes of the time. To satisfy changing markets, they then began applying the Carnival iridescence to darker glass, amethyst/purple, blue, and green, which collectors refer to as “vivid” colors.
Northwood’s Peacock at the Fountain in ice blue, Northwood’s Raspberry in ice green, and Fenton’s Apple Tree in white.
About 1912, Northwood introduced a new range of colors, the ones we have come to call ice blue, ice green, and white (although Northwood used other names). Ice blue and Ice green are lighter versions of blue and green glass. White is clear glass. You’ll note in the above photos that the iridescence is not as strong as in the darker colors. This is because Northwood adopted a different kind of spray, which collectors refer to as pastel. While still multi-color, it does not have the selenium content of the marigold spray and may even be hard to see at times. There were many other colors. To review these, click here.
Millersburg’s Diamonds, Dugan’s Quill, and Imperial’s Windmill.
What are the colors of the above tumblers?
One of the most confusing aspects of Carnival glass is determining the color. You can’t always tell what it is by looking at the surface. For example, the three tumblers on the left are all amethyst glass. The glass color is what determines the color–not the iridescence. To determine the true glass color, you may have to look through the base of a piece, which in classic era Carnival, is not iridized.
Northwood’s Grape and Cable hatpin holder in ice blue, Millersburg’s Hobstar and Feather spittoon whimsey from a rosebowl in amethyst, Northwood’s Peacock ruffled bowl in marigold, Fenton’s Captive Rose plate in green, Northwood’s Leaf and Beads rosebowl in aqua opal, Fenton’s Lily of the Valley water pitcher in blue, and Fenton’s Plume Panels vase in red.
The patterns of Carnival Glass
The biggest challenge for newcomers to Carnival Glass collecting is learning the patterns. There are probably 2,000 patterns, although only about 1,000 are relatively common. Learning the design and names of the patterns is crucial to the enjoyment of collecting this glass. Where to begin? Start with a particular pattern and learn about that, or begin with a shape or color that interests you. Then expand into other areas. Maybe if you are a new collectors start with tumblers. There are several advantages: There is a wide variety of patterns and colors; the cost is low so you won’t have a big starting investment; and they take little space. This web site is designed to help you learn. When you hear about an unfamiliar pattern, check the alphabetical listing. Books are also a great way to learn. Here are a few that you may find interesting.
When you’re looking at a piece of glass to add to your collection, here’s how to do it.
1. Make sure you know the essentials (pattern, maker and color). Here is a 9-inch Northwood Grape & Cable bowl in amethyst with pie crust edge. First impression is good. Average to better iridescence with nice blues and yellows. Not electric iridescence, but quite nice
2. Close examination of the pattern confirms the good iridescence and shows a nice strike. No damage to pattern.
3. The back looks good. Decent iridescence on the basketweave pattern. Base looks good with just a couple of manufacturing marks around the edge.
4. Close examination of the base shows several lines called strawmarks. These were caused during the making and found in a lot of Carnival from the classic era. Strawmarks do affect the value but not as much as other defects. There is a faint Northwood mark, but the presence or absence makes no difference.
5. Looking at the bowl with light from the back shows good amethyst/purple color. No cracks, although there is a curved line in the base. Not a crack, probably just a swirl of darker glass. 6. Oops! Checking the edge carefully shows a missing tooth. Hard to see on edges like this. Looks polished and not iridized over. Too bad as it reduces the value significantly. Still, if you could live with the damage, it might be worth picking up for a reasonable price. A lot of Carnival has such damage, and none of it is getting any better.
Buying Carnival Glass
There are many places to buy Carnival: Antique shops and malls, yard and garage sales, from individuals, at live auctions, and, of course, on eBay. Antique shops and malls While there are fewer and fewer of these, mainly because of eBay, they’re still good places to find the occasional interesting piece. The advantages are that you can handle and examine the glass, but you may have to identify it yourself. Carnival in these locations can often be overpriced. Yard and garage sales Also great places to find the odd piece, usually at a very good price. Problem is that you have to find them and make the rounds. From individuals Lots of people willing to sell glass. A good place to meet them is at Carnival Glass conventions, where most people bring glass for sale. At live auctions There are more than 30 Carnival Glass auctions around the U.S. every year. You can examine the glass, chat with others about it, and bid up to the limit you feel right for the glass. Few Carnival auctioneers charge a buyers premium, so aside from the possibility of having to pay state sales tax, you pay only what you bid. Check list of auctioneers and also the events page.
Buying on eBay
Sales on eBay have become very popular. More than 4,000 pieces are offered each day! Yes, you can find some nice glass there. The downside is that you can’t look at it and the descriptions may not be accurate. Few sellers really check for damage–just giving it a quick look. Always check with the seller about damage. And check to make sure the piece is iridized; some sellers offer items that are uniridized versions of Carnival. And you can’t tell much from a photo, so check on anything else that puzzles you. Just because a lot of people have bid on a piece doesn’t mean it’s great piece; sometimes people just pile on. Remember, you’ll need to pay for shipping on eBay, so your final price may not be as good as it seems. Be very cautious. Remember, another piece like the one you’re considering will show up later.
Care and Cleaning
Carnival Glass is quite fragile. Even the slightest hit on another piece of glass or even ring can leave it damaged. Care should be taken when moving or packing it. Glass can also be affected by sunlight, over time altering the glass color. Be particularly careful about changes in temperature; Carnival has a lot of internal stress and cracks can develop when moved from cold to hot or vice versa. Don’t pick up pieces like water pitchers with their handle–they frequently have stress where the handle joins the body. It should be obvious, but don’t put Carnival in the dishwasher. When cleaning glass, use room temperature water for both washing and rinsing. Dish washing liquid is fine. Use a plastic wash dish. Dry with a soft cloth and use it to polish the piece. Sediment in the bottom of deep bowls or vases can ofter be removed with a couple of tablets of denture cleaner. For residue left by stickers and for other tough spots, try one of the commercial gunk removers such as Goo-Gone or De-Solv-It,” found in the laundry soap, etc., at Wal-Mart.