Our antiques expert Allan Blackburn takes a look at carnival glass and its fascinating history...
Seeing gaily decorated wagons recently on their way back from Appleby horse fair brought to mind some similarly brightly hued glassware: carnival glass.
Carnival glass is glass that has been pressed and given an iridised surface treatment that makes it sparkle with a lustre similar to the rainbows produced by oil in a puddle. It was first made by American company Fenton in 1907.
Sometimes known as ‘poor man’s Tiffany’, the name ‘carnival glass’ was coined by British collectors in the 1950s hunting it out at carnivals, fetes, and fairgrounds. Other names include Fenton, aurora, dope, rainbow and taffeta glass.
Fenton produced a range of press moulded relief designs based on animals, plants and fruit. Staple Fenton patterns included peacock and grape and dragon and lotus. Look out for the rarer red panther design.
Original colours included royal blue, purple, green, and very popular orange shades, which survive in larger proportions today. Red, introduced in the 1920s, was a technically demanding colour to produce, so pieces are now rare and sought after, as are peach and aqua opalescent.
Other manufacturers produced their own carnival glass from the 1920s for home markets, including Sowerbys glassworks and George Davison in Britain. Unhelpfully, Fenton didn’t name stamp their pieces until several years into production.
Carnival glass was marketed as attainable and everyday; even ‘cheap and cheerful’. Pieces are robust, intended for everyday use, rather than for decoration, so many items have survived over the years in good condition.
Rose bowls, plates, ashtrays, cream jugs, punch bowls, dishes, vases and commemorative plates were just a few of the items that poured from the factories. With such a variety to choose from, people often theme their carnival glass collection according to pattern, colour, or shape.
The processes used to produce the original, more iridescent, carnival glass, require harmful chemicals which are no longer permitted, so early pieces that remain are thus likely to increase in value, despite their relative abundance.
Collecting carnival glass is starting to become very popular again but for me, the allure of this ‘poor man’s Tiffany’ has never lost its shine.