A Brief History of Carnival Glass, the Early 20th Century Collectible Making a Comeback

published Jan 28, 2022
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Credit: Amy Stewart

Imagine this: The year is 1900, and you’re walking the grounds of the Paris Exposition with a parasol or top hat in hand. With over 50 million attendees, you’re at the largest World’s Fair in history. Rather than buying tickets to see a hall of mirrors or swinging a hammer at the strongman game, you came to see the new technological innovations of the century, from Ferris wheels and moving sidewalks to talking films and telegraphones. This exposition also brought international attention to the new Art Nouveau movement, and with it, Louis Comfort Tiffany’s favrile glass. Specifically, Tiffany’s iridescent vase on display captured a shifting rainbow on its iridescent surface and was quickly named one of the stars of the fair. 

As one of the leading voices of the Art Nouveau genre, Tiffany’s glasses evoked the spirit of the new age and tapped into a shift in interior design. People were moving away from the dark furniture of the Victorian era towards the hyper-stylized, organic designs of Art Nouveau. “Favrile glass fit into those interiors very nicely,” says Dr. Lori Verderame, Ph.D., an expert antiques appraiser. “Big curtains, big furniture, a lot of carvings, and heavy masculine upholstery made up the Art Nouveau look, and favrile glass fit right in because it was colorful and bold.”

Exciting and new, favrile glass certainly impressed, but very few exhibition-goers could afford to take home one of Tiffany’s creations. That’s precisely where carnival glass came in. Sometimes called rainbow glass, taffeta glass, or “poor man’s Tiffany,” carnival glass was first produced in 1908 by the Fenton Art Glass Company using iridescent metallic salts poured onto hot glass during the production process. At first, Fenton tried to sell its glassware for top dollar, but why buy Fenton when you could buy Tiffany? 

Credit: Etsy

How Carnival Glass Took Hold in the United States

Pivoting from the luxury market, Fenton set its sights on the working middle class instead by pulling a marketing move Don Draper himself would be proud of. To sell its wares, Fenton went where middle class families could be found en masse: the carnival. “The fact that Tiffany had this successful experience at the World’s Fair, the thought was, if we could get it in the hands of the middle class, who are at the carnivals, then that could be a good way to introduce our glass,” explains Verderame of Fenton’s rationale. “So they were given away as novelty prizes. You know, you throw a baseball at something, and all the bottles fall down, and all of a sudden you get a piece of glass.” People would leave carnivals smiling after a night of carousels and games, clutching their iridescent bowls or pitchers as badges of honor. The hope was these winners would soon be shoppers, just itching to buy more pieces to build out a set. That’s how Fenton glass got its nickname, carnival glass, which clearly stuck. 

This marketing campaign turned out to be genius, and carnival glass boomed, causing other manufacturers like Northwood Glass Company, Imperial Glass Company (the above 1910s-era bowl set available from Etsy is from Imperial), and Dugan Glass Company to being making their own versions of the color-shifting glass. Soon over 2,000 patterns were available, and companies scrambled to develop new shades and treatments to differentiate themselves from one another. Nothing could stop this colorful collectible from sweeping the nation — that is, except the Great Depression. Specifically, the rise of Depression Glass, which was translucent, less colorful, and made without the addition of somewhat pricey metallic salts, began to take hold. This very inexpensive glassware became important to Americans during the recession, offering the same kind of cheery touch for lower costs, and accordingly, carnival glass languished. 

Credit: 1stDibs

How Carnival Glass Became A Collector’s Item

Carnival glass first came back into fashion in the 1970s, with collectors focusing on either hunting one particular colorway down or collecting pieces from a specific manufacturer. “Some people would say, ‘Oh, I collect Northwood’, and that would be their badge of honor,” says Verderame. “Or some people would say, ‘Well, I collect the Grape and Cable pattern,’ or ‘I only collect black amethyst,’ which is the very purple carnival glass.” Today, antique and vintage experts are seeing yet another renaissance of carnival glass’s popularity. “We’re 50 years from the ‘70s, and that is usually the trend — about every 50 years,” says Verderame, explaining that collecting crazes usually have century and half-century cycles. “When something hits the hundred-year mark, it’s usually at the top of its value, and it’s also then deemed an antique.”

As for the 50-year cycle, according to Verderame, it has everything to do with nostalgia. “When you think 50 years back, you’re looking at grandma’s stuff,” explains Verderame. “Most grandchildren are looking at their grandmother’s things and going, ‘Oh, this is what grandma would’ve had in her thirties; I really like this in my thirties’ kind of thing.” This time around, the younger generations are the ones embracing this iridescent glass, especially in funkier colors like the green pitcher and glasses from 1stDibs shown above. “I always laugh when people say that only 60- to 90-year-olds are the ones who care about antiques,” Verderame says. “A lot of folks who are in that 25 to 45 age range are saying things like: ‘Nothing is made well now;’ The old stuff is made better;’ ‘I think it’s kind of cool to have something that old;’ and ‘It reminds me of my grandmother’s kitchen’.” This shift in attitude toward longevity, sustainability, and more conscious consumption is fueling the desire of modern collectors. 

Credit: Chairish

How Millennials and Gen Z Are Collecting Carnival Glass

Rather than hunting down a complete set, Gen Zers and Millennials are collecting ad hoc. “They’re not the kind of collectors that we saw in the ‘80s or ‘90s, who have a huge shelf filled with every single piece of a particular set or collection,” says Verderame. “Younger collectors don’t collect that way; they collect particular pieces for a reason.” That motivation can run the gamut from an object having an interesting backstory to something that simply looks pretty on a sideboard; the above scalloped bowl from Chairish is only $24, so prices can be quite reasonable, even for older vintages.

If you’re wondering what to look for when starting your own carnival glass collection, Verderame notes that Northwood and Fenton pieces tend to hold their value very well. The black amethyst colorway and “Poppy Show” pattern from Northwood are both popular, as is the “Holly” pattern from Fenton. In terms of specific items, bowls stand out because they’re a one-and-done purchase. “Bowls are always popular because they can stand alone or be part of a service,” says Verderame. “If you have a plate, you need a set. If you have a teacup, you need a set. But a bowl can stand alone.” 

In terms of value and general demand, rare carnival glass pieces can sell upwards of $700 to $1,200 at auctions, but profits aren’t really what today’s carnival glass collectors are chasing. Instead, just like in the 1900s, people are in it for the prize. “Everyone likes to treasure hunt, whether it’s at a thrift store or flea market,” Verderame says. “It’s just about the treasure hunt.” The next time you spy a piece of iridescent glass at a flea market — or even a reproduction piece at a big box — you’ll know where this phenomenon started and why these decorative accessories are relevant again today.